The changing nature of influence – from Lil Miquela to Fashion Ambitionist

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By Susan Getgood


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Lil Miquela is a fake “person” who seems real. Until the company that created her revealed that she was a virtual influencer last year in a publicity stunt, her 1.6 million followers presumably thought Miquela Sousa was just another teen Instagram star, not an avatar designed specifically to attract follows and likes. She has partnered with brands like Calvin Klein and Prada, and according to the NY Times, more than 80,000 people stream Lil Miquela’s songs on Spotify every month. She’s also not the only virtual influencer in the market, designed to be the perfect spokesperson. Some are more transparent than others that they are constructs; for example, KFC’s newest Colonel Sanders.

Fashion Ambitionist is a real person whose journey to matrimony, as documented this week on Instagram and pitched to sponsors, can best be described as staged spontaneity. For those that are not familiar, the short story is that her boyfriend is whisking her away for an amazing proposal in a faraway and romantic locale, with a variety of stops along the way. All of which is being documented in her Instagram stories. Supposedly, she is in the dark (at least about the details if not the ultimate objective), with everything being orchestrated by her boyfriend, friends and staff of her website. Maybe. There is a detailed sponsor deck for potential sponsors to evaluate the opportunity, so on some level she has to be in the know. It is after all her brand. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter whether or what she knows. It all feels a bit fake, even though they are undeniably real people and the whole thing is (at least somewhat) entertaining.

Fake person appearing real. Real person appearing fake. All in the service of finding followers and influencing them on behalf of brands.

There is no doubt that both Lil Miquela and Fashion Ambitionist have influence with their followers. But is this influencer marketing?

Yes. And no. Or at least, it is not consumer-to-consumer influencer marketing grounded in the genuine authentic endorsement of a consumer sharing her story and experiences with a product with her friends and yes, followers.

It is easy to see how Lil Miquela herself should perhaps be categorized as social marketing, not influencer marketing. Influencer marketing works because we like or identify with the person who is recommending a product, trust that recommendation is grounded in his or her own experience, and are therefore more likely to take action ourselves. While Lil Miquela seems real, her endorsements and actions are fabricated. She’s neither authentic nor genuine and her recommendations are simply advertisements. We can like and enjoy her content, but we are engaging in a pleasant fiction. We may share her content with our friends, but we should know, they should know, that they are engaging with an avatar, and responding to an ad, not another human. I strongly advocate for deeper disclosure than the simple #sponsored when it comes to avatars.

Fashion Ambitionist is a harder call. On its face, she is simply doing what all social influencers do – telling her story and weaving in brands as part of the tale. Just on a more dramatic scale. It’s not that different from what influencer marketing agencies (like SHE Media’s internal team) do when building programs for brands: we recruit influencers who love a brand to create sponsored content, although we don’t forget the sponsored disclosures. Since there aren’t any on these posts, either no one sponsored, which is sad, given the effort apparently expended, or they are violating FTC guidelines, which is just bad.

Except this Fashion Ambitionist stunt is different. Our goal with influencer marketing should be to have consumers create content that shows how brands are part of their lives. Not to have them stage their lives to provide a vehicle for brands. It’s a fine distinction.

It’s also unfortunately one that increasingly we collectively are not making. People are staging their lives for brands or trying to present some perfect image of themselves on Instagram in the interest of likes and followers. This isn’t authentic consumer storytelling. It’s a performance. Nothing wrong with it as a marketing activity; we should just understand what it is. Furthermore, when social posting detracts from actual enjoyment of the event, it’s not a good strategy and we are not getting the authentic engagement we wanted. Don’t miss the moment because you are trying to get the picture.

Note that I am not arguing against staged marketing opportunities. Flash mobs are fun. Virtual influencers are engaging in a creepy way. Some people are enjoying the Fashion Ambitionist content. In general, parties and events are a great way to create moments that can be shared across social media. Our BlogHer events have been providing sponsors with opportunities to connect with female consumers for more than 15 years, robot-free.

All these things — flash mobs, events, parties, virtual influencers – are opportunities for social marketing to tap into the desire of consumers to share content that excites them.

Influence, certainly. But influencer marketing well done isn’t just staging the event or making a social splash. It’s not about how much someone was paid to create content, and I am definitely not arguing that influencers shouldn’t be compensated for their work or that compensation somehow corrupts an endorsement. We don’t love a brand any less when it asks for our help in its marketing efforts.

Influencer marketing done right is about harnessing consumer passion for brands and connecting them to opportunities to share their love in the context of their own story. It’s about helping the brands reach those consumers in the right way, with the right opportunity, at the right time.

The influencer marketing moments that make my heart sing? Those are rooted in love.

A mom creating a sponsored post for a sunscreen and sharing a moment of joy of her child at the beach. A family test driving a car for a week and sharing their hectic, happy and not-so-happy moments along the way. A makeup lover sharing her tips, tricks and favorite products with her followers on YouTube, always trying out new things. Sometimes sponsored, sometimes not. A home chef leveraging her love of cooking into sponsored content opportunities and her own cookbook. Fans of a much-loved TV franchise sharing their excitement about the reboot.

Those moments when we capture that lightening in a bottle and connect a brand with its customer and make influencer marketing magic.

I love that.

— UPDATE 6/24 —

NY Times article on Fashion Ambitionist’s wedding stunt. Spoiler: they are married, sort of. French law has very specific residency requirements to legally marry in the country, so the stunt ended with a fake wedding.  Which is perfect in its own way.

The lines between real life and entertainment are forever blurred thanks to reality television. Social media didn’t create this phenomenon; Fashion Ambitionist’s wedding stunt was no different than your typical reality show, which is why it captured public interest. If you were entertained by it, great. If you thought it was ridiculous, fine too. Different strokes for different folks.

But don’t confuse it with the principled practice of influencer marketing. The pitch wasn’t very good. Hard to read, light on the specific value for brands. Sponsored disclosure was terrible. The burst of followers is likely to be fleeting. It also was a lousy advertisement for Fashion Ambitionist as a legit influencer.

In other words, if you are mapping out your strategic plan to grow your own influence, this may not be the model to choose. It all depends on whether you want to be famous or infamous.

Because the difference between the two? It matters.

Originally published on Marketing Roadmaps.