The following is a guest post from Evy Wilkins, VP of marketing at Traackr, an influencer marketing platform. Opinions are the author's own.
This summer has been packed with news about prominent companies facing Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigations due to their "irresponsible" use of influencer marketing. Last week, news broke that the FTC will investigate Juul's supposed use of influencers in potentially deceptive marketing targeted at minors. In June, Sen. Richard Blumenthal requested an FTC investigation into the use of influencers in "misleading, predatory marketing practices" by detox tea companies such as Flat Tummy Co., Lyfe Tea, BooTea, MateFit and Fit Tea.
Meanwhile, e-commerce fashion company Revolve, raised $212 million in a stunning initial public offering. Both Revolve and detox tea companies are known to rely heavily on influencer marketing; however, the different strategies they've employed have landed them in vastly different positions as brands.
The way marketers work with influencers to reach target customers can directly make or break a brand.
How detox tea companies got influencer marketing wrong
In his petition, Blumenthal specifically cites influencer marketing as the key questionable marketing practice that "[takes] advantage of young people's insecurities" and utilizes the "power of celebrities on social media platforms to endorse their products."
Working with celebrities isn't inherently bad for brands. But when content becomes formulaic and lacks authenticity, the relationship shifts toward traditional advertising and away from true brand affinity. For example, data shows that while celebrity influencers don't post about detox tea companies often, they typically share a handful of posts to satisfy contract quotas. In addition, 51% of all posts about detox tea companies from influencers are paid, compared to Revolve's lower 2.36% rate of paid influencer posts.
The low frequency of posts and lack of organic mentions signals that the relationship between detox tea brands and celebrity influencers represent more traditional advertising — not influencer marketing. True influencer marketing focuses on relationship-building, solidifying brand affinity and encouraging authentic messaging. These detox tea campaigns show few of those qualities and are more akin to digital billboards where brands can "buy space" on a celebrity's instagram.
What Blumenthal and other vocal critics find questionable about these types of endorsements is that they fail to accurately describe how the teas work and don't list their potentially dangerous side effects, going against influencer marketing's core theme of authenticity and transparency.
How Revolve built a successful influencer-based company
Because of their power to shape public opinion, influencers and the companies that employ them are now held to higher standards. Detox tea companies are in hot water because of their lack of authenticity and transparency. In contrast, Revolve has become somewhat of a poster child for influencer-built brands that deliver on their promise.
When building your influencer marketing campaign, it's key to remember that popularity doesn't always mean influence. Just like a high number of ad impressions doesn't guarantee a high conversion rate, an influencer's popularity doesn't always mean they'll deliver high ROI. Plenty of influencers who have built large followings and get many likes on their posts are unable to inspire further action from their audiences. Arii became a walking example of this when she claimed she was unable to sell 36 T-shirts among 2.6 million followers during the launch of her clothing brand.
Revolve has focused on building lasting relationships with up-and-coming influencers. In a recent interview, Chief Brand Officer Raissa Gerona revealed that the company's strategy centers on "building relationships with these influencers before there was even Instagram." In other words, its path to success and sustainable impact was built through a relationship-centric approach.
Instead of seeking out traditional star power, Gerona said Revolve focuses on identifying subject matter experts who drive customer inspiration and works with them to create unique and interesting campaigns. This is perhaps a reason why Revolve has seen success in achieving high engagement rates with audiences (approximately 3.68%), compared to a declining 1.82% engagement rate for BooTea, Fit Tea and Flat Tummy combined. The company has especially found success in partnering with influencers in experiential campaigns through branded events like "Revolve Festival" or "Revolve Around the World." There, the company can get immediate visibility through influencers' owned channels and continually strengthen the brand-to-influencer relationship, ultimately converting those influencers into brand advocates.
Underpinning Revolve's influencer marketing success is authenticity. Gerona says that when selecting influencers, it's important to make "sure that she has great engagement and making sure that she has that authentic connection with her fans."
As demonstrated by the backlash against detox teas and the influencers who promote them, brands must be authentic. This not only breeds successful marketing campaigns, it's also a vital way to ensure ethical marketing practices and consumer safety. For that authenticity to shine through, it's crucial for brands to identify and partner with knowledgeable influencers who are genuinely excited about the products, maintain a high audience quality and align with the brand's values.
Influencer marketing has the power to build or break brands. What makes the difference is a brand's ability to build direct and sustainable relationships with influencers who are truly versed in their industry and trusted by followers. For marketing teams building influencer programs, access to data and insights is the only way to win. Knowing which influencers and strategies are paying off will help you refine strategies, invest where it will have an impact and move this practice in the right direction.
It takes creativity, dedication and data to bring successful influencer relationships to life, but when done right, it gives brands an opportunity to connect with customers on a significantly deeper and more personal level.