Earned to Paid. Could this be the demise of the Influencer?

Social Influencers have been the holy grail of marketing for the last few years. It wasn’t long ago that they belonged to the elite and exclusive lists of PR agencies. Then social media platforms, portrait videos and the front-facing smartphone camera opened up a whole new world of so called ‘Micro Influencers’. Though in reality there was nothing micro about their thousands of followers. Influencer Marketing moved up a notch and it suddenly wasn’t just the likes of David Beckham flashing a Breitling on that perfectly toned and tattooed arm.

Endorsements can now be made by ‘everyday people’ for ‘everyday brands’ at a fraction of the marketing cost. Cue the technology companies that have risen up to offer connection platforms for Influencers and brands. Influencer Marketing is big business. According to a report by Business Insider Influencer Marketing ad spend is poised to reach between $5 billion and $10 billion in 2022. And what’s more, for an advertiser Influencer Marketing is now accessible and can be threaded into your digital strategy through whichever mediums work best. More traditional channels are scrambling to claim their piece of the spend; influencers through social media, influencers through affiliate, influencers through video.

Influencer Marketing has given rise to a plethora of new business owners, many of whom are now trading off their own name, lifestyle and experiences. It’s a great additional revenue source for some, and a full-time job for others. But like any form of digital adoption, as it grows and becomes a common practice amongst digital marketers it raises questions and suspicion, from those signing the cheques, as well as those devouring the content.

There have been a number of articles recently showing how some brands and advertisers are no longer seeing Influencers through the rose-tinted Prada sunglasses they have done in the past. Stories of bot-generated traffic manipulating reach and engagement figures, Photoshopped images and a lack of control over content have pushed some brands to deprioritise their Influencer Marketing strategy. There’s talk from some hoteliers, restaurants and travel companies that influencers are not the holy grail for marketing. Some have overtly had enough, like owner of the Charleville Lodge Hotel and White Moose Café who’s controversial stand against influencers caused quite a stir earlier this year.

But have digital marketers created a monster in pushing Influencer Marketing into just that, another marketing strategy? The beauty of Influencers began because the content was earned. It was precious because people wanted to share their stories and thoughts, and followers lapped up content that was genuine and real. The earned media soon became a marketing strategy and it didn’t take long for it to move from earned to paid activity. This has benefitted the Influencers and Advertisers, but with big money comes big responsibility. Some content creators suddenly saw a way to game the system using techniques we’ve mentioned and soured the taste for everyone. And all this before we even consider the lack of trust that grows in users when their favourite YouTube beauty vlogger starts gushing about a brand they’ve never mentioned before.

The funny thing is, that from a personal point of view, I don’t mind celebrities endorsing products, it’s sort of…expected. When I scroll through Instagram daily and see Holly Willoughby gleefully parading her choice of high street outfit I take a look, and don’t dislike her despite knowing she’s paid for it. In fact, I have a lovely Needle and Thread jumper thanks to Holly’s parading. But when I want to get a review of the latest Clinique mascara and there are over 20 vloggers on YouTube all advocating it’s clump-free, stay-all-day wonderfulness I question whether they’ve received a commission, a freebie gift, and a little script of what to mention.


So how can we retain the neutrality and honesty in Influencer Marketing to ensure it doesn’t lose its value or deserved place in the digital ecosystem?


Visibility - Influencers need to be more transparent about their commerciality, on whatever platform they use. Earlier this year the ASA launched a new project, aimed at understanding and setting new guidelines to ensure users are clear of commercial endorsement. This will further enhance the Standards already released. For users there is already acceptance that payment to endorse products exists. Hiding the fact will create deeper suspicion, something Influencers can’t afford to do with their audience.

Measurement – Brands who blithely enter the realms of Influencer Marketing without clear objectives and measurement metrics will have a negative experience. It is upper funnel activity and won’t be as effective as other types of marketing at converting interest to sales. Some companies talk about ‘vanity metrics’ whilst others have found these metrics important when looking at an attributed view. Understanding ROI from Influencers relies on clear metrics before you partner and run campaigns.

Real Content – Brands need to allow their Influencer partners the freedom to curate the message and content as much as possible. Unlike other channels, such as paid search where the brand controls the message, timing and creative this is a channel that was borne out of individuality and needs to maintain that to be effective. The platforms and agencies that support the discovery and recruitment of partnerships play a vital role here, to make the campaigns as clear and easy to set up as possible. This will give the brand confidence that their objectives are communicated to the Influencer and that the content will be delivered without stifling the Influencer.


The question remains whether moving Influencers from earned to paid marketing strategies will impact their long-term future as a marketing channel. But one thing that might have greater impact before this story plays out is the role of the social media platforms themselves.

User adoption in specific platforms will undoubtedly change over time (remember MySpace?) and it is naïve to think that users won’t find different ways to communicate, connect and digest content. The current platforms will evolve, and other players will certainly contend for the engagement of younger, digital-first generations like GenZ and beyond. How the algorithms of platforms change over time affect the popularity of not just the platform itself, but of how paid media will be valued. Influencers who have become Influencers because of their social media following may be constrained by the platforms they work with, and the commercial decisions of those platforms.

Whatever the concerns, Influencer Marketing is here to stay. But greater transparency that it now sits firmly inside the paid space will ensure the perfectly pedicured toe dipped in the aquamarine ocean, filtered in Clarendon, Juno or Gingham remains content worthy of the price.