Influencer marketing suffers not just from the problems of fake followers and viewability, but from a lack of credibility, as I proved when I paid influencers to make a picture of my posterior go viral.

The First Circle of Bullshit: Are the followers real?

It will come as no surprise to seasoned marketers that the first challenge of influencer marketing is working out just how many of your influencers’ circle of friends actually exist. In space, no one can hear you scream; in social media, no one knows if your audience is half a million receptive eyeballs or a mainframe north of Shenzhen run by a man with a limp called Abdul.

Whether your chosen influencer operates via Twitter, Instagram or any one of the many platforms susceptible to influence, there are always going to be questions about fake followers.

The Second Circle of Bullshit: Are influencers trusted?

I know what you are thinking: isn’t the ‘trusted’ circle the same as the ‘real’ circle? No. In social media land you have to first establish if someone is human and then, and this is the tricky bit, work out if their message is genuine enough to result in believability. The fact that an influencer is messaging a fellow human does not mean that their message is automatically perceived to be genuine. How many of the followers actually believe what their influencer is telling them about products and services?

influencer marketing

In a recent survey by social analytics firm Shareable, only 37% of adults aged 25 to 34 and 55% of those aged 18 to 24 agreed that they trusted what influencers on social media told them. A similar study that examined influencers found similar levels of distrust on the sender’s side too. Advertising agency Carmichael Lynch found that 23% of influencers admitted they did not feel authentic about the brand-sponsored content they were paid to post and 15% said they did not even like – let alone genuinely recommend – the brand doing they posted about.

Those are pretty drastic numbers and I wanted to test the degree to which influencers are capable of recommending or posting literally anything for money. I found a firm that sells influencer marketing called Shoutcart, based in Portland, Oregon. The online agency offers global access to micro-influencers (those operating with less than 100,000 followers).

Micro-influencers are held up as better value and more authentic by many influencer marketers, so they were an ideal sample to test. They are also a lot cheaper to hire and as I was playing with my own money this was a big advantage – a bit like running genetic experiments on fruit flies rather than marmosets.

Next, I selected my influencers from Shoutcart’s user-friendly list. I wanted broad reach but also a range of cost levels. So, in the end, I selected 30 suitably impressive influencers who each claimed between 10,000 and 100,000 followers. I was looking for the lowest possible form of influence – a single post on their Instagram accounts – and for that service, my influencers charged between $1 and $40 (£30).

That’s at the very low end of the scale. The average micro-influencer charges closer to £200 per sponsored message and big hitters with more than 500,000 followers can ask for up to £3,000 per post. Selena Gomez, the “queen of the influencers” is rumoured to ask in excess of £400,000. Rosanna Pansino (me neither) demands millions apparently.

I gave my new influencer army a very tight deadline and asked for my post to occur within 12 hours. Not surprisingly, a significant number of my influencers – 12 of them – simply did not see my request in time. But that still left me with a (highly unrepresentative) sample of 18 influencers who did receive my request.

How many of these 18 influencers really had the source credibility to deliver messages that were authentic and in line with their audience interests and their own genuine outlook? And how many were happy to post any old crap for money and had probably lost all audience trust months ago? For this I needed to find something so ridiculous, so esoteric, that only a total sell-out would take the dollar and post it to their followers.

I decided that the best option would be to take a picture of my arse (obviously) and ask my 18 newly recruited influencers to post it on their Instagram feeds with a complementary comment. I took the photo (shown above in all its glory) and then pixelated it using a graphics program from 1996. The resulting image was then titled ‘The Colour of Influence’ and I asked my new-found influencer army to proclaim it “amazing” or “my best work ever”.

How many of the influencers would lower themselves to that standard within the 12-hour time limit I set them? How many would refuse the commission and prove themselves trustworthy and credible? Would my bottom become a new social media sensation that would propel me to global arse-driven fame? A Kardashian, if you will, for the marketing industry. In just 12 hours’ time I would find out.

In the end, of the 18 influencers who considered my proposal, 10 (56%) took the money and posted a giant picture of my arse to their Instagram followers while proclaiming it to be a work of staggering genius. The other eight (45%) rejected my indecent proposal. You can read this outcome either way. On the one hand it should be deeply troubling that a marketing medium that positions itself on authenticity and credibility is dominated by influencers who will literally post anything and say anything you ask of them. On the other, I am quietly impressed that 45% of the influencers rejected the proposal and preserved their digital dignity – and, one would assume, their influence too.

Again, this is nowhere near the sample needed to make any enduring conclusions, but the results of my experiment and the fact that 45% of the sample refused to participate in it aligns with the bigger and broader studies of influencer trust. The survey of 1,200 American consumers last year by Shareable concluded that, in total, 38% of followers trusted what influencers told them.

Let’s take that number as our measure for the Second Circle of Bullshit and apply that 38% trust threshold across our messaging. We lost 40% of our audience in the First Circle, but of the 60% of human audience members remaining, only 38% will trust the messages emanating from our influencer.

Are you, dear reader, human? Did you actually see this column and make it to the end? Do you trust me? And does my case, built from flimsy data and a giant pixellated image of my bottom, influence your way of thinking?

Or have I just made a massive arse of myself?

Thanks to Marketing Week