The pitfalls of buying influence in social media

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Much has been discussed about in Indian social media after a recent blogger’s meet sponsored by a car brand. The attempt here is to share my thoughts on the larger issue of buying influence in social media and not about that specific event. Hence, I am not going to take any names – be it of individuals, agencies or brands linked with the event.

‘Advertising is the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it’, said Stephen Leacock, tongue firmly in cheek. The underlying tone seems to be that it is about persuading people to go beyond rational thinking when it comes to spending money. Talking of persuasion, Bill Bernbach said, ‘Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art’. This art of persuasion is geared to influence people to form an opinion (about a company, brand or cause), take an action (buy, donate, participate) or simply feel a certain feeling about a brand. In this process, ad agencies have taken the help of celebrities for over a century now. The belief is that a celebrity gets attention from consumers and hence it is easier to make your brand message stick. As is obvious, are pros and cons to this approach. Lack of credibility with celebrities endorsing brands which they are unlikely to ever use, mismatch between the brand and the celebrity endorsing it in terms of personality & values, hackneyed creative approaches, lazy thinking, over exposure…are all arguments against celebrity endorsement. However, it must be seen as effective by marketers since the practice is thriving in mass media.

In social media, ‘influencers’ have taken on the role of celebrities when it comes brand sponsored communication. The influencers are not celebrities in the traditional sense but they obviously have a fan following and people look up to what they have to share & comment in social media. Their opinions, recommendations and comments carry weight and hence have the potential to influence others. Marketers and ad agencies have sought to ‘buy’ such influence. So at the heart of it such programs are commercial in nature – someone is paid or hired to do a sales pitch, subtly or otherwise. However, there is a difference between use of celebrities in traditional media and in social media. When we watch a TV spot featuring a celebrity endorsing a brand, most of us see it as an act…something not to be believed as true. We really don’t expect that super star to eat those cookies or wear that undergarment brand…it is just entertainment. Also, we have been conditioned to celebrity advertising for decades now – we know when to switch off.

Social media’s use of influencers to pitch a brand message is relatively new. All the parties concerned – marketers, agencies and end consumers are figuring their way through this. So when someone you followed (for a particular reason) makes obvious sales pitches on behalf of brands in a way which is out of character, it can be unsettling. People have different ways of dealing with it: tolerate, mute, unfollow, like, outrage and so on. But commercial transaction triggered content is only natural and to be expected given the power of social media.



I have limited hands-on experience in creating social media campaigns. But I have been involved in discussions with seasoned marketers regarding broad approaches to social media and have also seen a few campaigns as an end-user.

In this context, herewith some unsolicited views on the subject:

Human interactions, individuality and keeping it real

Unlike the broadcast approach in mass media, there is a personal touch on social media platforms, even when a one-to-many approach is in play. On Twitter, I may follow someone because they shared interesting links & thoughts on the business of advertising. But after a few months, if I find that the person is a rabid hater of a topic close to my heart and tweets negative things about that constantly, I may get irritated. But I must accept the fact that I am interacting with human beings here, not bots. In fact, I believe that affinity towards someone you follow on Twitter is strengthened if we experience many facets of their personality. I may still slot someone I follow as cricket expert, punster, literature freak, finance guru, Android fan and so on. But I am perfectly alright to see tweets about what they had for breakfast or if they make a political comment. Yet, there is a unique positioning in my mind of such influencers.

People can be unpredictable, quirky and deal with things in their own unique way. That’s the beauty of a platform like Twitter – you get to experience myriad views, expressed uniquely on any given topic. So it is about being real and having an individual stamp on views & comments.

So when an agency engages a diverse set of influencers, not accounting for that individual’s speciality or persona, it is not a wrong approach, just a sub-optimal one.

Spontaneous chatter better than coerced chatter

Before the days of internet and social media we spoke with our friends about things that impressed us – be it an ad or a film song. We didn’t have people calling us to talk about it. Most of the ad campaigns I have gushed about in my blog happened because I wanted to write about them and not because I was requested to. It is not rocket science – most of the ads which have gone viral have gone so because they were compelling – people thought they were good enough to share.

The same principle should apply to campaigns attempting to ‘buy’ influence in social media. Can there be an activity so good that the invited influencers are tempted to share the experience irrespective of the ‘mandate’?

Relevant, ownable, unique idea for brand activity using the medium’s advantage

Even when influencers are invited to pitch a brand message with a specific brief, anchoring it on a relevant, ownable, unique idea helps. Snickers has been running the ‘you are not yourself when you are hungry’ campaign for years now. For their UK launch, they bought influence through celebrities who were big on Twitter. The difference: they had a brand idea and brought it alive tailoring it to suit the medium. They asked each of the celebrities to send tweets which were ‘out of character’. So model Katie Price tweeted about macro economics, cricketer Ian Botham tweeted about learning to play Cello and boxer Amir Khan tweeted about philately. The tweets didn’t go unnoticed and even got a mention in the UK parliament. The penny dropped when the brand name and the idea ‘you are not you when you are hungry’ was revealed.

The Snickers campaign generated buzz alright but the post-campaign evaluation wouldn’t just be about number of re-tweets, mentions and hashtag contests. Unfortunately, we are still in the checkbox mode when it comes to use of social media for brands: a mere presence is good enough. There is also a view that ‘any publicity is good publicity’ and if people are talking about your brand activity, even if in a negative tone, it is good. Not true. I don’t think all brands take that view. Brands which are conservative and shy away from controversy would definitely not subscribe to ‘any publicity is good publicity’ theory.

The art of buying influence in social media is that the effort should not show. Even if it is an obvious paid campaign, creating a relevant, unique, ownable brand idea tailored to the platform is necessary. But then, that’s hard work.

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By bhatnaturally

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bhatnaturally

Ex-ad man. Love advertising, Apple, tech, digital, design and all things creative. VP - MarCom, @Robosoft. Views personal. See disclaimer for more.

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