Let’s Unpack: #Spon Fatigue and The Next Generation of Influencers

Last year, I wrote an article on nude selfies running amok on my Instagram feed. ‘When did regular girls blessed with amazing bodies start posing with their arses out on a daily basis?’ I asked. I was tired of booty shots and the strategically placed lace wedgie, it felt overdone and eye-rollingly out of context. But lately, there’s another Kardashian-effect grievance bubbling up in the world of Instagram: the constant clutter of paid social media posts.

Somewhere along the line of Kim K lookalikes promoting detox-tea, and reality TV contestants with Boohoo collaborations and discount codes, we’ve grown tired of #SPON. ‘Influencer marketing’ has gone from buzzword to dirty word in a few short years.

That’s not to say it’s no longer happening, quite the opposite. A tidy $1 billion was spent on Instagram-influencer marketing last year. But we’re no longer buying the BS. Our spidey senses tingle at the mere suggestion of paid content and influencer fatigue has well and truly kicked in. * scrolls past another diet-tea post *

Pondering the fickle marketing landscape, I wondered what had all gone wrong in the murky world of sponsored content. Was it merely a case of oversaturation? Or were consumers increasingly seeing through gimmicky paid posts? The train-wreck that was Fyre Festival comes to mind. The famously failed music festival held in the Bahamas paid Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin and Emily Ratajkowski (aka the influencers of the moment) to promote the event on their Instagram account. And when punters arrived at a dump descending into hellish chaos, we all watched with fascination as the cringe-worthy events played out on our feeds. This was influencer marketing gone very, very wrong. It also represented everything that sucked about paid content: it was disingenuous, inauthentic and exploitative. But far from Ms. Jenner’s millions of followers, trouble was bubbling at grassroots level…

It didn’t take long for us to grow sick of the lack of transparency in paid content – where were the #ad hashtags goddamnit?! It’s not that there’s anything wrong with sponsored content, but trying to make it look like brands haven’t paid you to create content on their behalf…? That’s worse than ‘I just woke up like this.’ So we learnt the hard way, foraging through sponsored posts dressed up as authentic content until we grew tired of playing the detective and trying to discern between the genuine and the commercial.

Screengrab from an advert for Fyre Fest, featuring model Bella Hadid. Photograph: YouTube/Fyre Festival

And then late last year, Instagram introduced a new labelling system to increase transparency, confirming the reality of #Spon fatigue. The launch came after government bodies (like the UK’s CMA and the FTC in the US) issued reminders to brands and ambassadors, warning them about necessary disclosures. But without legal requirements, policing influencer marketing remains virtually impossible.

So what of the future of paid content? With the influencer industry set to grow to $10 billion by 2020, #Spon dying a death seems as unlikely as Kim K herself becoming irrelevant. Maybe we would all like it, but the money (and there’s lots of it) speaks otherwise.

But if the influencer isn’t dying, the old ways of paid content certainly are. In 2018, smarter brands are beginning to look beyond social stats. It’s becoming less about how many followers you have and more about who your followers are. Having the right demographic (e.g. people with good spending power who appeal to brands) is the new bread and butter of influencer marketing. Simply paying a girl to post a one-off photo with a product is an outdated initiative. That type of marketing just isn’t cutting the mustard with youth culture; the generation that grew up on social media can see through anything they consider inauthentic.

One-off posts are being replaced by long-term collaborations with brands that better serve both influencer (wanting long-running contracts and a consistent income) and audience (wanting consistency and authenticity). A great example of this is the #Mangogirls campaign, which enlists bloggers and influencers across the globe to pick their favourite Mango pieces and Instagram themselves wearing them, with all the requisite hashtags. The list of ‘Mango girls’ – which includes Julia Restoin Roitfeld, Giorgia Tordini and Gilda Ambrosio – are chosen not for their number of followers but for their ‘fit’ with the brand. Essentially this means that posts sponsored by Mango don’t look any different to the type of non-paid content usually produced by bloggers and influencers (aside – crucially – from the clear signposting), which is the way it should be – staying ‘on-brand’ is akin to staying true to yourself. Nobody wants a sellout.

And sure, every influencer at the top of her game knows that the top dollar comes from the less desirable, commercial brands. But now that everyone with a smartphone and a social media presence can be considered an ‘influencer,’ integrity is becoming more important than monetary value. Just like sponsored content that isn’t declared as such loud and clear, off-brand promotions lose the respect of an audience well-initiated into the game of brand alliances and paid content. Today’s successful influencer will see past the dollar signs and strategise, negotiating contracts on their own terms, to suit their own needs and audience.

2018 might be the year that all sponsored Instagram posts are properly signposted, but it certainly won’t be the year that the influencer died.

How do you feel about the relationship between influencer, paid content and authentic endorsement? Do you feel duped or helped by it? Comment below!