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Influencer Marketing has hit the mainstream. The tentative steps brands and influencers had been making together became giant strides as conventional marketing activities lost some traction and the search for authenticity pushed brands to find people with a genuine connection to their audiences.

The signs are plentiful. Big brands use YouTube stars in their TV commercials, YouTubers appear on Strictly, TV channels create shows using online influencers and agencies have formed to broker successful brand and influencer relationships.

On the surface, everybody wins:

– Brands receive a genuine endorsement from someone who has credibility with the brand’s audience.

– the influencer is able to make a living, sometimes a very good living, from activities they have a passion for and are already deeply involved in.

– the audience sees products or services in a context one step removed from direct brand communication and filtered by someone they trust.

But all is not well in the Influencer world. The now infamous Fyre Festival was promoted by Influencers including Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Hailey Baldwin, and billed as a glamorous party on a deserted island. Tickets cost up to $100,000 (£75,000) and guests who booked were promised luxury accommodation and “the best in food, art, music and adventure” in the Bahamas. Instead they turned up to mattresses on rain-soaked floors, meals of cheese slices on bread and their luggage thrown into a unlit car park.

The high profile YouTube vlogger, Logan Paul, faced an enormous backlash for filming his group’s discovery of a suicide’s hanging body in Japan’s Aokigahara forest. It was an extraordinary misjudgement and raised problematic questions about how far brands could trust ‘personalities’ to avoid such appalling mistakes and if brands advertising on social platforms could be sure their ads were not appearing against offensive content.

Baroness Lane-Fox, a Twitter Board member, bought thousands of followers for her Twitter account just after being appointed to the Board.  She blames an ex-member of staff and admits it was a huge mistake but it does again raise the vexed issue of the trade in social followers and the fallout continues to undermine the credibility of the entire Influencer sector.

So how do you navigate these turbulent waters?

1. Do not work with people who buy followers! Regular readers will know my views on buying followers. Short answer: just don’t. Slightly longer answer in a previous blog here. Ask a prospective influencer if they have ever bought followers and what percentage of their followers are real. There are plenty of tools for analysing followers and a professional influencer will want to be able to demonstrate theirs are real.

2. Research, research, research. You are about to associate your hard won brand value with a complete stranger. Use your keywords and hashtags to find a ‘long list’ of maybe 5 or 6 appropriate influencers, then check their profiles regularly over the course of a week or two. Check for posting regularity, tone, content and other commercial link ups.

3. The most professional will use the hashtags #ad, #sponsored, #spon, #paid or #partnership in their posts to make it clear when a commercial relationship exists. Facebook has strongly encouraged paid influencers to switch from personal accounts to business pages so if any of your potential partners has a Facebook business page, this demonstrates a commitment to transparency and accountability.

4. Be absolutely clear about what you want from the relationship and detail the product or service of yours to be mentioned and in what context. Agree the number and frequency of posts, the duration of the initial relationship and the review points. Give your partner some creative freedom, using their influence is the point of the activity!

5. Think about the longer term. Ideally this should be the start of a relationship, not a messy one-night stand. How can you bring an influencer into other areas of your organisation? Product/service development? Customer service? Internal communications?

6. Use an agency to set up and manage the relationship. This should take most of the risk out of the process. Agencies should only work with professional influencers and will have recommendations dependent on the sector you work in. They will know people and their value and can save you the sometimes lengthy research process and make sure the campaign planning is done properly. If any issues do arise with the influencer or the campaign, you should then be able to rely on the agency to manage them for you.  Of course, this will make the activity a little more expensive but you may consider mitigating the risk a price worth paying.

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