Authenticity on social media is in the zeitgeist, especially for brands and marketers grappling with their role in the space. At a recent roundtable event with social experts from The Drum Network, we asked what authenticity means for influencers and the brands they work with. How are expectations (and creators) changing shape – and how will the market change as TikTok continues its ascent?
Last month, Ogilvy announced that it will no longer work with influencers who edit their face or bodies in their ads. The move reflects a trend across social toward authenticity. Though reaction from influencer and marketing communities was mixed, few disagree that the field is expecting more transparency and honesty from creators.
While our panel are universal in their praise for social’s increased authenticity, they differ on how brands, marketers and regulators should encourage that shift. Chloe McCloskey, global head of social at inhousing agency Oliver, says that while “it’s a step toward our industry recognizing the role that we play in the problem … I don’t want this to become a blanket shunning of AR and filters.”
“Having fun in social is one of the best things about it,” McCloskey goes on. “It doesn’t have to be serious and conflicting all the time.”
Mollie Lyons, senior social manager at social specialist agency Wilderness, agrees: edited images can foster unrealistic and damaging body image, particularly for younger girls, but “is condemning influencers like this the right action?” Or will bans that put the onus on creators exacerbate those issues? “I think it may be more beneficial to get influencers to declare that a piece of content is filtered, because it still doesn’t stop influencers from filtering their images,” she says.
But declaration has its own pitfalls. Harry Hugo, co-founder at leading social shop The Goat Agency, worries that social creators might end up with stricter regulation than any other advertisers. “Why do influencers need to do that, and TV doesn’t? Every single ad on TV has some form of touching up. Declaration is a slippery slope for the industry.”
As we grapple with how to understand, communicate and regulate the software that allows creators to digitally ‘change’ their appearances, the industry itself has undergone a facelift.
On TikTok especially, we’re seeing the growth of micro-influencers building authentic connections with their audiences through specialist knowledge and engagement. As Natalie Carson, senior account manager at St Louis-based agency Coegi, puts it: “The gorgeous thing about influencer marketing is that there are hundreds of thousands of influencers, so there’s someone for everyone.”
Hyper-successful dancing teenagers still exist, and still play a huge role in the influencer marketing ecosystem, but there’s a growing constellation of viable small creators servicing niches pertinent to all sorts of brands. Take financial services: as Lauren McFarland, influencer marketing director at agency Journey Further, says: “I don’t understand my ISA but I do look to TikTok to understand what’s going on.”
It’s not just financial advice – the same goes for niche fan communities, or consumer product groups such as cleaning or travel. Finding these communities can be incredibly lucrative: Carson reports a 20% higher conversion rate with micro-influencers compared with more popular peers (others have reported up to 60%).
As a result, content creation standards are reaching maturity. The days of mega-popular YouTube stars offering very little in terms of content are on the way out, replaced both by micro-influencers and a new breed of stars with a better understanding of making captivating content (thanks in part, perhaps, to the ruthlessness of the TikTok scroll).
“There are very few influencers now who are successful who don’t create great content,” says Hugo. We’re seeing less and less bad content go viral, and now “content creation is everything.”
TikTok’s new way of doing things (whole-screen vertical video scrolling; an algorithm attuned to explosive virality; a keen focus on that viral content) lurks behind these developments. Facebook/Meta’s Instagram is reshaping itself in TikTok’s image, but it’s unclear to our panel whether the ship has sailed for Meta with young users. For George Gossland, social media producer (and bona fide gen Z TikTok creator) at Favoured, it’s simple: “TikTok will 100% kill Instagram.”
Of course, Meta’s sheer size means that we can’t discount them yet – but that same scale, Hugo says, might be what’s holding them back. “It’s so big, there’s so much politics involved, and there’s so much to think about when you’re running a global platform with a billion users. Creators went by the wayside, but I think they’re now realizing that to keep the audiences there, they need to keep the creators there.”
“Meta maybe rested on its laurels a tiny bit too much,” Hugo goes on. “TikTok blew up because it gave anybody the opportunity to go viral. It’s been impossible on Facebook for the last six or seven years to build a page from zero to 100,000 [followers] in a day, like we used to be able to do.”
On that our panel agrees: Instagram and Facebook aren’t dead yet – in fact, they remain dominant by virtually every metric. But navigating recent blips in performance may well require taking a page or two out of TikTok’s book.
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