Influencer marketing, peers and trust: two speculative stories

01. The attraction of influencer marketing is in being able to leverage word-of-mouth and peer recommendations.

02. This is valuable because peer influence is the most effective form of influencing what we buy, or what we feel about a brand. [source]

03. Peer influence has this impact because it’s advice from people we trust. Key to almost every definition of an influencer is their credibility and realness:

“Broadly I define an ‘influencer’ as someone who follows their own path, is rooted in creativity, and is looking for new ways to change or redefine their world. Someone who is an ‘influencer’ not only has broad relationships but also has deep relationships. In short, they are building a community around shared beliefs, principles, and interest.”

Philip McKenzie, Managing Partner at FREE DMC and Founder of Influencer Conference: [source]

04. We trust our friends and family because we have known them a long time and feel emotionally close to them.

05. This means we believe that their recommendations will have our best interests at heart.


But what happens when brands come in and try to get a piece of the action?

1a. MediaCorp have identified Amelia as influential about Personal Personality Monitoring Devices (PPMDs). They send her their new product, SomaTech, in the hope that she will talk about it to her sphere of influence and generate increased purchases.

2a. As a personal branding expert, Amelia is savvy to influencer marketing. She knows she needs to deliver visibility if she’s to continue receiving shiny freebies, so she schedules a series of tweets about the product for the next week. Each is very proper, including the brandname, the hashtag the PR had sent, and exhorting retweets from her followerbase with one too many exclamation marks.

3a. Amelia has 4,000 followers on Twitter, but two-thirds are bots or other personal branding gurus (or both), and the rest she purchased at $2.50 – $4 per follower. [source]. Almost everything she tweets is automated from Oprah Winfrey’s, but she does also auto-schedule interactions with her sockpuppet accounts to keep her Engagement score up. This helps keep the free shiny things flowing from the social media PRs

4a. Amelia’s tweets about the SomaTech are retweeted a respectable 30 times each, and along with Amelia’s 15 positive mentions of the product herself, MediaCorp are happy.

5a. However MediaCorp haven’t connected up their Twitter analytics with their store’s Google analytics or purchase data. If they did, they’d see Amelia only generated 20 clickthroughs and no purchases. This is because her highly automated copy-cat content is followed by almost no real, active human beings. (One of the bots did try to buy something but the transaction was declined as their card was registered in Zurich and their shipping address, Belarus.)

6a. Next week Amelia shoots a YouTube segment for MediaCorp’s competitor’s personality monitor, SimSoothe, who sent her not just a free device but $250 as well. The video gets trolled by 4-Chan and goes viral.

The kind of social media user who’s highly receptive to sharing brand promotions may not be generating content that real people value. Influence metrics are highly gameable and, if incentivised by freebies, attract game-players – not the “real people” marketers actually want.


1b. So MediaCorp improve their influencers algorithm and have another go:

2b. Bill’s a normal guy, albeit the linchpin of his group of friends. He’s a bit surprised to receive the free SomaTech device as he’d tumbld just the other day about PPMDs being a bit creepy. This had got a bunch of reblogs and sparked a bit of a debate.

3b. Bill’s not sure what to do with the SomaTech, but his mum raised him proper so he knows that if he receives a gift, he’s got to say thanks. So he writes a blog post as MediaCorp requested, which is auto-shared to his other social networks.

4b. Bill’s ex-boyfriend sees his post. He knows MediaCorp have been exploting child labour in the Philippines, and sees an opportunity to embarass Bill. “Since when were you such a slut that you did everything some big company told you to? I remember that time we were talking about….” An argument breaks out among their friends.

5b. “Mate, seriously? That time you suggested I should get those Blahphonic headphones? Was that you, or, you know, something you’d been told to say?” asks Cate. Bill feels really awkward – it’s the fifth time he’s been asked that question this week.

6b. Bill disables his Facebook account, Tumblr etc – making him an early adopter of the Going Analogue trend, and influencing three friends to follow. But as he no longer has a social media presence, his departure goes tragically un-curated.

If customers know that peer recommendations have been purchased by brands, many will stop trusting these friends’ recommendations. This is pretty corrosive to the friendship – and defeats the brand marketer’s purpose too.


So what if publicly disclosed “I did this because Brand X paid me” is individually toxic to personal credibility – but sneaky (non-disclosed) influencer marketing is socially toxic to friends’ trust?

Perhaps the only circumstances in which it works is celebrity influencer marketing – but only where there is no relationship of trust between celeb and fans. To participate in influencer marketing is to say, “I see my friendships as social capital, and I’ll exchange them for a fee”. Works fine for celebs who’re selling themselves (*kough, Kardashians*) but among almost every other social media user? Rather more double-edged.


  1. Daniel Reeders

    Hello, just wondering if you’ve had a chance to read Duncan J Watts’ rather trenchant critique of influencer marketing in his book, “Everything is Obvious”?  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it.