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.
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!
Taylor Swift is undoubtedly the ‘it’ girl of the moment, and while her catchy pop tracks can get even the most cynical hipsters toe-tapping, more often than not it’s her fan base that are pushing her cause more than any PR team.
Case in point – the social media uproar that is #Tay4Hottest100. For those unfamiliar with this hashtag (it started in Australia after all), the campaign is an attempt to get people to vote for Taylor’s popular song ‘Shake it Off’ to make it number one on the triple j Hottest 100 – the world’s largest music democracy that surmounts to a hugely popular Australia Day (26 January) countdown of the previous year’s 100 most popular songs.
So, what’s the problem? The song was hugely popular? Well, the radio station in question – triple j – has a focus on recognising music that is generally alternative, Australian, and not necessarily well known to the masses (so definitely not Taylor Swift). However, creative and sneaky Taylor Swift fans found it is possible to add songs to the voting poll instead of being stuck with triple j’s broadcasted list with the help of Buzzfeed’s Mark Di Stefano. Since then, the #Tay4Hottest100 campaign has exploded, but all the work has been done by Taylor’s fans – not her PR team or herself. So, what can the Taylor Swift effect teach us about audience engagement on social media?
Lesson One: Blank Space
It goes without saying that a social media presence is compulsory regardless of who you are and what your business does. If you’re not on social media, you’ll almost certainly be deemed irrelevant. As a business, your social media accounts are as important (if not more so) than your website. But while a presence is great – more needs to be done. Don’t treat your accounts as a blank space or one with generic content. Your posts should create a voice for your brand so that you become relatable and human – not just a robot behind a computer screen.
Lesson Two: Shake it Off
If your strategy is that described above – it’s time to shake it off. Be more engaging! Don’t be afraid to engage on a personal level with people talking to your brand or those having discussions on topics that are relevant to your brand. It’s all very well to push out content aimed at your ‘target audience’, but how do you know your target audience is who’s actually following you? Seek them out, show them that you care and hear what they’re saying, and use the feedback to tailor (pun-intended) your social strategy accordingly. Taylor Swift’s success is entirely in her personal engagement with fans, particularly on Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter – and she’s not afraid to be extreme. At Christmas she surprised some of her most dedicated Tumblr fans with personalised Christmas gifts. She learnt about those fans from their social media accounts to decide what to buy them and send to their homes – you can tell by their reactions they won’t be abandoning her any time soon.
I experienced so many moments of true love this year, and all of them were with you. Here’s to more magic in 2015. http://t.co/nASjxS9Cl7
When you can start interacting with your audience you’ll see with time that everything has changed. You know them better, you can sharpen your content postings because you KNOW what draws results, and eventually you may find you have your own brand ambassadors (like Taylor’s) who are pushing your cause for you.
That’s not to say it works for everyone – no social media strategy is fool proof, but it’s certainly worth trying and doesn’t go unnoticed. Taylor showed her fans she was listening back in September by bringing a Tumblr post to reality with the “no it’s Becky” t-shirt – naturally, Twitter all but exploded.
Lesson Four: Love Story
In a perfect world, this is your social media love story. It’s a slow-burn brand-building exercise that, with the correct execution, can take a lot of hard work out of your day. It’s certainly easy to see how having supporters or customers of your brand’s endorsements will be more successful than your own – they’re more trustworthy!
I can’t thank you enough for making 1989 the best selling album of 2014. NOW LETS GO CELEBRATE! See you on ABC @OfficialNYRE tonight!
That said, you can do everything perfectly but the haters are still gonna hate, hate, hate. The key thing with audience engagement is not to hijack issues that will damage your cause. For instance, you may jump on the back of a hashtag with some kind of relevance to your brand to try and boost engagement. This can backfire, as it did for KFC with #Tay4Hottest100, when the fast-food chain (maybe) almost ruined the campaign. That’s a fairly light example though, and these situations can be much worse – as it was recently for The Hoxton Hotel following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Remember to be smart, and know why something it trending before you contribute to it.
As for the #Tay4Hottest100 trend – I’m an Australian who’s on board with it. I love her and the Hottest 100 – so why can’t we have both?
One day last week, I woke up to the idea that thousands of young, would-be tech entrepreneurs must all be thinking the same thing: “When I grow up, I want an exit strategy just like Instagram’s”. And who could blame them? The ‘Instagram 13’ as I like to call them, have achieved overnight fame and secured eye-watering fortunes on the back of a nifty photo app. It remains to be seen what will actually happen to the business in the weeks and months post-Facebook acquisition, but the unfolding narrative will no doubt keep us sufficiently engaged. Headlines will likely evolve past, “Was it worth the $1 billion?” and “Warning: Return of the Tech Bubble” and begin to reflect strategically drip-fed news about the first fruits of the deal (Instagram 3D, anyone?), long-range vision pieces co-penned by management from both brands, and behind-the-scenes looks at how the Instagram 13 are getting on in their new digs (Cubicle or private office? Do Instagram pets get on with Facebook pets? What inter-brand dating is going on?).
If this all sounds a little cynical, well…it’s not, entirely. There will, in due course, be a concerted effort to control (or at least own) the newly-merged companies’ “everything’s fine” narrative in the media. If you think Instagram is too small for any internal upset to become a reputational risk, then maybe think about Skype and eBay for a moment…
There’s too much at stake, including a very, very big flotation.
As a PR person, I’ve served on both ends of the M&A lifecycle, representing one client post-merger and another in preparation for the acquisition of a rival firm. These experiences were very different from each other, but a common theme in both was company culture. According to a Mercer Transatlantic Study, “75 percent of executives surveyed said that communicating with employees and harmonising corporate culture were the most important factors for postmerger integration.” The piece goes on to state that successful cultural integration is necessary for the two organisations to create (customer, shareholder) value.
However, according to Nicole Utzinger, a change communications expert and director of EMEA Communications Consulting, “any M&A process is complex and depends on an effective strategy and detailed planning. Unfortunately, organisations and communications teams often get carried away with theoretical expertise, programmes and tools and as a result, the focus on people happens almost as an afterthought.”
The people/culture piece is vital to communicators organising an M&A announcement – specifically, having an acute awareness of the cultural differences and how these impact buy-in before and after a merger. It relates to external communications, if for example, the media are to believe that it’s a good match with obvious synergies; and as stated earlier, it relates very immediately to employees, who should (ideally) project an understanding of the deal in big picture terms. As a professional communicator in the midst of all this complexity, including the need to work in an information gatekeeper capacity, it’s a tricky balance between heading off fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) and communicating responsibly. Throw social media channels into the mix and the picture becomes even more complex. But experts are quick to suggest using social media to maximise opportunities for positive engagement during an M&A.
“Social media is no longer just an option or add-on, but a real ‘must’ when it comes to corporate and internal communications. Yammer, Facebook, Twitter and blogs – to name just a few – provide a crucial channel for collaborative dialogue between staff and management. Real-time and authentic communications flowing top down, bottom up and peer-to-peer allows everybody to join discussions and share information,” continued Utzinger.
How Facebook’s communicators will choose to leverage the excitement (controversy?) surrounding their new, bright and shiny object remains to be seen. I personally hope the ‘cultural cross-pollination’ story – and I’m 99% certain there is one – is told, for even in the relatively short distance between Menlo Park and South Park, the air is most certainly different, as are the native styles to doing business.
Is it time to shape your reputation?
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