Brand Responsibility: Notes from an Influencer

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By Jon Gaffney, Senior Brand Strategist, GYK Antler

After spending several years of my career immersed in agency life, I felt it was time to step away to meet new people, see new places and gain a new perspective on life. I chose to spend a year in a van traveling across the U.S., teaming up outdoor retailers and brands along the way. After sharing my experiences on Instagram reviewing places to visit, useful gear to bring, and the right cameras to capture the moment, I racked up over 10k followers.

I am one of millions of people who share my experiences with family, friends and strangers on social platforms in pursuit of inspiration. As a current marketer, it’s easy to say that we are building campaigns and engagement plans to capitalize upon this sharing economy. Companies are partnering with bloggers, the Instafamous, and Snapchat dynamos to bring their brand, products, and services to the influencers’ audience – a lure that is a valid one for brands, as working with the right influencers can get them exposure at scale with reasonable assurance that they’re getting in front of the right people. But, while this model makes a lot of sense, recent events have brought to light pitfalls and ethical considerations for brands and influencers alike.

An attractive quality of influencers is their “authenticity.” To maintain this authenticity, most influencers will insist on partnering with brands that resonate with their audience and create their own content for the engagement --an optimal setup for both parties. The influencer keeps the look, tone, and feel of their work consistent, and the brand is seen as more approachable. Unlike traditional advertising, where the brand has a role in the work’s creation, both parties are hitching their reputation in part to each other, whether they realize it or not.

Over the last few years, influencers have broken laws within National Parks, National Forests, and BLM preserves in pursuit of “epic” content. And while most of them did indeed create some pretty epic content, it came at a high cost.

High On Life SundayFundayz, a group of four men from Canada and New Zealand who travel the world making videos of living life by the maxim, “if you can you should,” built a strong presence on social media with nearly 1 million Instagram followers and over 250k subscribers on YouTube. While on a tour around the U.S., they crossed marked boundaries and ignored well-posted signs forbidding their actions at Yellowstone National Park to walk up to the edge of Grand Prismatic Spring to take photos and video right next to the Spring. In the process, they trampled the delicate ecosystem and were soon reported to the National Parks Service, who launched an investigation of their actions. This resulted in the group fleeing to Canada and shutting down their social media accounts for nearly two months.  

High On Life’s brand wasn’t the only to be damaged: outraged followers called on their sponsors to pull all funding and sever any relationship. Bud Light was forced to issue a statement ending their relationship with High On Life due to the outcry. While High On Life did re-emerge on their social channels on July 11th, much has changed for them as influencers. They’ve lost backing from sponsors, alienated portions of their audience, and are facing legal action from their actions at a number of U.S. parks.

The issues exposed here transcend beyond the outdoors or travel. There are influencers copying the creativity and artwork of other innovators for their own gain and tone-deaf exchanges with fans.

The reality is that the current influencer market is incentivizing these content creators to be constantly pushing the envelope. Bigger, better, cooler. If they don’t do it, someone else will. While this can foster creativity in a saturated market, it can also encourage taking short cuts ethically and legally in pursuit of content. Brands want the best possible content, and influencers rely on the income. As influencer marketing continues to grow, this tension will only be magnified further.

Another factor at play here is the influencer’s potential distribution. Building an audience that’s engaged and valuable is a challenge, but it doesn’t mean the person behind it is responsible. This is a critical trait when you have a following the size of small to mid-size city. Actions that might be illegal or unethical that are shared by influencers on these platforms can be interpreted by an unknowing audience as acceptable or even enticing. Brands that sponsor them or collaborate with them can be guilty by association, deservedly or not. Bottom line: big audience equals big responsibility.

While influencer marketing certainly isn’t the right fit for every brand or situation, it’s a tactic that’s here to stay for now. Done properly, it’s possible for brands to get exposure with new audiences that align with their targeting goals and provide value to those audiences. For brands to be set up best to succeed in doing so, here are a few considerations to adhere to:

Vet your influencers. Treat this no differently than hiring for your company. Seek someone who not only has the audience you’re trying to reach and the creative chops to produce great work, but who also ethically aligns with your company. Culture matters. Keep this vetting in mind if you’re engaging with influencer agencies. Ask questions now. How are they vetting the influencers? Are they merely paying attention to metrics? See if you can have conversations with the influencers they’re recommending. Remember, the Internet has a short memory until it doesn’t -- working with an influencer who does something wrong well after your relationship has ceased can come back to haunt a brand.

Have clear expectations and communicate them. This is good practice in any marketing initiative, but sometimes the ask can be rather nebulous. Speaking from experience, I’ve had brands contact me with open briefs for “great content.” I always ask what they want, how they want it delivered, frequency, and their goals for the engagement. Clear expectations make it easier for an influencer to deliver and for you to evaluate the success.

Define what ROI means for the engagement. The return on investment you’re seeking through influencers might not be in sales, it might be followers, engagement, click-throughs, or merely filling out your content calendar. Regardless, define it and set metrics.

In the end, remember that your brand is at stake with these engagements, not just pristine landscapes or artistic intellectual property. Act accordingly.