“Influencer marketing” is something that has been talked about a lot in Singapore recently, due to the feud between Xiaxue and Gushcloud (more recently, SMRT LTD (Feedback)). This is somewhat of a rising trend as more and more brands turn to influencer marketing in today’s social media obsessed world.
3 metrics frequently used to quantify how much influence a particular influencer has are: Audience Reach, Expertise, and Relationship with followers. In the context of Singapore, social influencers are frequently popular bloggers, YouTube stars, Instagrammers and the like, and they are usually popular in the millenial generation (with a growing number of mum bloggers). One of Singapore’s first blogger-celebrities, Xiaxue, has 554,000 followers on Instagram, 345,000 on Facebook, and 216,000 on Twitter, not to mention a very popular blog. Others such as Ladyironchef, known food blogger, boasts of average monthly page views of 2 million.
With today’s digital age, it is easy for consumers to whip out our smartphones and Google for product reviews before we commit to purchasing the item. Peer recommendations or word of mouth marketing play a much greater role in purchasing decisions. According to Nielsen, 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising. Influencer marketing is thus very important to brands because the influencer can act as a nexus between the brand and its potential customers, acting like a loud-hailer to broadcast a certain message. Most of us would be cynical when faced with an obvious advertisement these days. But what about a review from a social influencer that we already like and trust?
Back when I was younger, I used to buy products that my favourite bloggers recommended all the time, without even searching for other reviews on the product! I liked and trusted them so much, that I simply took their word at face value. Sadly, quite a few times, I was disappointed by the product they recommended. So no matter how big a fan you are of an influencer, it would be wise not to trust blindly. Here are some reasons why:
1) Influencers are under no obligation to disclose their posts as advertising
This topic came up in the Gushcloud expose by Xiaxue, and the official response by Gushcloud was that in Singapore, bloggers are not required to disclose whether or not they are being sponsored or paid by the brand.
This, while true in Singapore, is not true in other countries such as US and UK, among others. The Federal Trade Commission in US has guidelines that require marketers to disclose advertising, and as recently as last month, settled charges against an ad agency (Deutsch LA) for encouraging employees to tweet about a client’s product without disclosing the relationship. Even within the 140-characters of a tweet, an ad must disclose in a “clear and conspicious” way any financial relationship. Similarly in the UK, in November last year, YouTube videos featuring influencers “Dan and Phil” were banned by the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK as the relationship between them and the brand Oreo was not clearly disclosed.
Is Singapore simply behind the times? Will Singapore soon change its stance with all the recent drama? The fact remains that influencers in Singapore are not required to disclose their relationship with the brand.
The post that you might be reading or watching, thinking that it is an objective and unbiased viewpoint from someone who purchased the item themselves and use it often, may in fact be a paid advertisement, in which the views reflected in the post are more likely to reflect the brand’s opinion than an honest opinion.
So why do so many bloggers chose to parrot what their sponsors say? According to Fleishman-Hillard’s 2010 Digital Influence Index, most readers do not trust sponsored blogposts to be honest, with only 24% fully trusting the article if the sample was given free, and as low as 19% fully trusting the article if the blogger was paid. With statistics like this – it’s no wonder that influencers choose not to disclose the sponsorship! It gives their readers the impression that what they’re posting is directly from their heart.
Whether to disclose or not has been widely discussed in the Gushcloud affair – and ultimately it is up to each individual influencer to decide what they are comfortable with and there are definitely some that choose not to.
2) Honesty in reviews
Even amongst the bloggers that disclose the relationship between them and the brand, it can be hard to determine how honest and unbiased their reviews are.
The success of a blog also largely depends on how much content they put out as a key factor. With the need for more and more new and interesting content, it may be hard for influencers to turn down such free sponsored products, especially when they mainly blog about reviews, food being one key example. For influencers who are either paid for the blogposts, or are being given sponsored products/services, they are definitely less likely to be impartial as compared to someone who has paid for the products with their own money. This can be in the form of demands by the brand, or even having lower expectations of the product. After all, if it is free, I think most of us would agree that we would be less fussy about it as compared to a product that we spent hundreds of dollars on.
Many brands that pay for influencer marketing also request to vet the posts beforehand. This can be seen most obviously in the Instagram post by Xiaxue in which she posted the edited caption by SkinnyMint. Now, in that case, the edit may be as simple as adding an extra line about free shipping, but it certainly puts pressure on the influencer if they know that whatever they post is going to be vetted. As said by Xiaxue herself, it is “protocol” that clients will go through the captions and photos of bloggers before approving them to be posted.
With this pressure, bloggers may feel compelled to gloss over more negative parts of the review or sponsored post in favour of emphasizing the positive parts. After all, they are being paid to promote the product.
To the credit of some bloggers, I have noticed that they include a “cons” section in their review – but usually the overall review is more favourable than not. Some bloggers also choose not to work with brands/products that they personally feel they cannot claim to be supportive of, only choosing to work with brands they genuinely endorse.
However, you should definitely exercise caution and take everything with a pinch of salt.
3) Social Influencers are not experts
It is wise to also keep in mind that many social influencers gained their influence by being funny, popular, and entertaining, rather than for their expertise.
One of the examples where this distinction is very important is when products with any health benefits are recommended. Social influencers may not have the expertise to determine if the products they are endorsing are really healthy and beneficial for you (as the brand claims they are). For instance, expensive detox cleanses of all kinds, including juices and teas, raved about by many influencers, may actually be bad for you according to actual nutritionists.
There are many times where you might benefit from reading a review from an actual expert in the field rather than a social influencer with no expertise. Another example would be in the case of gadget (phone, camera, etc), and food reviews. Some influencers receive sponsored electronics in exchange for their services, often with a clause of being locked into the phone for some time. However, there is certainly a reason why most of them are not technology bloggers – are they simply only using the phone because of the contract, or because they genuinely believe it is the best product available?
Similarly, many food bloggers have not received any culinary training. While it is certainly easy even for a layman to differentiate tasty food and bland food, it is less easy to back up a statement like “so-and-so restaurant is the best restaurant in Singapore”, if you do not have the training and experience to say so. Add this to the incentive of receiving sponsored food, and you may find that even food bloggers are not as trustworthy as it might seem.
It is important to keep in mind that the influencer can only write from their personal experience, and their posts should be taken more as opinion than as fact, especially if they are not familiar with competitor products in the way that an expert in the field would be.
4) Photo Manipulation
Sometimes, seeing is not necessarily believing. Many bloggers like to make use of before and after photos to show the effectiveness of the product especially in the cases of skincare, health and fitness. However, our eyes can easily be tricked into thinking that the product is more effective than it actually is.
There are some influencers that freely admit to Photoshopping, such as Naomi Neo, who made the news a few months ago when criticized for promoting unhealthy body image by Photoshopping herself to look slimmer. Photoshop or even just photo filters such as Instagram, can serve to make the product more visually appealing than it is in real life. One example is by making the colours more vibrant in pictures of food or clothes, making the image much more striking.
Apart from the obvious mention of digitally manipulating one’s photos, there are many non-Photoshop tricks that can be used to emphasize the difference in before and after photos. Before and after photos can be easily faked, as demonstrated by BuzzFeed in the following video.
Look out for differences in:
– lighting (unflattering vs flattering)
– posture (eg: slumped shoulders vs standing up straight)
– facial expression (unhappy vs happy)
– clothing (ill-fitting clothing vs neat and flattering clothing)
– angle (unflattering vs flattering)
– position in photo (closer to the camera vs farther away)
– any digital manipulation (eg: no filter vs filter)
and many others
All of these small differences add up to produce a much more flattering and better photo in the “after” photo, leading the reader to believe that the difference is solely because of the effectiveness of the product rather than as a result of these little tricks.
5) Your experience may not be the same as the influencer
It stands to reason that brands that employ influencer marketing do not want negative reviews from the influencers. After all, they are spending good money to increase their brand exposure. Therefore, it is possible that brands may take slightly more care in attending to the influencers as compared to what an average consumer may receive.
Perhaps some of you may have experienced the frustrating case where when your complaints to customer service are going nowhere, in desperation, you resort to posting on their social media. Unsurprisingly, once the issue is made public for everyone to see, your complaint is usually dealt with more swiftly and satisfactorily than your fruitless attempts at going through customer service. In much the same way, brands may pay more attention to ensuring the influencer receives their order without delays, and without any mistakes, or paying more attention to customer service than they would for a normal customer, as they are aware of the influence wielded by the influencer.
Due to this “VIP” treatment, your actual experience with the customer service of the brand may be very different. Influencers may also limit themselves to reviewing the product itself rather than the entire process of being a consumer.
One example of such differential treatment can be seen in the media tastings often attended by food bloggers. For media tastings, the emphasis is placed on the food, rather than the service and ambience (two things most readers would want to know when deciding whether or not to patronize a restaurant!). You can bet that at such events, in general, food bloggers and media will not be kept waiting as long as you might be during the rush lunch hour, and the chef might pay slightly more attention to the food for media tastings. You can read more about the lack of objectivity that some Singaporean food bloggers have at these links, written by fellow and former local food bloggers themselves.
Another case study:
Back in 2012 when Zalora first launched in Singapore, there was a wave of sponsored posts from influencers about the new shopping website. However, many customers subsequently complained about the absymal customer service that Zalora provided (examples: 1, 2, 3, 4). Whether the influencers simply were lucky enough not to have experienced the slow customer service or if they received better service, many consumers likely did not have the same fuss-free transaction that the influencers enjoyed. Or, at least, if the influencers received similar treatment, most did not openly blog about it, leading to any readers having a positive impression of the brand through the sponsored posts.
(Note: Zalora seems to have taken all the negative complaints on board, and improved in the customer service department from 3 years ago – negative reviews from 2014 onwards are significantly less.)
Don’t be too quick to believe your favourite influencer when they are promoting a new product! Always do your due diligence and Google for other reviews, and exercise caution by keeping in mind that they may not be offering an unbiased opinion – and even if they are, you are free to form your own before making your purchase!