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Photographers Vs. Social Media Influencers: How To Defend Yourself.

Updated: Jul 11, 2019

"In a world were everyone is an one is an Influencer."

I've been thinking about the role social media Influencers and photographers lately and planned on writing some thoughts about it. Then, over the past few days I saw a string of news items pop up concerning this topic, so I thought... what better time than now.

If you are a photographer and have any sort of presence online, it's only a matter of time before you'll receive solicitations from "Influencers." At this point, the role of a social media Influencer is becoming a bit overplayed, and we'll get to more on that in a bit, but in case you've had your head buried in the sand the past few years I'll give a brief Reader's Digest condensed version of this recent phenomenon.

The social media universe has expanded exponentially over the past few years into this ever consuming entity which none of us could have imaged would have existed even a decade ago. People are consumed with their phones and other electronic devices and spend huge chunks of their day with eyeballs on a screen. The website Statista estimates nearly 80% of all Americans have a presence on social media. That's literally hundreds of millions of people in the United States, and expands out to nearly 2.34 billion people globally. That's a lot of people!

With all those eyeballs focused daily on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, it's an obvious target for monetization. Naturally, these billions of social media consumers have created a market for billions of dollars in marketing and advertising opportunities.

It's no wonder businesses are trying to leverage this sheer number of users for profit purposes. As social media has matured and grown, we saw the emergence of the social media Influencer. I, personally hate that term, but we'll roll with it for conversation purposes.

Influencer marketing is hardly a new concept. Companies have been using pro athletes, actors and other celebrities for years to promote products and services. What's new about this is the recent rise of social media and a new more modern version of an "Influencer." Companies realized that many of these home grown social media stars had a reach that even went beyond what a celebrity promoter may have--in a few different ways. Using a intimate platform such as Facebook or Instagram, it gave the sense these "Influencers" were somehow more in touch with their audiences than traditional Influencer marketing. Not only that-- there seemingly appeared to be more of a "trust" of social media Influencers, so a recommendation by one of these folks seemed to carry a lot more weight than a typical TV or radio advertisement. Because of this "trust" an Influencer has the ability to drive eyeballs to a companies website and increase exposure. That's what lead to companies trying to harness the power of the new breed of social media Influencers.

This, of course, sounds great for all parties involved, and the rush for companies to get in on the social media marketing bandwagon took off. On the consumer side, Every-day aspirational social media users would see (or what at least appeared to be) other social media users like themselves suddenly getting brand deals and promoting products. Soon, it seemed (almost) everyone was angling to position themselves as an "Influencer." This, of course, was all tempered by the dreams of earning large amounts of money, getting free sponsored product, and also one of the most sought after rewards-- the lure of social media fame. As opportunistic as people are, the scramble for hordes of people to become social media Influencers was on!

There are a select few social media users who really put in the hard work to gain the coveted Influencer label and succeeded. That hard work, along with a great personality and a savvy online presence have enabled some to build up huge followings and prosper in their new found roles. The sentiment in the social media universe was anyone could do it! We were all just all a few booty shots away from success. Free luxury vacations were just a few followers away! It seems to be all cookies and cream, but in any gold-rush type situation there are always possible dangers. As it turned out, fake social media Influencers were (and are) popping up everywhere. Companies were so eager to get a piece of this marketing pie that they'd throw ad dollars at these fake influencers, who aren't quite what they presented themselves to be.

Fake Influencers try to game the system by purchasing fake followers, fake likes, and they even post fake sponsored content to fool legitimate advertisers into thinking they are "Influencer worthy." They what? They fake brand deals. There are plenty of examples of wanna-be Influencers posting fake sponsored content using the old "fake it to you make it" method. Users would scroll through their feeds and see posts for products or local venues that for all purposes appear to be paid content... but aren't.

This appears to be extremely strange behavior on the surface, but it's wildly prevalent. Prevalent to the point where it can be difficult to tell a real sponsored post from a fake one... Why? Why would otherwise normal people do this? Well, part of it is people are desperate to succeed in the role, but there is also an aspect of this that is pure vanity and the need to appear more popular online to friends and followers than you really are. You've probably even seen it. That photo of the wanna be Influencer holding a coffee cup in a local coffee shop-- just so-- and the obligatory "OMG! --Love my @Rooks coffee..." with tags to official company profiles. The thinking on the wannabe is Gee, if I post a photo of myself sitting here looking like I'm getting paid to drink coffee I'll impress my friends and followers..

The Influencer Backlash

It all seems harmless... but these Influencers are on the offensive! What sparked my interest in this topic was reading an article roughly around last Christmas about a resort owner who was fed up with "Influencers" offering to pay with "exposure," and the resort owner took to social media himself to plead for these people to stop...and just bring cash. In actuality, there is a big backlash in the resort business where self proclaimed "Influencers" drive resorts crazy asking for, or even in some cases demanding free stays. A quick Google News search will reveal lots of these stories.

Last week I read a great story about an ice cream truck owner who was so sick of the same behavior-- people approaching his business and wanting free product because they were "Influencers" and were going to promote him on social media. The owner was so fed up with the antics he posted a sign in his vehicle that "Influencers Pay Double." What a great move!

CVT Soft Serve owner Joe Nicchi is making Instagram influencers pay double for his ice cream. Joe Nicchi

This is also something that happens in the photography space, as well. Petapixel recently had an article about someone who identified themselves as a PR person contacting a wedding photographer and more or less demanded free coverage for a client "Influencer's" wedding. The full exchange between the targeted photographer and the agent of the influencer can be read on their blog post. The photographer didn't feel there much value in it for them, and politely tried to decline the "offer" and were pounced on by the Influencers PR person. "Team Influencer" didn't like the idea of the photographer questioning their offer, and threatened to social shame them. Not cool. This story did get some traction online, as well.