Influencer Marketing: The Benefits and the Perils

It’s rare that an event has been so grotesquely mismanaged that it inspired not one but two competing documentaries. Yet that’s exactly what happened with Fyrefest—an online marketing, influencer driven, train wreck. Fyrefest (and the corresponding documentaries) really highlight the power of influencer marketing. And with great power, comes… well, you know.

How Influencer Marketing Built a Fake Event

To call Fyrefest a fake event is probably charitable. Really, it’s worse: it’s an event that was, by all means, intended to be real, but with absolutely no thought put into making it happen. Rather, the organizer seemed to truly believe that if he got enough money and clapped his hands it would all coalesce. That’s not surprising. For many people who have failed upwards, that’s exactly what has happened. Things have just, you know, fallen into place.

But those “things” weren’t “renting an island and throwing the party to end all parties.” Fyrefest was intended to be an incredibly luxurious, hedonistic experience, with tickets going for $25,000 a pop. The exclusivity of this event was driven by its perception in social media. Social media (and influencers) were able to make it appear as though this was legitimate—and most people who bought into the illusion really had no reason to question it. Why should they?

People and brands that they trusted were promoting this event. And those people and brands were promoting the event because people they trusted were doing so. By creating an event that had some veneer of credibility and working his way up from the bottom, the organizer was able to create a chain of people (much like an MLM) who had “bought in” to the premise because of other people buying in. It became an unstoppable force, with enough momentum to make money, but not enough momentum to not be a complete disaster.

The Incredible Power of Influencer Marketing

Make no mistake: if the organizer of Fyrefest had actually managed to pull it off, it would have been legendary. All of the marketing worked. But that’s sort of the problem. Remember when I mentioned there were two competing documentaries?

Where they differ is that one documentary involved the social media crew that worked with Fyrefest. The other one… mentioned them, but didn’t work with them. Understandably, they come off in a much more charitable light in the documentary they participated in. If you believe one documentary, the social media crew was swept up in the hype. If you believe the other, they were part of the problem.

The Influence of the Dark Side

Marketers have been marketing products they don’t believe in since… well, the advent of marketing. But the problem is that influencer marketing isn’t always so obvious. An influencer isn’t saying: Here is a commercial for Fyrefest. All an influencer is saying is “I just bought my tickets for Fyrefest!” It doesn’t look like marketing, it looks like a status update.

Some influencer marketing is even more insidious. It isn’t a Coca-Cola ad; it’s a picture of a Coca-Cola in the background of a shot at the gym. That means that no media is safe. Users are being manipulated left and right and there’s no way to tell how. It’s subliminal advertising all over again, except this time, it’s everywhere.

And it’s becoming a matter of ethics.

Could the Tide Turn?

One thing the Fyrefest documentaries did was really bring to light influencer marketing into the mainstream. Everyone knew about influencers, but few people really understood how they were being integrated into marketing. Now that people do understand, people are going to naturally start becoming more skeptical about influencers. This isn’t something that originated from Fyrefest: Fyrefest is just the frothy bit at the edge of the wave.

But, in general, influencers have become more corporate and more eager to cash in on their brand, while their audience has become more savvy. While many marketers are jumping onto the influencer trend, it’s actually diluting the impact that influencers have. After all, when everyone’s an influencer, who will there be left to influence?

Marketing trends rise and fall, and marketers need to be able to take advantage of these trends without overly relying upon them. Influencers are exceptionally powerful now, but this may not be permanent. In fact, we may already be seeing the beginning of a more conscientious, more skeptical audience.

Launching a Website in 2018: Online Marketing and Content Marketing

In 2001 I launched my very first website — a small, online game, programmed by a hesitant child. Within six months, it had hundreds of paid users. This was not because I was a prodigy, it was because the virtual world was much smaller then. It was also much easier.

In those days, there was no “search engine optimization.” You submitted your website manually to directories, much like phone directories. You were guaranteed to be on this list and were easily discovered by those who were looking for your product. Users loaded up their homepage, browsed “games” or “shopping,” and there you were.

Over the past two decades the landscape has radically changed. Yet most of the advice we get for launching a website, optimizing our search engine results, and creating content marketing has not changed in the past few years.

In 2012, I launched a small fan site about a niche topic — and within a few months, I was getting considerable traffic with no effort at all. This was after one of the large scale Google updates designed to promote premium content. Content that was lengthy and unique was being pushed to the top, and it looked like a very optimistic solution for “content marketers.”

Content marketers work with SEO, but in reality, they are designed to be the antithesis of SEO. Rather than artificially boosting signal, content marketers are intended to create content that is genuinely valuable to the audience — with the idea that this will always rise to the top.

So when I launched a similar website in 2018, I expected a fairly similar result. But I found something very interesting: that search engine traffic was almost impossible to get organically. In fact, my website didn’t even start getting organic traffic until after I initiated a paid advertising campaign — and it became very difficult for me to distinguish my paid traffic from my organic traffic.

These discrepancies don’t seem entirely unintentional. On my paid ad campaigns, Google would often show a number of clicks — say 80. On my analytics, Google would show 40 clicks and 40 organic. One could assume that this was from bounced traffic, but once my paid campaigns would end, all the traffic would bleed off.

This is strange, because if you’ve done an ad campaign with Google, you know that clicks are tracked with tokens that are passed through the URL itself — not cookies or any other type of hidden tracking service. You can either assume that Google is intentionally showing paid clicks as organic or that, for whatever reason, a paid advertising campaign somehow boosts organic traffic.

Or that their analytic system is broken. Either way, I found that search engines are next to useless today. In reality, the entirety of the focus is now on social media — and there’s an emphasis on media. Videos, podcasts, streaming; these are the things that a content provider now needs to do. It’s a new world.

Yet many online marketers are still churning out page after page of written content — content that is now unlikely to be seen by anyone. We are now at a time when a single clever tweet is probably worth more than 20 blog posts, and where interacting directly with your customers on Facebook is probably worth more than even having your own website.

It’s an interesting shift — and, perhaps, one that many marketers are not able to make. You see, it’s a very “television killed the radio star” premise. Not every online marketer or content professional is an expert at engaging directly with their audience. It’s not a surprise that Amy Brown, the mastermind behind the Wendy’s social media strategy, ultimately quit her job.

What happens when you take people who are essentially writers and tell them that they need to perform live? That they need to engage directly one-on-one with customers? That they need to start live streaming video? That they can’t churn out 1,000 pieces of content hoping that one will hit: that they need to invest time into creating and building a rapport with a unique audience?

It’s no wonder there’s been resistance to this, and there will likely come a shift. Online marketers are already being slowly supplanted by social media influencers, and the very interesting thing about these influencers is that many of them never even intend to become what they are. Instead, they have the soft skills built in — the skills that are now valued in this changing landscape.