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The march of the micro-influencers: why your friends are promoting toothpaste

When Kim Kardashian promotes a detox tea on social media, you know not to trust that her recommendation is authentic. But what happens when your best mate from primary school starts doing the same?

In the year 2000, Halifax Bank revolutionised advertising. In the place of an actor or a celebrity in its television adverts, it featured Howard Brown – a customer services representative from its Sheldon branch. Who gives you extra? Howard did. So much so that he beat both Britney Spears and Gary Lineker to become the star of the most-talked about advert in 2001. Advertising’s oldest adage, “sex sells”, had changed. Real people do.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this advertising technique has been updated for the digital age. Over the last decade, brands have begun using YouTubers and other social media “influencers” to market their products in a more "authentic" way. Yet when YouTubers become too big to be seen as a teen’s best friend, and the Advertising Standards Agency insists they mark all their adverts with #ad –meaning they lose their authenticity – what should a brand do?

“Personally I think that micro-influencers are appealing to brands because they are often the voice of the public, which is what we are trying to capture in campaigns,” says Melissa Wollard, a commercial manager at Fun Kids Radio, who has four years’ experience in sales.

“Micro-influencers” are ordinary people who are paid by brands to promote their products on social media. An array of websites and apps exist via which anyone can become a micro-influencer – BzzAgentInfluenster, PostForRent, and Buzzoole are just a few. Though the underlying concept is the same with each, some offer money while others offer free products. Some require individuals have thousands of social media followers to sign up, while others require as few as one.

“Celebrities are expensive and with the rise of traditional celebrities on social media, popularity can shift quickly. Having your brand associated with just one big name could be risky,” explains Woollard. Though Fun Kids Radio does not use micro-influencers, Woollard has noticed their rise. “You are spreading the word about your brand through lots of different ‘every day’ people in a seemingly organic way.”

Many posts by micro-influencers do seem incredibly organic, if a little raw. Take, for example, this clip of a man – who has 39 followers – brushing his teeth with Sensodyne toothpaste. “Lol u sound like a commercial promoting the tooth paste,” reads a comment on a similar Instagram post of a woman brushing her teeth.

This raises ethical questions.

“I think it's very important to be clear if you received something for free,” says Chloe Dakin, a 28-year-old primary school teacher who has 543 followers on her Instagram, on which she has promoted products such as face creams and temporary hair dye.

Dakin uses Bzzagent, a service which allows anyone to sign up for free products which they then post about on their social media channels. “You are obliged to post even if you don't like a product, but Bzzagent ask for honest reviews so if you don't like a product then people will write that,” explains Dakin. Though she feels it is “very important” that she is clear when she receives a product for free, she ultimately thinks that this behaviour is more important for celebrities or the “Instagram-famous”.

“They obviously have a lot more followers, and young impressionable people,” she says. It irritates her when celebrities post about diet pills on their Instagram when they clearly have personal trainers. Dakin herself doesn't "really feel like a micro-influencer" and insists "'m not sure how many of my followers would buy products just because I post them". Her friends do not seem perturbed by the move: "The people who generally like my posts still like or comment on these photos just as they would on my other photos.”

 

Detoxing with @fittea  it tastes amazing and the ingredients are all natural  #ad

A post shared by Kim Kardashian West (@kimkardashian) on

Dakin acts ethically in revealing she received her products for free, but this is also part of Bzzagent’s rules. Bzzagent influencers must disclose their affiliation with the hashtags “#GotItFree” or “#GotACoupon” and they even force users to undertake “disclosure training” if they fail to use the hashtags on three posts. Yet there are other services which arguably work less ethically – with many not requiring or enforcing the use of disclaimers. A lot of the responsibility thus falls to the micro-influencers themselves, who ultimately choose whether they add disclosures or not, and choose how prominent to make such disclaimers.

Aron Vitos is a 21-year-old student from Budapest who uses PostForRent – a website that connects micro-influencers and advertisers – to promote products on his Instagram. The company is located in Hong Kong but is popular with Hungarian brands (PostForRent did not respond to a request for comment as to why this might be). MKB Bank, for example, is a Hungarian bank that asks micro-influencers to take photos outside of its branches. These are then each captioned with the same words: “Mosolygok, mert jobban kezdődik az évem”, which translates as: “I smile, because my year started off better”. This is followed with the hashtags #mkbbank and #mosoly, which means “#smile”.

 

Mosolygok, mert jobban kezdődik az évem ;) #mkbbank #mosoly http://www.szemelyikolcson.szamoljonvelunk.hu

A post shared by Adam Sipos (@sipinhoo) on

“Up until now I have completed 14 campaigns of all sorts,” says Vitos. He explains his last post was the “most exciting”, as he got the chance to try out an expensive drone and then got paid for his posts. “It was really a unique experience and my favourite campaign so far.”

Vitos has been involved in several campaigns that involved going to a restaurant, getting a free meal, and then posting about it online – sometimes receiving an additional payment after the fact. He says he has worked for Costa, H&M, Forbes, and Vodafone. “The money varies from brand to brand but I get around £15 to £40 per post, which counts as a lot more in Hungary than, for example, in the UK. I couldn't live on it, but it is some extra pocket money that always comes in handy.”

Vitos varies between disclosing and not disclosing whether he was paid for his posts with hashtags such as #ad (advertisement) and #spon (sponsorship). “I think not using [them] creates a more authentic look of the post," he says. "When you have to tag the brand itself and add the hashtags the brand asked you to, people would already know it's an ad. I sometimes do it to clear my conscience but I don't think this has that much weight on the post.”

Ethically speaking, this is up for debate. Though social media users are savvier than ever, there are arguably many people who would not know enough to assume that their friend is being paid by brands. Marketers know that we trust our friends more than cold, clinical salespeople and are using this to their advantage. In a world of micro-influencers, how we can know whether our friend really wants to tell us about her latest liquid lipstick, or has been paid to do so? More to the point: is it even legal?

“If there is payment and control [of the message], any posts the micro-influencer publishes should be ‘obviously identifiable’ as an ad,” explains a spokesperson for the Advertising Standards Authority, the regulator first responsible for ensuring traditional influencers use “#ad” in their paid-for posts.

 

tavaszi répatorta, a kedvencem (tudom fura vagyok) #legyenhappyday

A post shared by Noemi L. (@nnooemi) on

The spokesperson says the micro-influencing services and the brands that use them should be impressing on their influencers that they need to be upfront and clear with their posts. However, the variation between different services (with some people receiving payment, and others simply free items) means that the ASA would assess any complaints “on a case-by-case basis”.

 

Love Clarispray! It relieves stuffy noses, itchy, watery eyes an tickles in the throat! #clarispray #gotitfree #bzzagent

A post shared by Jennifer Redd Neighbours (@jen_jen_n) on

Products that people are sent in the hopes they review them, for example, do not normally fall under the ASA’s remit, though the spokesperson says the lines “blur” when an individual is sent the item on the proviso they review it. “In that scenario, the lines around payment and control start blurring and we might start taking a view that material falls under our remit,” he says.

 

Sensodyne Deep Clean gentle on my teeth & minty fresh! #gotitfree #sensethefresh #sensodyne #bzzagent

A post shared by Michael Brown (@manchu_813) on

At present, then, micro-influencing is a recent trend that might yet be subject to new rules and guidance. Nonetheless, ethical questions undoubtedly remain. Might people end up feeling duped by their friends? This could be exacerbated by the raw appearance of many micro-influencing posts, which are a far cry from the poised and polished pictures posted by celebrities. A world full of micro-influencers would undoubtedly lead to an erosion of trust between friends, and would leave many questions about our capitalistic society. 

Yet the issue also cannot be overblown. Many micro-influencing services are frankly not very good, with some websites or apps having little in the way of brand deals, or requiring users to take multiple surveys before they are allowed to create a post. Although marketers espouse micro-influencing as the next big thing, currently it seems relatively rare and seems to have little effect on most people's lives and choices. 

For micro-influencers, posting adverts - with the correct disclaimers - seems like a good way to gain money or freebies. For the rest of us, the trend simply means that we have to be a bit more cynical when our best friend recommends a toothpaste.

Amelia Tait is features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.