Woman with dyed pink hair posting a selfie to social media. Photo: Getty Images

Confessions of an ex-social media influencer

Rachel Klaver (nee Goodchild) was one of the pioneers of New Zealand lifestyle blogging, gaining a dedicated following for her witty and insightful writing on topics from internet dating to diets. That meant she got free stuff – a lot of it. But was it all really worth it?

These days it feels like everyone and their French bulldog is an influencer. It’s appears to be the ticket to a life of quality gifts, huge bank balances and exotic parties. The reality is often far from this truth. It’s bloody hard to create a platform with integrity and do it well. Before you get noticed, you’ve got to do hours of blogs that sometimes only a handful of people read. You find yourself drifting off in conversations with friends working out the next brilliant tweet, or you find yourself checking out backgrounds to showcase the latests products you got.

I am very much a failed influencer. I now like to think of myself as a person of NO influence outside my own home. I wrote a book on dating about 10 years ago – I’d had about another 20 or so published before – but this one caught the media’s eye. I got some screen time including a regular gig on Breakfast. I had always blogged, but now I was getting real traffic to my site.

People started inviting me to parties. And I started getting sent a lot of free stuff. All I had to do was mention it in a blog, a tweet or a Facebook post. Too easy.

The top six #sponsored posts on Instagram, 16 November 2017

On the front of it, it looked like fun but the reality was I was poverty stricken. I remember having to use shampoo to wash my clothes (It was really expensive shampoo – does that make it better?). It was ridiculous what got sent to me. I am still very thankful for the Skeechers (Long gone, but you saved me from a barefoot summer!) and the glasses chosen by Gok Wan himself. I loved the bucket of free yoghurt (as did my children). Oh and the tickets to all the free movies and children’s concerts.

I’m still not exactly sure what I did with the pile of free vibrators (you write about dating, you get sent vibrators) and I don’t think I’ll ever live down the day three hundred condoms spilled from my bag in a cafe, right across the tiled floor and the barista said “Oh don’t mind HER. It’s for her JOB,” after I was sent them to give away on my blog.

What I do know is that I gave very good Christmas gifts of limited edition lipsticks and perfumes for a good few years to family and friends, including the year I was so broke I could only afford to spend ten dollars on each of my three children. My children may not have had a mother earning money, but they did have a Playstation, new laptop and a month with a brand new phone. All gifted for a blog.

We looked like we were rolling in it. We were barely surviving.

When I was blogging, (back in the old days), no one got paid to promote anything. We were a new toy for PR companies to play with and experiment on. Social media was still not considered an effective part of marketing. I know this because I really needed the cash. I worked with several well-known agencies, teaching their teams about how they might use both social media and bloggers like me to promote for their clients. They said no one would ever pay for it. They told me that social media would be dead in a few years, and it was too risky.

How things have changed.

Now there are influencers everywhere. You can be a micro influencer (our budgets dictate we normally use these for our clients). You can be a personality – either one you’ve created yourself and then carefully nurtured by an agency, or a household name. You might be a sports star, but equally you could just be great at making amazing Instagram images (or Youtube videos).

And yes, for some it’s huge business. But for many others, I wager their experience is still close to mine: lots of free products for a whole heap of time and effort. Whoever they are, they’re noisy. It’s a constant stream of advertorial posts, filling our social media feeds.

I’m not sure if I’m shooting myself in the foot with this admission, being a marketing agency owner with clients who use us for digital marketing services, but I’ve got a terrible confession to make: I’m tired. I’m tired of my social media streams being filled with quasi-promotional posts from people of influence I’ve followed over the years, and bloggers I used to read for enjoyment but now seem wholly focused on getting me to whip out my credit card.

I’m fatigued by the clever ads-not-ads marketing ploys that lure me in, often with initial delight at their quirky ingenuity or big-shiny-new-thing attraction, and then crash me back down with a “this emotion rollercoaster was brought to you by Cushies” or something.

I’m exhausted by seeing a pretty display of the new must-have cider in my insta feed from someone I trust, then seeing the same thing on another 60 accounts. The deals negotiated behind the scenes play out time and time again, often with no obvious declaration of that product being given for free, or payment expected for sponsorship. It’s not magic synergy folks. It’s business.

I’m frustrated by TV segments or newspaper articles that read like news, but then you get to the end and realise it’s a PR spin. Yes, PR companies have always fed stories to journalists. I have worked on both sides and know it’s been this way forever, but it seems it’s becoming more overt, and filled with less honest discussion and investigation. Nothing is questioned. Everything is printable. Nothing is declared.

I’m sick of trying to decipher whether someone is actually just telling me they love something, or someone is telling me it’s the next best thing because they got it for free, or were paid to say that. It’s like my love of All Birds. I reckon I’ve helped sell heaps through my ongoing love affair with the brand. I’ve talked about them at conferences, at parties and on my Instagram. All Birds have never paid me and will never give me a cent, but it feels easy to say “go give them a try”.

And if they had paid me? I’d make sure people know. It’s that responsibility of having a voice that other people listen to, whether you’ve got a following of hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands. Many influencers use the argument of “I only promote what I like anyway” as their excuse for a lack of full disclosure. It’s definitely easier to positively refer to something that you like, so that’s great! But if you are getting payment, the brand automatically becomes your client (be it directly or indirectly) and that should be disclosed.

Getting people who have a platform to talk about your product makes sense. But it’s still riddled with issues around transparency, honesty and how much exposure is too much in New Zealand’s small consumer landscape. Sure, everyone’s selling something, so let’s make it crystal clear. Let’s not move into the shady side of deal-making, where people are paid to promote (either in goods or money) without disclosing it.

There is no doubt using influencers is now part and parcel of many brands’ digital marketing strategy. It’s understandable that as Facebook’s algorithms change it has become harder and harder to get organic reach for even the most popular of pages. But I believe all agencies should refuse to work with either a brand or an influencer who would hide an agreed relationship. There should be zero tolerance for any brand slipping into the shade of nondisclosure and hidden payments.

If your product is an honest product, let the influencers you engage with also be honest representatives of it. And let me as a consumer, and others like me, decide for ourselves whether we’ll listen, look or read once we know it’s a paid ad or not. All we’re asking for is a little respect.

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