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Gulf brands feeding scourge of social media influencers

Models present creations at London Fashion Week last year. From fashion to travel, influencers are increasingly important marketing channels for brands — but are they getting too big for their boots? (Reuters)
LONDON: Entitled brats or slick personal brands? Public relations liabilities or effective marketing tools? Influencers, or those who have the power — usually through social media — to affect people’s purchasing decisions, are back in the spotlight thanks to the naming and public shaming of British YouTuber Elle Darby.
The 22-year-old requested a free four-night stay at a Dublin hotel in exchange for coverage on her social media channels, only for owner Paul Stenson to post her request on Twitter and Facebook and attack Darby’s lack of “self-respect and dignity.” He subsequently banned all influencers from his establishments.
In the ensuing media maelstrom — in which Stenson was accused of cyber-bullying — the role of influencer marketing has been questioned. Why pander to the whims and desires of free-loaders? What value do they add to brands? Are we living in a world of influencer entitlement?
“Unfortunately we are,” said Shamim Kassibawi, MENA CEO at The SMC Group, a global rights procurement firm that specializes in develop- ing relationships between brands and rights holders. “Brands and consumers need to understand that celebrities and influencers are not the same.
“Celebrities are famous because they have some sort of talent which gave them a career. Influencers are famous sometimes for the way they look. We used to worry about teenagers opening magazines and wanting to be like the women in them — images that have been edited by an art director. Now we worry about them going through accounts on Instagram and wanting to be like these girls who are sitting at home editing their Instastories and snaps.”
Kassibawi, who is also the founder of Dubai-based PR firm Spread Communications and specializes in matching brands with talent, has experienced numerous cases of entitlement first-hand.
“I keep reminding myself not to make the wrong person famous,” she said. “I want brands and agencies to
think, ‘If my daughter turned out to be like one of these influencers, would I be happy?’ If your answer is yes, then go ahead and work with that person.
“We are empowering the wrong people; wrong for our society, wrong for our culture. I want you to name five influencers in our region who are famous for their education or research. Anything other than their looks. We are obsessed with contouring, rather than reading a book.”
An increasing number of young people, however, see being a social media influencer or a YouTube star as a potential career choice, said Taghreed Oraibi, senior PR director at the communications agency BPG Cohn & Wolfe. It is easy to see why. Influencers are big business, and perhaps nowhere more so than in fashion, beauty and travel.
Millions of dollars will be spent this year on fashion shoots, influencer trips, paid posts and content deals, and the spending shows no sign of slowing down. Free clothes, free hotels, free dinners, even payment of thousands of dollars for a single Instagram post (much higher if you are in the big league and have millions of followers), are all part of the influencer dream. A dream that has led to a seemingly never-ending surge in wannabe influencers.
“What disappoints us as PR professionals is being faced with personalities who are in the business for the sole purpose of making money and nothing more,” said Oraibi. “For example, I am personally disappointed by some influencers who request financial compensation for promoting a social and worthwhile cause that is purely non-commercial.”
Is the influencer bubble likely to burst any time soon?
“One hundred percent,” replied Kassibawi. “There is no way this will last. Their rates are insane. We are cutting out professional journalists who have studied for years and replacing them with young ladies that know how to edit their social media pictures. We are creating a society where 18-year- olds are getting Botox and fillers. This is not OK. I want brands to be smart with their money, set the KPIs (key performance indicators) and not take nonsense from influencers.”
Yet brands show no sign of pulling back. A survey conducted by BPG Cohn & Wolfe in partnership with YouGov last year revealed that 94 percent of
in-house marketers in the UAE believe influencer marketing is significant for the success of their brands. And accord- ing to the Social Media Influencer Report released last week by The Online Project, a full-service digital agency working with brands in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Jordan, influencer marketing budgets are set to go up in 2018 as it increasingly becomes a “pay-to-play” game.
“It’s easy to tar influencers with the same brush based on negative stories, but there are also a lot of hardworking, talented people out there who have put in a lot of effort to be where they are,” said Khazmin Jumain, social content manager at advertising agency FP7/DXB. “For these folks, we have to appreciate the work they’ve done to reach that level. Just because their success is on social media doesn’t make it of less value.”
For Farah Shaer, content manager at UM Studios, part of the problem lies in an unclear evaluation system that allows the good, the bad and the entitled to be treated equally. It is this issue, along with others such as authenticity, relevance, measurement and effectiveness, that threatens influencer marketing.
“In this day and age, what creates real influence is genuine content where brands and influencers have built relationships that create real endorsements,” said Shaer.
It is creating those real endorsements, weeding out the freeloaders, and transparency that will be key to the longevity of influencers.
“The bubble won’t burst,” said Jumain. “It will evolve to be more grounded on results. It’s no longer about paying someone with one million followers just to repost your brand’s photo on Instagram or talk about your product on YouTube. Brands are realizing that a large fan- base isn’t everything (especially as followers can be bought), and that’s why micro-influencers have been trending recently. These are influencers whose audiences are smaller (though still sizeable) but can be more loyal and engaging.
“So influencer wannabes will realize that if they are serious, it’s not only about chasing numbers but also about maintaining and engaging with their community, and creating interesting content to keep people coming back. Not all of them will be able to commit to that kind of demand.”