Influencer marketing is in a bit of state, as marketing writer Morag Cuddeford-Jones shares and consumers need to be wary of the influencer siren song and may need to be saved from themselves


I’m a sucker for a bad luck story. Or more specifically, a ‘my purchase has gone horribly wrong’ story.

They’re some of the first columns I leap to in the newspapers. I relish reading about how some poor schmuck has been thoroughly done over by some dodgy dealer, and who is then rescued by some indefatigable journalist who goes to town on the company at hand. There’s usually complete restitution for said schmuck plus “a nominal sum for your inconvenience”.

That gets me to thinking. The guy that made it into print is probably only the tip of an iceberg-full of disgruntled customers, all shafted one way or another by the same or similar dodgy dealer. Where is their “small sum for their inconvenience”?

We can’t all rely on crusading hacks to sort out our poor purchasing decisions. Caveat emptor is really all we’ve got in our favor against the shysters, rogue traders and ne’er-d-o-wells lurking around every corner.

But then reviewers, influencers and user-generated content became a thing. Instead of a handful of hacks, thousands – millions – of keyboard warriors took up the cause. Now, the power of the collective is there at our fingertips to save us from expensive or simply embarrassing bad choices.

Sell a dodgy doll with a six-inch spike hidden in its torso, a slew of one-star reviews will soon see to that. Be absolutely the best at customer service, processing returns, solving problems and offering reliable, super-fast delivery? Lap up those five-star reviews buddy, you’ve earned every one. I just hope you’ve got a big enough team on board to cope with the tsunami of customers headed your way.

Of course, that still means that a good few customers have to suffer so you don’t have to. Although, the power of a crap review is often enough for most companies with even an iota of common PR sense and a desire to stay in business to do something about it.

Then there’s the influencer. They don’t mind suffering so you don’t have to because, well, they’re paid to. If not directly by the company that sends them the merch, then by the advertisers who support their YouTube, Twitch, Pinterest, Snap or Insta channels. Being paid to put up with a rubbish hairdryer or disappointingly parsimonious loot box deadens the pain. And we can give the dodgy stuff a swerve into the bargain.

The trouble is, influencing and reviewing is all a bit established, a bit professional now. Which means one thing: the rules are open to being bent.

Key to an influencer’s success was the fact that they were people like us. An ordinary Joe, parked in the corner of their bedroom with a wobbly webcam and a need to rant or rave about the latest thing. When big bucks got involved, the influencers became less ordinary, the topics of their rants less stumbled upon, more provided. And the rants themselves became fewer, the raves more numerous and more lucrative – and perhaps a little less honest?

Key to an influencer’s success was the fact that they were people like us. An ordinary Joe, parked in the corner of their bedroom with a wobbly webcam and a need to rant or rave about the latest thing.

Similarly, online reviews began losing their cachet when it became clear that a huge number of dodgy products were being propped up online by massive five-star ‘review farms’. Platforms put in checks and balances of course, but as with almost everything online, the crooks always seem to be that little bit ahead.

So there I am, in a sea of stuff propped up by reviews, articles, endorsements, wondering who to trust. If there were still cons playing find the lady on street corners, I’d be the easiest mark. I’ll believe pretty much anything of anyone. You just need to say ‘this is the latest dress’ or ‘this hairdryer made my hair quite dry’ and I’ll be whipping out the plastic before you can say Consumer Credit Act.

Basically, I need to be protected from myself as, I imagine, do millions of otherwise sane human beings who lose all reason when presented with shiny, shiny things. Without a shopping Nanny sitting at my side all day long, I have to set myself some rules. First, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Second, no consumer champion always wakes up to smashed avo on toast, green tea in a perfect bone china cup, artfully arranged on a five-star super king bed. If it’s too pretty, it’s a promo and it’s paid.

Thirdly, look for companies that invest in themselves and their customers. Yes, this means they’re hardly likely to be at the bargain bucket end of the price range (see the First rule) but it also means they’re invested in their product, their service and their reputation. And if the customers or users that support them do seem to be ordinary Joes like you and me, then I reckon there’s a better chance they’re the real deal.

..consistency, reliability and believability are all at the heart..

That doesn’t mean companies have to be purposefully amateurish to be believable. Take Slimming World for example. That’s a business almost entirely dependent on the success of former members and their stories to acquire new ones. It has built a magazine empire, diet club, food publishing and product range almost entirely on the back of user-generated content. And it’s a slick operation with 5,000 recipes available on multiple platforms, 1.3m recipe books sold a year and 30,000 images being shared across print, magazines, brochures, ads and more – and there’s some great insight here as to how it achieves this. But consistency, reliability and believability are all at the heart of it.

So yes, shoppers, in many ways it can be a wild west out there. But by looking to companies that choose to invest in their customers, rather than scrape the biggest margin out of them, is a good way of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

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