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A Darker Side of Ecommerce Influencer Marketing

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There are many ‘dark’ elements to Influencer Marketing, just as there are also many positives.

Here’s something few talk about:

Influencer Marketing works ‘best’ on particular groups. Specifically, often certain groups of people in their teens and early twenties.

If you flip back in your mind through the case studies you’ve seen re successful influencer marketing, you’ll probably find things like:

  • Kylie Cosmetics – targets young girls – $hundreds of millions of revenue.
  • GymShark – mainly targets young people.
  • Daniel Wellington – watches largely worn by people in their teens/early twenties.
  • Glossier – another beauty brand, also targeting teens/early twenties.
  • HiSmile – teeth whitener targeting (basically) teens.
  • Triangl – swimwear brand targeting teens.

If you run through fashion examples, you can probably think of a few luxury brands that push heavily within influencer marketing, but if you narrow down to the ones where they have actual big success in sales it tends to be the streetwear end of the luxury market, or (relatively) lower pricepoint items marketed at late teens/early 20s buyers.

There are exceptions to this of course, but in the main the areas where you see biggest success are those who target teens and just over. To be clear, that’s not specifically a bad thing, after all there are many marketing channels that have higher effectiveness within particular demographics: Radio for car commuters/office workers, Paper brochures for >55 year olds, etc. And actually, many of the marketers doing the ‘targeting’ in this case fit squarely into the age bracket themselves (HiSmile was founded by a guy in his early 20s).

But why does ‘influencer marketing’ work ‘better’ with these particular audiences? I remember speaking to the CEO of an influencer-led brand making $XX-million per month in its busier months, asking him why this was. He had 3 answers:

  1. People in their teens/early twenties tend to be more impressionable than (say) people in their late 50s.
  2. People at that age tend to be a little more impulsive. (useful if a marketer is trying to persuade someone to jump straight from a mention of something on Instagram to a purchase; perhaps this is due to commitments)
  3. People at that age have often not settled on particular brands/fallen deep into particular grooves of style yet.

The first of those reasons tends to be the area in which influencer marketing nudges across from bringing joy to feeling exploitative: Picking a target specifically because they are impressionable, using influencers they follow strongly, and creating a product designed to exploit that.

An example of that kind of feel is this:

That’s Kim Kardashian, encouraging her followers to spend $30 on lollipops to suppress their appetites, in order to achieve a ‘flat tummy’.

On the surface that feels a bit dodgy – and it was picked up by plenty of news outlets. But they all focused on a very narrow part of the story (Kim K):

Who paid for the ad?

You’ll note in the Insta post the hashtag ‘#ad’ appears. Kim K was paid for that ad, but none of the news sources really asked “who exactly is paying her?”. When thinking about that, and reason they specifically chose Kim K, it feels a bit more sleazy:

  1. Kim K is chosen firstly because she has a huge profile, but also because a large proportion of her follower-base fits in the ‘susceptible to influencer marketing’ teen range (some a little older, but also some even younger).
  2. These are the guys who essentially paid Kim Kadashian to do that:

Those are the directors of ‘Synergy CHC’. They buy up or launch brands aimed at growth through influencer marketing. One of their big successes is they purchased a brand called ‘Flat Tummy Co’ inn 2015, from an Australian couple (Tim & Bec Polmear) for $10m Australian Dollars, and have pushed it forward to 1.5m Instagram followers.

They had big success with ‘Flat Tummy Tea’, have pushed out into a few other brands (one called ‘Sneaky Vaunt’ – an item designed to sell to the wonderbra market). Appetite Suppressant lollipops are their new high margin product, and of course they’re pushing that via the same tactic that worked well for tea.

In other words: Kim Kardashian is a big traffic draw, and therefore all the news sites focus on that. Suit+tie boards of directors don’t get traffic, and the truth of the story is much harder to explain, therefore literally nobody covered the fact that the people trying to sell flat stomachs to teen girls is a group of 4 old guys from Maine.

People are free to eat as they choose, to want to look how they choose, to buy as they choose, and actually to – within the bounds of the law – promote products as they choose. But, if you accept the fact that marketing works & succeeds in changing behaviour, it feels a shame that these 4 old guys from Maine have chosen to pay someone with huge influence to persuade teenage girls that flat tummies should be one of their big priorities in order to sell $30 bags of lollipops.

[thanks to @danbarker for this post]

Worked for more than 100 companies doing various bits & bobs. Interested in marketing, ecommerce, fintech, media, data, politics, people, & more.

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