The Rise Of “Stealth Social”

We all knew this day was coming…


And no doubt there’ll be many more to come.

The rise of social influencers as channels through which brands can pay to reach consumers has brought with it a waft of legal grey areas and loop-holes that all of us are rapidly trying to work through.

But there are deeper issues at play here: did we swap one Murdoch-empire-owned traditional media landscape we mistrust, for another that we will equally mistrust, when we all learn just how sneakily we’ve been “sold to” by the girls next door?



Stealth Social

The news story on Friday was in relation to one of my favourite modern agencies; Social Chain.

What they’re doing – combining mass influence in social media campaigns across multiple popular accounts is new and creative and fun and clever (read more background on them here).

It’s not just me that thinks so, either. They count global powerhouses like Universal Pictures, Apple, McDonalds and Puma on their client roster.

I’ve engaged with young founder Steve Bartlett online for many months, he’s excellent at social media personally and his business is growing across continents to become one of the biggest players in the Social Media Marketing industry.


What they’re doing is genius.

It’s also, unfortunately, treading a fine line with the Advertising Standards rules. Because if we’re being sold a product or even just a hashtag, by a celebrity or a parody account, without knowing they’ve been paid to talk about it… well they say that’s just not fair.

Influencer Marketing has risen to prominence precisely because it works. We look to individual icons and peers now for guidance on where to go, what to wear, the latest trends, because we no longer trust big brands with their Photoshopped advertising and their false promises.

And we don’t trust our media either. They’ve done things that err on the wrong side of ethical, and the knowledge of who owns what and the political leanings of each news outlet has now filtered down into the public psyche.

Social media, we believe, is the media we all create and control.

So we consume it with more trust.

But should we?


The End of Influencer Marketing

I’m not going to click-bait with a headline like this, namely because on the surface I don’t believe it to be fully true.

However, I do believe that Influencer Marketing as we’ve known it, is ending.

For the first few years it was all “find the biggest followings” and “throw money at it.” As the fairy dust of Instagram settles, stories are beginning to appear from Marketers and PRs alike as they realise that the Return on Investment just wasn’t stacking up.

Add to that the fact that the regulators are coming down hard on the bloggers and “Instacelebs”, resulting in a raft of #ad and #spon posts and you have a heady mix for cynicism and backlash from a once-loyal mass audience.


For me personally, the cynicism is growing as a consumer, because I see the truth behind the scenes. And I’m still annoyed with myself when I get sucked in…


For example, one blogger in particular had posted about a self-tan range and – as a fan of the fake stuff myself – I rushed to buy it. 

A few weeks later I was told that someone knew the blogger had been paid by the company to promote it.


Which is fine of course. But not a single post that I saw about that product was labelled as sponsored content.

Now the thing is, the tan worked great for me. I have since bought another bottle. But do I think less of both the blogger and the brand now?

Yes, unfortunately.

Alongside the issues of transparency and trust, I think many brands and marketers are also cottoning on to the fact that many of these influencers actually yield very little… well, influence.

For example, I can take one lifestyle blogger’s Facebook following and compare it to mine. My audience is minuscule in comparison! But my engagement rate is nine times higher.

We now know that this is much more important if you want to actually sell your wares.



The Rise of Content Marketing

Now as a blogger myself, albeit not to the same degree as most, I absolutely believe that content creators should be rewarded for their work. Their engaged audiences are worth paying to reach. BUT (it’s a big but)…

Influencer Marketing and Content Marketing are, currently, two very different things. Yet they shouldn’t be.

Of course we can’t all be the next GoPro with an abundance of quality User Generated Content (UGC) to populate social channels without significant investment and a dedicated team of videographers and photographers.

But brands are learning that they can achieve more by giving up their “in-your-face” ad channels and stepping into the background, partnering with existing influencers to create some really good content in a more subtle way.

The Mum’s Eye View YouTube channel by supermarket ASDA is the perfect blend of brand-owned channel, influencer partnerships and UGC. It now boasts some 180,000 subscribers, reaching a mass target audience weekly.


Likewise big YouTube vloggers are partnering with global brands such as Land Rover and Always, to go on trips and host channel take-overs, really bringing a story and experience to their viewers, thus retaining their audience’s buy-in.


For now though, we live in an age of terrible influencer sponsorship masquerading as Content Marketing. This is just one of many bad examples lurking among the 2,834,309 posts currently listed on Instagram as #ad…


Brands are going to have to do better, pay more money to less people, and be strategic in their approach to such partnerships. It’s not a quick win.

Likewise, bloggers in particular, who have built their followings not through fame but through sheer hard work and authenticity, will need to turn down more quick paydays in order to ensure they only engage in projects that will enhance and not damage their precariously-young brand images.

There are, after all, plenty of ways to monetise blogs, YouTube channels and websites without selling out on your content.


So How Do We Do Influencer Marketing Now?

We’re all going to have to work harder now to get past the cynicism barrier upon viewing the fact that it’s paid-for content, to a point where the audience still feels they have gained something in exchange for their time.

They have to feel that the influencer earned whatever was paid. That the authenticity of content, creation and personality has been retained.

And online monetisation is diversifying, so we can see now that social campaigns don’t have to be stealth to both fund influencers campaigns and retain authenticity.

Just look to the accounts of content creators like “Sailing La Vagabonde“:


Using the online sponsorship system Patreon, these global explorers/travel vloggers are earning $7,084 per video, not from brand sponsorship, but from ordinary people who are prepared to fund them to continue their journey so that they can continue to enjoy their content.

In much the same way they pay a Netflix subscription, for example.

This, and systems like this, are one way content creators who genuinely do create and are passionate, can fund their work without “selling out” to advertisers.

As for those who have influence for little more than being a pretty face or appearing on a reality TV Show?

I don’t believe they hold much influence now to be honest. We want to see into their lives. We don’t necessarily buy every product they take a selfie with.

Personally, I wonder how they’ll continue to keep audiences engaged and entertained as they – and those audiences – grow out of their teens/20s.

But it’ll probably be worth watching, even if it’s not worth paying to see!