Social media influencers in both Germany and France have been confronted by tests of their ethics in the midst of Covid-19 vaccine efforts, and there’s little question that their experiences have implications for other areas of the world, including the United States.
Several Europeans with high follower counts on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram have come forward in recent days to say that they had been contacted by a representative from an ad agency and asked to participate in an “information campaign” concerning one or more of the available brands of vaccine. The social media influencers in question declined the offer, despite the fact that compliance might have earned them thousands of euros. It is safe to assume that not everyone did the same, and that not everyone will go public with their experiences.
Of course, none of this should come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with today’s social media landscape and the evolving role of social media influencers in high-value online marketing campaigns. For a very long time, such individuals have been tools in what might be called not just “information campaigns” but information warfare.
The increasingly polarized nature of social media and society at large makes this sort of warfare potentially more destructive to all parties involved. To the extent that the above-mentioned ad agency was successful in paying off social media influencers, it may have substantially increased hesitancy surrounding the life-saving Pfizer vaccine, which the known influencers were asked to disparage in 45- to 60-second videos. Conversely, if the agency’s clients had been less committed to their own anonymity, they might have suffered well-earned backlash after their scheme was exposed by social media influencers who were neither sufficiently hard-up for money or unscrupulous enough to go along with it.
While this latter outcome may not seem at all undesirable, it’s worth noting that broadly similar situations could affect companies and ad agencies that are not engaged in such plainly harmful behavior. Brands can sometimes suffer reputational damage or a simple decline in their return on investment if aspects of their marketing campaigns are exposed to the public. This is arguably even more of a danger when those campaigns involve social media influencers, whose content tends to reach users in an organic fashion and is not always identified as being sponsored.
Of course, one way of avoiding this danger with your own campaign is to simply avoid using social media influencers altogether. But an excess of caution can be detrimental in situations where that form of marketing would otherwise pay off for your brand – especially if competing brands use it to good effect while you wait on the sidelines. In that case, you would essentially be leaving yourself on the defensive in the information war, but as the saying goes, sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
Like it or not, you probably can’t afford to write of social media influencers or any other prominent marketing tool. You must at least retain the option to participate in an information war, and you must simply be prepared to defend yourself against the perils of public exposure. If you can also expose your competitors – especially those who are using more unscrupulous practices in their online marketing – that’s an even better outcome for you.
At this point, you may be wondering how you can possibly tell which of your competitors are on the up-and-up, and which of them are trying to manipulate their audience in a way that would earn them backlash. In all likelihood, the answer is that you cannot. But a third-party social media marketing company might be able to, or else it might be able to make an educated guess based on the trustworthiness of the social media influencers they work with.
Consider the French and German influencers who didn’t come forward about the scheme to drive people away from the Pfizer vaccine. Their contributions to that scheme might not be immediately recognizable to followers, but there’s little chance of someone engaging in that sort of unscrupulous marketing once and then not doing it again. Furthermore, there’s little chance of such a person engaging in that sort of behavior on a recurring basis without developing a reputation.
If a social media marketing agency has been working within the industry for a long period of time, it should have a long list of contacts with related experience, and it should be aware of the reputations of all sorts of players in the industry. Those reputations have knock-on effects, meaning that one company can potentially be recognized as untrustworthy based on its recurring partnerships with other untrustworthy firms.
In this way, your social media marketing partners might be able to recognize when your competitors are using questionable influencer marketing strategies. While this probably won’t allow you to overcome their campaign with one masterstroke, it could provide you or your marketing team with the tools to start sowing doubt about the reliability of the competitor’s marketing materials.
If those efforts are ultimately successful, they should serve as a reminder of the danger that you face if you work with social media influencers who are not transparent about when their content is sponsored. This is not to say that you should never work with such individuals. Influencer marketing would probably be nothing without them. But in those situations, you need to choose your partners carefully and rely upon a professional digital marketing firm to analyze their prior partnerships, their audience interactions, and other factors that might amplify or mitigate your risk.
In the end, that risk should remain low as long as you aren’t asking social media influencers to lie for you, aren’t selecting those influences without regard for their followers’ likely interest in your brand, and aren’t leaving the door open for competitors to poach the same influencers and contradict your brand message. Then again, it’s difficult to know for certain that you’re avoiding these pitfalls unless a social media marketing company has done thorough competitive research on your behalf.