Over the last few years, a trend in digital marketing has developed: influencer marketing. Influencers are individuals whom, based on their following, online engagement, and other analytics, have a remarkable impact on a social media platforms’ audience. Thus, when a company is interested in promoting a product or service, they select these individuals to post or review their product. A 2016 survey by Defy Media found that young people watch 2.5 times more internet video than television, and spend 74% more time browsing social media than watching TV. Thus, unsurprisingly, marketing a product through social media influencers is a logical marketing move. However, this tactic has been scrutinized in recent months.

In April 2017, the Federal Trade Commission sent a letter to nearly 100 celebrities, actors and influencers (including Kobe Bryant and the Kardashians), concerned with the manner in which these individuals used platforms to generate revenue. Companies research thoroughly to ensure that their product placement doesn’t appear forced; that is, the product to influencer relationship must appear realistic. Despite this, according to the FTC, these influencers regularly didn’t make the relationship between themselves and the product apparent- that is, they fail to disclose that the post is a sponsored/ advertisement, or fail to reveal this in a clear and obvious manner. This directly violates section 5 of the FTC which details deceptive practices against consumers. 

The consequence of this is twofold: Firstly, influencers lose their credibility once an audience feels that the advertising is disingenuous, rendering the marketing ineffective. Second, if someone is constantly pushing a product, the consumers might begin to perceive them as a “sell-out”. Influencers must then choose one of 2 things: they must tag their sponsored posts in a way that makes it clear that they are paid advertisements, or, seize social media advertising/ accepting payment for advertising. This creates a challenge for marketers.

A potential solution is to rely more on social media advocacy rather than brand influencers. That is, leveraging individuals who are already customers or employees of the company, and having them organically market the product by word-of-mouth methods such as online reviews. These people (customers or employees of a brand) generally have a deeper, more genuine affiliation with the product or service, and thus their promotion would be authentic. Social media is an avenue of reciprocity- it is a two way street, where content creators and consumers can interact. Whereas influencer marketing is a product push, with little to no consumer “pull”, a typical social media advocacy strategy opens a dialogue that allows consumers to engage with the product. While a brands’ existing, loyal customers’ or employees’ reach isn’t equivalent to that of a well-followed social media celebrity, they may have friends and acquaintances who trust in their peers’ opinion, and this may be an equivalently powerful advertising method.