Here’s a test for you. Open Instagram and go through the first 10 posts. How many of them are people you know and how many are brands, influencers, ads or celebrities? I just tried this and to no surprise, only one post out of the 10 was from someone I know. Among the other content, I had two paid ads, one celebrity, five influencers, and one brand.
For some this realisation is old news, but recently I’ve become increasingly aware of just how much social media content I consume isn’t actually from my friends and family. While not all celebrity, influencer, or brand content is ad related, I think (as a PR person particularly) it’s easy to get hyperaware and hypercritical of these often perfectly curated posts. I tend to find myself keeping an eagle-eye out for sneaky product placement in influencers’ and celebrities’ posts or trying to guess what they’re promoting before reading the caption (which as many of you know, is often totally unrelated to the picture’s content). Like many others, I’m also guilty of occasionally comparing myself or my life to those I see on social media. Most of the time I can roll my eyes and scroll past another run-of-the-mill ‘attractive woman holding product she probably doesn’t use’ picture, but of course from time-to-time I’m jealous of someone travelling to an amazing country, who looks fantastic, or appears to be super successful.
I’m not alone in this. In fact, research published by Mary Sherlock and Danielle Wagstaff in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture recently showed that for women there’s a correlation between the frequency of Instagram use and depressive symptoms, self-esteem, general and physical appearance anxiety, and body dissatisfaction. But of course, social media often presents things that aren’t really as they are in reality – it’s a highlight reel, stylised with the perfect filter to show off people ‘living their best life’. But what toll does this have on influencers?
The toll of the influen-cycle
Social media influencers are in a true popularity contest, played out in front of thousands of followers. They need to have the most appealing content for their medium, post constantly, and essentially open the door to their whole lives (and in turn people’s comments on their lives – positive and negative) in order to build their following and maintain their place. It can be a pretty vicious cycle, especially since a social media hiatus will be negatively punished by social media algorithms – something that was the case for young YouTuber Soy Jessi who took a break from YouTube when her mum passed away.
The pressure to push out so much content and present a perfect life can take a serious toll on influencers’ mental health. YouTuber Bobby Burns describes himself as the ‘poster child for internet burnout’. He says influencers know the lifestyle is bad for them, saying they create a fake personality that faces constant public judgement – but yet they keep going because it’s addictive. Another Instagram influencer, Ruby Matthews, recently spoke out about using cocaine, coffee and cigarettes to maintain her figure and said this is common practice in the influencer space, while the infamous Zoella has also admitted to feeling ‘suffocated’ and ‘disconnected’ from too much social media use.
The ethics of influencer PR
This presents an ethical dilemma for PR people. Influencer PR is, of course, very common and effective these days across various platforms, despite speculation rising on whether the influencer bubble is bursting. The way in which we use it is changing to increasingly prioritise ‘microinfluencers’, but this change is mainly about getting the best return on investment from the influencer you choose to work with.
When searching for an influencer, there’s generally a sweet spot on who you’re trying to find: it’s someone who has a following that is largely made up of people you want to know about the brand you’re representing, who comes at a fair price point, has other content relevant to the brand on their channel, and can speak to about the brand in an authentic and trustworthy way. It can be difficult to hit this sweet spot with all four of those, but it’s interesting that there’s little consideration for who the person really is behind it all. That aspect does come into the ‘authentic voice’ and ‘relevant content’ pieces, but that’s more about how they present themselves – not who they are in reality.
Think about how many generic Instagram pictures you’ve seen of an influencer doing something hyper-stylised with a caption like “How cute is my new floor mat? Love having this under my feet every day, and it’s now 25% off | AD” (Okay, but I’m exaggerating, but I’m sure you get my point).
So how can PR people better support influencers’ well-being? While it’s not our responsibility (or qualification) to manage their mental health, there’s ethical considerations we can keep in mind before working with an influencer that will help protect them accordingly.
Both codes have clear sections on acting honestly and not knowingly disseminating false or misleading information. For influencer work, you need to seek out a truly authentic person who actually would use your product (if they aren’t already), were they not being paid for the opportunity. While some influencers might take any or many opportunities to keep up their clout and income, if it’s not something true to their actual selves, it may only alienate them more from their reality.
The codes also say PR people should conduct professional activities with proper regard to public interest. This is really a catch all for ‘don’t take the mick’, but it’s a good one. Controlling the message while also subtly inserting the brand into influencer work is important in PR, but you also have to be transparent. Make more use of content like video, where the influencer can speak honestly about the brand, perhaps by testing a product or giving a demo of how the service works as they go through the process. This is more authentic and more trustworthy for consumers and they’ll also gain a better understanding of what the brand does. At the same time, your influencer doesn’t become a robot reeling out approved copy for the sake of the sponsorship – they can be true to themselves.
Most of all, trust your gut. If deep down the partnership or the content being produced for it feels too commercial or just not ‘right’, don’t do it. It probably means there’s something wrong and you aren’t actually hitting the sweet spot or keeping the best interests of the influencer in mind.
With all this in mind, take another look at those top 10 posts that come up in your Instagram home feed and get analytical. Do they actually feel authentic? Do they really seem like they use that brand? Are they a trustworthy source on this product or service? This isn’t to make you think badly of the influencer – it’s to help you remember there’s a person behind it and to help you better target your next campaign.
Innovation. The introduction of something new and a word we hear about all the time in the creative industry. It can be crucial to the initial and continuing success of a business, but also crippling if you don’t commit to it and give consumers exactly what they want.
Customer service is often considered to be the key to a brand’s reputation, but part of keeping the customer happy and loyal, is to bring something new and exciting to keep them engaged. And that’s where individuality and innovation come in, because people will get bored easily. Remember how popular HQ Trivia was only a few months back? Now, the novelty of potentially winning £500 at 3pm and 9pm everyday has worn off, so people simply aren’t bothered by it anymore. Consumers are more intrigued by the concept of HQ Trivia, rather than the brand itself and frankly, the game became more of a trend than a sustainable brand.
A recent study revealed that UK CMOs are almost half as likely to see innovation as the primary role of the marketing function as their US counterparts – only 25% of UK marketers identify “leading disruptive innovation” as a core functional priority. Surprising, since you only need to Google “innovation” to see all the articles that express the importance of innovation in business. So, why are marketers so resistant to prioritise it?
Engaging with the right crowd
Understanding exactly what consumers want when it comes to new innovations can be tough, especially when there are so many other brands competing for the same crowds, and it can seem difficult to get noticed by anyone. In recent years, brands have attempted to create new marketing techniques, particularly on social media, to try and break through the noise. But some of these actually have a very minimal effect on the relationship between the brand and consumer.
Awareness day campaigns are obvious examples of this. “National Avocado Day”, “International Sloth Day” or “Bring a Potato to Work Day” are just a few of the many examples of this kind of activity that are constantly popping up and trending on social media. And brands are quick to seize the opportunity to create extravagant campaigns, even if the topic has no correlation with their brand. But because it’s trending and popular, they want to be in on it. Whilst some brands are capable of pulling something off – like Aperol giving out free Aperol spritz on National Prosecco Day (yes please!) – for others, the buzz and engagement only really lasts for the day, so is it really worth it?
Similarly, brands who jump on the clickbait-, relatable-type Facebook posts, like the “Tag your friend so that they have to look at this pickle” or “Share if you think XYZ” posts, among others, will only ever get lots of likes, shares and comments on that post and that tends to be where the engagement with the user stops. Consumers are only liking, sharing and commenting because they can relate to the content, not because they want to engage with the brand. Converting leads is said to be a top priority for 70% of marketers, but jumping on social media trends won’t always deliver the best ROI.
Perceptions of innovation
Churning out new products or coming up with big, extravagant marketing campaigns is what most people expect when they think of innovation, and what brands think will gain them more customers. But innovation doesn’t have to be as big as that. In fact, small, more focused approaches to innovation can be more beneficial to the brand. Micro influencers, for example, are more focused than a huge, celebrity influencer because they have followers who are genuinely interested in the content that they post.
Likewise, engaging with consumers in a way that’s meaningful will be much more valuable for your brand in the long-term. Challenger bank, Monzo, has a community forum where its users can chat to each other about Monzo products and interact with a team of Monzo employees to discuss new ideas. It allows Monzo to properly listen to what their customers are thinking, and the customers really feel like they are part of the Monzo brand.
Jumping on the bandwagon of novelty marketing trends is easily done, especially when you see every other brand taking part. But it’s important to stay in-line with business values, making sure the customer is front of mind and asking yourself “will this really benefit my business and gain me loyal customers?”
Every brand has something unique and interesting which makes them who they are – otherwise they wouldn’t be a brand. Finding what makes a brand unique and exploiting that, instead of jumping onto current, popular trends, will be much more valuable in the long run – just because everyone might be talking about one thing one day, doesn’t mean they’ll be talking about it the next.
You may have started to hear about a new social network called Vero. The self-described ‘relationship-first social network’ had a surge in popularity recently after saying its first one million users wouldn’t have to pay for a subscription in future, causing mass sign ups, a lot of press headlines about how this may be ‘the next Instagram’, and ultimately creating major service interruptions for the app due to the influx of users.
But why all the fuss? Do we really need another social network? Probably not, to be honest, but Vero’s supposed USP over other networks is a non-algorithm-based feed and a paid subscription model (eventually), meaning it won’t rely on ad revenue and serving users content they don’t necessarily care about. In its own descriptors, it aims to align physical world relationships to the online experience, providing a seamless way to share content with your network. You can read its full manifesto here.
That’s a nice proposition if they can make it work, but whether this will be enough to surge it to mainstream adoption and popularity remains to be seen. For now, here’s my first impressions to help you can decide if this is the network for you.
No advertising and a chronological news feed
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Not just visuals
Vero allows users to post photos, links, and recommendations for music, films, TV shows, books and places, and the news feed actually looks a bit more like Twitter than Instagram or Facebook to me. There’s no option for a free-text post, which suggests you might get less Facebook-esque rants from friends and more ‘meaningful’ content. This could be great for businesses, as it will help the spread of more natural word-of-mouth recommendations but is less good if you happen to follow anyone who starts sharing ‘Fake News’ links. Perhaps it’s just my PR cynicism, but I also think this kind of sharing just encourages more Instagram-influencer style posts that are clearly advertising rather than genuine expression, and if there’s too much of that, I suspect people will tune out.
Prioritise your connections
In line with it’s chronological news feed, Vero helps you prioritise your connections. You can choose to ‘follow’ or ‘connect’ with people, and when you connect with them you can specify if they’re a ‘close friend’, ‘friend’, or ‘acquaintance’. The default setting for a new connection is ‘acquaintance’ and only you can see how you’ve classified connections, which is handy. When you share content, you can also choose who will see it – be it close friends, acquaintances, everyone etc.
Poor identity verification
Vero does use verified ticks for high profile users, but it doesn’t have usernames. It strongly encourages people to use their real name when creating their profile (a la Facebook) and does ask for your phone number and email upon sign up to help verify you, try and prevent false identities, and help you find connections. However, it’s a bit simple and there’s no reason why someone couldn’t make a fake profile – and it seems there’s already plenty on there (here’s looking at you ‘Taylor Swift’), as with other social networks.
Confusing interface and functionality
This is the most annoying thing about Vero for me. It’s a bit hard to use, I don’t like the colour schemes, and it’s just not as intuitive as other social networks (yet). In many ways it is like a re-skinned Instagram, but the explore page (pictured below) makes it hard to find the kind of people I’d want to follow (or perhaps they aren’t on it yet) and I’m finding myself darting between different parts of it trying to work out where to go. The collections section could be useful for curating content once you’re following the right people, but right now the whole thing is a bit of a turn off. I also read that pictures sent to you in private conversations will appear in your news feed (albeit only visible to you), which has a bit too much disaster potential for my liking!
You’ll have to pay for it
Vero users will eventually have to pay a yet to be specified ‘small annual fee’ to join, and Vero will also take a cut from businesses that sell via its ‘buy now’ feature. While constant advertising on other social networks is frustrating, Vero will surely have to knock other networks off their pedestals in order to make its paid subscription model work. Why would I pay to speak to my best friend when I can WhatsApp her? Why would I pay to see content from my favourite musician when I can follow them on Instagram and hear their music on Spotify?
I suspect that Vero may argue that through its app you can do that all in one place, but multiple platforms for this don’t bother me enough right now to be switching entirely.
My Vero verdict
Vero definitely has some positive aspects, but I’m just not sure we need it. I already see the same content from friends on Instagram and Facebook in particular, so I don’t need to like the photo a third time on Vero, surely?
I can see the opportunity for aspiring businesses and influencers – particularly creative artists, musicians, and retail sellers to have another means of selling to consumers, but when Vero doesn’t want to be filled with advertising, this opportunity is unlikely to pay off unless consumers are willing to see all that brand-filled content.
All that said, I’m not going to knock it until I’ve tried it more, and it’s worth a go while it’s free anyway – even if you delete it soon after!