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The true peril for brands: sponsoring cringe influencers
Most in corporate America still don't understand the internet: they bias to large followings, while social algos frequently create large followings of the worst people
Influencer marketing has emerged as a hot tool for brands attempting to connect with target audiences in a more authentic and relatable manner. The idea is simple: collaborate with individuals who have established a significant online following and pay them to talk about your products or services. However, as the influencer landscape continues to evolve, so have the challenges associated with it. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t believe the most dangerous pitfall for brands are an influencer's political affiliation or strong opinions, but rather the risk of associating with influencers who exude cringe. Cringe spreads and catches beyond the bubbles of politics, which people are somewhat tired of anyway. I don’t actually think most marketing teams understand what this means, and so this oversight is rampant and leading to widespread, viral damage. A lot of this is due to the artifact of marketers trained in the analog world (large # for number’s sake of TV) now applying the same logic to the internet. And, brands outsource most of this to agencies, who basically go through the process as part of a paint-by-numbers approach to hit metrics goals. This is all a ticking timebomb for a disaster and no one seems to think much about it, even if we’re seeing many examples of it daily in media.
The prevailing misconception is that partnering with influencers who boast large follower counts will automatically yield positive results. But as readers here are aware, a substantial following doesn't equate to a genuine connection or influence over an engaged audience and further, most of these people are not “professionals” in any sense of the word. Simultaneously, the internet is killing the traditional notion of celebrity, and a lot of bad things happen when a cohort of marketer who doesn’t understand how trust actually works online starts to apply the old playbook to an unstructured landscape. You see trouble manifest when many influencers have resorted to pandering to algorithms and engagement ‘hacks’ to inflate their follower count (again, a stupid metric, and easily exploitable), ultimately creating a facade of popularity and brands deciding this is sufficient diligence for sponsorship. The result is a disconnect between the influencer's content and the values of a brand audience, leading to the dreaded cringe factor.
Cringe in the context of influencer marketing refers to content that feels forced, contrived, awkward, or out of touch with the influencer's persona and the interests of their followers. When brands associate themselves with cringe content, they risk alienating their target demographic and damaging their reputation in a way that is unappreciated in a connected world. It’s basically like a lightning strike on a water-deprived forest. And, unlike political affiliations or strong opinions, cringe content is more immediate in its impact and can lead to swift disengagement and disgust from audiences. It’s the same reason you don’t post ‘gore’ to social (some of you know what I’m talking about, if you don’t — don’t worry). It is very much the job of a marketer, especially at a large brand, to be an appropriate steward (online and off) of the company image and not actively create these situations. This seems like it’s not asking a lot, but some brands can’t even manage not to be cringe themselves with their own content, as seen in this post.
The pursuit of influencers with large followings has overshadowed the necessity of thorough research and compatibility assessment. Brands need to prioritize influencers whose values align with their own, as well as with the aspirations and preferences of their audience. Working with influencers who genuinely resonate with their followers can foster a relationship that feels less like a marketing ploy and more like a recommendation from a trusted friend. Again, this can’t happen with the astroturfed or algo-gamed ‘influencers’ who appear on brand’s radars due to large follower counts. Neither side of the trade is aligned, and the outcomes are predictably bad.
Crafting a successful influencer marketing campaign demands diligent effort and a willingness to understand the influencer's content style, tone, and audience engagement. Brands need to invest time and resources to decipher whether an influencer's persona matches their brand identity. This involves studying past content, gauging audience reactions, and assessing how well the influencer's niche aligns with the product or service being promoted. They don’t need to do this with 1,000 people, perhaps just 10, and done over a longer term with a more focused budget and partnership. I think if you have the right people on your team they can assess this pretty quickly.
It’s vitally important brands learn to get this right now: as when the cohort in power finally passes the torch and the $65 billion / year (currently mismanaged) spends to nowhere on cable no one sees get applied more efficiently, much more will go to influencers online. This can be a great thing and supportive of the community of online creators, but I am pleading with our sector to do better with how it gets deployed. We are, at least partially responsible through funding, accountable for the internet we create.
The rise of algorithm-driven influencer selection tools doesn't eliminate the need for this crucial manual assessment. While software can provide data on metrics like follower counts and engagement rates, it fails to measure the intangible nuances that determine whether an influencer is actually taken seriously by their audience and not a sideshow. The human touch is essential in evaluating the compatibility between brand and influencer and the program created needs to be one that is de-risked of cringe. With the right people and guidelines, it’s generally not a concern. Although again, I do worry many larger, beaurocratic orgs are not staffed appropriately for this here. We’ve seen recent examples showing this but the poorly executed influencer programs are not new. Putting 100 year old brands in the hands of the wrong people is irresponsible and foolish.
Influencer marketing, when executed effectively, requires strategic thinking, creativity, and a deep understanding of both the brand and the influencer's dynamics. Some of us have been doing this since the early 2000s (here’s a case study) and not with “celebrities,” who again I would classify as something different. There probably are no new celebrities anymore in a post-TV and post-pop era but that’s another topic.
To wrap, the notion that the gravest danger to brands lies in sponsoring influencers with "cringe" content cannot be overstated. Brands must look beyond follower counts and invest in comprehensive compatibility assessment and guidelines to have the right relationship with influencers. Only through genuine relationships with the right people (mature acting adults) can brands avoid the pitfall of cringe and ensure that their influencer marketing efforts deliver the desired impact. And realize in many cases, you can’t simply pay for this and will have to get more creative than simply trading cash for posts.
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