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Can you buy influence?

Many so-called influencers use their online profiles as full-time employment, thereby becoming ultra-commercial showcasing platforms that anyone can buy into. But is it still hip, does it influence and are there still any real influencers out there?

Recently, several media outlets – including Danish broadcast TV2 – reported how the organisation Beltretter used young Instagram and YouTube profiles to help their fight against the Fehmarnbelt Fixed Link project, a  road and rail tunnel between Denmark and Germany. In the midst of the profiles’ posts for hair products, bikini selfies and workout outfits, protest videos suddenly popped up, featuring warnings about the planned road and rail tunnel that will be built under the Baltic Sea.

The use of influencers has long been the hip way of reaching the younger generation, which has increasingly turned away from traditional media forms. At the beginning, this phenomenon was something of a communication mystery – what was the best way to get young internet stars to endorse your product so their followers would think it was cool?

Today, the influencer phenomenon has long been professionalised. Professional influencers make a living from their online profiles and manage them – just like any other job. Agents and agencies are now also involved,  ensuring the stars (and themselves) get paid. Close attention is paid to the smallest detail and there are often precise publication requirements to be met for every single sponsorship.

Followers are not stupid

You have to admire the Danish Consumer Ombudsman, tasked with the job of trying to keep up with developments and with creating rules in this area. But this area is a whole different ball game when it comes to separating content from advertising.

But haven’t followers figured out long ago that most of the content they see is paid advertising, and that these days they are being influenced in much the same way as when celebrities are used in TV commercials?

It spreads the message and creates attention. But we are well aware that George Clooneys enthusiasm for Nespresso is more driven by the pay check – or perhaps even to spy on Omar al-Bashir – rather than love of the Nespresso brand. We also know that we will never become as cool as George if we drink Nespresso.

And the influence of the paid influencers didn’t exactly cause the consortium building the Fehmarnbelt Fixed Link to shake in their boots either:

  • “I think it speaks volumes that they had to pay actors and influencers to protest against the Fehmarn tunnel. It just confirms what we thought in the first place: there’s no truth to the myth there’s widespread opposition to the Fehmarn tunnel in Germany. Whenever we attend meetings in Northern Germany, we see widespread and increasing support for the Fehmarn project,” says Tine Lund-Bretlau, Head of Communications at Femern A/S, to TV2 ØST.

Advertising space you can buy from a media agency

So let’s put an end to this mystique once and for all. The professional influencers have killed off their original power to influence. Simply because authenticity has been eliminated in pursuit of commercial gain.

There are no fancy fashion week tricks. Professional influencers are considered as advertising space on a par with any other commercial media. The only difference is that they are carried solely by a single person’s ability to attract followers. We might find that ability somewhat enchanting. But as a professional communicator, you can safely ditch the starstruck hype and focus on the raw data; follower segment, advertising price and match between influencer/medium and the message.

Two types of influencers

However, there is another group of influencers who don’t use their online profiles as their primary workplace. Their income isn’t based on the advertising revenue from their profiles – although they are usually just as professional in their approach. For as sports stars, actors, radio hosts, TV types or fashion icons, they are naturally aware of how they appear, act and look after their fans. Yes, even if you’re an accountant who has gained a huge following because you share amazing running tips, then of course you are very aware of what you are posting.

But the major and crucial difference is that they are not primarily driven by a financial interest. They have an online presence because it is in their interest to be in dialogue/communicate with their fans. And as such, they also have a profile that is not only defined online, but which has deeper and wider roots.

Although you can of course enter into a major sponsorship deal with a sports star who will include posts on their online profile, you can’t buy your way to getting their support against a project like the Fehmarnbelt Fixed Link or advertising for a specific hair shampoo.

Brand match and good old-fashioned dialogue

When we work with influencers, it is always based on the fundamental rule that there has to be a good match between the influencer and the product or message. In other words, it is an absolute requirement that there has to be a personal and honest commitment; that the influencer must personally think it is so cool or right that he or she wants to be involved in making a post about it.

It doesn’t just require a good match between the person and the product/message, it also requires a dialogue about the story – what’s behind it and surrounding it. This also means we cannot make rigid demands on the number or nature of the posts. It is not about influence data, because it is not advertising in the traditional sense. It is the dissemination and commitment to a shared good story between brand/product, media (in this case a person) and its audience.

It’s rather like good old-fashioned PR; a message has to be created with an engaging story around it. It is communicated (or pitched if you like) to a third party, who has to buy into the story and find it so interesting that they want to pass it on. And this is where it is crucial that the dissemination is not strictly controlled by a standard advertising template, but is naturally integrated into the media/person’s own flow of stories.

We believe this is more authentic and relevant than paid advertising space. And we are totally convinced that it provides far more ‘influence value’.

Of course, you can easily add some advertising with influencers in your mix. But it is just harder to get a brand match with someone who is primarily known for being known, rather than someone who is already a strong brand in himself/herself.

PS – Whatever we choose to call it, you still have to remember that posts needs to be marked as advertising. The rules may not be good, but they are relatively clear.

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