In an era defined by the pervasive influence of social media, the rise of influencers has revolutionized brand marketing strategies. With their vast reach and persuasive power, influencers have enabled companies to tap into new consumer segments and amplify their brand messages.
However, as consumers become increasingly discerning and demand more authenticity, a phenomenon known as the de-influencing movement has emerged. This movement represents a growing pushback against the perceived lack of transparency and integrity not only within influencer marketing but throughout other business practices of large corporations as well.
In this article, we delve into the impact of the de-influencing movement and explore strategies companies can employ to maintain brand relevance in the face of wavering consumer sentiments. From rebuilding trust to embracing new marketing approaches, organizations must learn how to navigate this evolving landscape to build resiliency and thrive moving forward.
The Rise of Social Media Influencers & Their Impact on Brands
In recent years, influencer marketing has skyrocketed online personalities to a new celebrity tier and become a critical marketing component for brands around the globe. Instead of avoiding advertisements at all costs, consumers started to actively search for product recommendations and reviews from influencers, resulting in a new, promotional form of content that engaged the viewer while selling them at the same time.
What sounded like a radical idea at first—everyday people lending their personalities to increase awareness and sales for international brands — revolutionized how companies interact with their consumers and soon influencer marketing became a mandatory component of content creation.
“The movement has fundamentally altered how brands sell to and connect with consumers,” explains Forbes Council Member, Lion Shirdan. “Since 2016, there has been an annual increase of at least 50% in its estimated market size.”
But that might be changing.
Breaking Consumers’ Trust
“Between 2010 and 2019, influencer marketing seemed to be on an unstoppable upward trajectory as influencers grew in number and popularity and brands began to invest in them as part of their marketing strategy,” notes Michael Brenner, CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group.
So, what happened? Well, combine fake followers, scandals, and bots with a global pandemic and it’s easy to see why consumers became disillusioned with influencer marketing.
“As platforms and influencer culture grew, technologies were developed to help influencers manage and grow their accounts. Follower farms and bots became common and called into question the authenticity of influencers and the content they shared,” Brenner explains.
And these new technologies weren’t just limited to influencers. High-profile social media scandals have involved politicians and major celebrities as well, many of whom bought fake followers from companies like Devumi, an organization that serviced more than 200,000 customers during its operation.
In fact, studies conducted by AdAge highlight how common it is for influencers engaged by major brands to have fake followers make up large portions of their online audience. One of the ways AdAge calculates this is by looking at brands that have the lowest return on sponsored posts, as measured by CPM (cost per mille) which reports the cost per 1,000 impressions.
AdAge’s reports show several of the major brands that work with influencers who have fake followers make up between 19% – 78% of their total audience on Instagram alone. While this is disheartening for consumers, it’s also a sneaky way for influencers to secure deals with large companies that often require a certain number of followers before they can be considered for branded partnership deals.
This is a good reminder that quantity at the expense of quality is never the solution. As we continue to see companies like Devumi provide social media users with easy access to fake followers and bots, it’s crucial for companies to take the time to carefully review each influencer’s audience and post engagement to identify potential red flags. This may include accounts that have a disproportionate number of comments, likes, or shares compared to their total number of followers as well as accounts that have high engagement rates, but comments that are primarily emojis or spam.
The Ultimate Push-Back: De-Influencing
In 2023, we’re seeing more and more everyday people take to platforms like Instagram and TikTok to tell their online communities what products and services they should not purchase. The reasons for these claims vary—from calling out brands for greenwashing to standing with workers who claim to be treated unfairly by their employers. And of course, there are de-influencers reviewing products and services they simply didn’t have a good experience with.
“The hashtag #deinfluencing has racked up more than 76 million views on TikTok,” TODAY noted in February of this year—and this is just one social media platform.
This new viral trend seems to be, in part, a way for consumers to push back against the increased pressure to spend more money on things that feel unnecessary given the uncertainty that surrounds the current economic climate and job market. Pair stagnated wages with a climate crisis that many millennials and Gen Zers attribute to overconsumption and the #deinfluencer movement makes sense.
And while receiving negative reviews online is nothing new for established brands, Axios writer Erica Pandey points out this “is a real threat to the $16 billion influencer marketing economy if the trend of rising above the influence spreads — and lasts.”
Chris Beer, an analyst at GWI, expands on this by sharing that “we’re seeing social commerce go through a recession for the first time.”
According to GWI, the number of Gen Zers who are interested in influencers has decreased by 12% and the number of people from this generation who claim to care about what influencers wear has dropped by 16% since 2020.
At the core of this shift, is a significant change in the way consumers engage with brands.
“The age of the passive audience is over,” remarks Lance Concannon, Meltwater contributor. “Instead, customers are actively engaging with each other (and brands), looking for authentic and meaningful engagement and forming their own communities based on shared interests and values.”
How Younger Generations Engage with Influencers
As we look toward the future of influencer marketing, it’s important to understand how younger generations are interacting with brands online. It’s common for Gen Z and Millennial audiences to get grouped together, but the best brands understand they require different approaches to reach on social media.
Amanda Demeku, Later contributor, shares that, unlike Millennials who adapted to new digital platforms, Gen Z grew up with social media.
And as the true digital natives, Gen Z prefers using social media as a tool for people to communicate with other people, not brands. They love content that feels authentic and gives you a peek into others’ lives, especially through short video clips.
To drive this point home, Pixlee TurnTo shares that twice as many Gen Zers use TikTok when compared with Millennials side-by-side.
“Gen Zers tend to be digitally connected, fluid and exploratory, politically aware, and not afraid to challenge traditional institutions,” Pixlee TurnTo’s article states, which may be why Gen Z makes up the biggest portion of content creators on apps like TikTok where they can not only explore the latest social media trends but also connect with a larger community and share their opinions in a way that is more accessible than ever before.
“For Millennials, TikTok is a source of entertainment. They open the app and entertain themselves by scrolling. It is more one-sided and consumption-centric,” Pixlee TurnTo explains. “Gen Z, on the other hand, uses TikTok as more than just an entertainment consumption platform; they use it to communicate. It is a medium for video-based dialogue, it’s used to express opinions and build communities of like-minded individuals.”
And that attitude bleeds over into the types of marketing campaigns Gen Z engages with as well, with 1 in 3 members of this generation stating that they are looking for their brands to “be real.” In fact, studies conducted by TikTok show Gen Z consumers find user-generated content (UGC) 9.8 times more impactful than influencer content when making purchasing decisions.
While the data privacy laws that protect the rights of children under the age of 13 make it challenging to know how Gen Alpha is interacting with influencers online, it’s worth noting that this up-and-coming generation will be even more tech-savvy than its predecessors, making it equally important for brands and marketing executives to keep an eye on the metrics that emerge over the next few years.
What Brands Can Do to Remain Relevant
While influencer marketing continues to drive engagement and sales, it’s also increasing skepticism among consumers regarding the authenticity of influencer recommendations. The rise of de-influencers, particularly on platforms like TikTok, highlights the need for brands to prioritize authenticity and long-term relationships with influencers moving forward.
According to Shirdan, “88% of Gen Z and millennials assert that authenticity and genuine interest are desirable qualities,” but how does a company embody these characteristics through its marketing campaigns? Here are a few tips leading consumer brands have had success with:
“When it comes to mega-celebrities, there’s only so much paid sponsorship an individual can take on before their audience gets tired of it,” explains Concannon. Eventually, consumers start to tune out these well-known faces and the influencer marketing campaigns that involve them become no different than the advertisements people worked so hard to avoid before social media took over.
The solution? Think small.
“Micro- and nano-influencers have less followers but are more likely to come off as authentic and produce content that will convert potential customers,” Brenner shares. And “because they are more connected with their followers, they’re able to better use emotional marketing and tell a story that customers can relate to and makes them want to learn more.”
Identify Your Tribe
According to a study conducted by Bazaarvoice, another reason people are less inclined to engage with mainstream influencer content is because of user fatigue. This study shows that 47% of consumers are tired of repetitive influencer content, proving that there really are only so many ways you can position a meal kit subscription, tooth whitening product, or juice cleanse before the public starts to wonder how truthful the celebrities behind the sponsored posts are.
This is why it’s so crucial to have a deep understanding of who your audience is and what they care about. By tapping into their values and collaborating with prominent voices in the online communities they choose to be a part of, you can strengthen your brand and create a long-lasting consumer relationship.
“Companies and influencers who focus on authentic, high-quality content not made for the masses but highly resonant with target audiences are finding the most success,” Brenner notes, stating that this shift also aligns with the more personalized user experience we’re seeing on platforms like TikTok, which curates highly relevant content for each person’s individual for you page.
In the words of the renowned author and marketing strategist, Seth Godin, “instead of trying to reach everyone, [brands] should seek to reach the smallest viable audience and delight them so thoughtfully and fully that they tell others.”
As brands shift their focus toward micro-content creators who fit into the online tribes, their audiences are already a part of, the pool of available influencers becomes much, much larger. And for brands who want to avoid the next influencer scandal, there’s a lot of work to be done to thoroughly research and vet potential candidates.
Brands need to “take into account the influencer’s relevance, authenticity on the topic, analyze their content footprint, check if they have fake followers or engagement, out of hundreds and thousands of influencers on multiple platforms,” Concannon points out.
Manually, this is a massive task to take on, but with the help of big data and AI companies can quickly identify people who are already dedicated fans of their brand, assess their online personas, and determine whether they have enough influence to collaborate together on a sponsorship deal.
Combining this data with the expertise of your marketing team is a fantastic way to identify the next generation of influencers whose values align with your brand.
The Future of Digital Influencer Marketing for Brands
Social media has given companies ample opportunities to increase brand awareness, gather consumer data, and engage with fans, but it’s important to remember that today’s savvy consumer also has the ability to research, fact-check, and publicly review products and organizations in just a few keystrokes and clicks. While influencer marketing will continue to be a powerful tool, brands must adapt to changing consumer attitudes and preferences.
Companies that take the time to deeply understand their audiences, thoroughly vet the influencers they work with, and live the values they preach online will continue to garner loyal customers. The most important thing to remember as the curtain falls and consumers continue to dig into which corporations are trustworthy and which ones are simply hiding behind a pretty façade: authenticity is more than a buzzword. It’s your brand’s livelihood.