Despite flourishing as one of the hottest industries in the digital marketing space, Influencer marketing is still a relative newcomer in terms of practices and strategy. As platforms, brands, creators, and even governing bodies attempt to define this new landscape, mistakes are bound to occur.
After apparent teething issues which have yet to be fully solved, the FTC has been spending its efforts revising and evolving its guidelines to accommodate modern advertising on digital platforms. This is primarily in response to campaigns deemed to be sailing close to the wind with regard to ethical advertising standards.
Unfortunately for brands and influencers, this won’t always save them from committing poor decisions and influencer marketing fails in this as-yet unrealized world. Lack of judgment has been prevalent with influencers, some seemingly doing their best to torpedo their online careers, but brands must be careful too in order to avoid common pitfalls and legal issues.
Whether it’s a brand lawsuit or an influencer scandal, it seems like one controversy or another is right around the corner in this industry. Knowing the do’s and don’ts of an influencer marketing campaign; using a robust strategy for your brand; understanding a rapidly evolving environment—these are vital to keeping your campaign from derailing.
We’re going to examine some of the biggest influencer marketing fails the industry has had the misfortune of witnessing, as well as how they could have been avoided. These instances will likely serve as reminders that influencer marketing can be a volatile field.
What Went Wrong
It would be far easier to answer what didn’t go wrong. Unless you were living under the proverbial rock, you’ll be familiar with the spectacular meltdown that was Fyre Festival; a luxury music festival on a Bahamian island two years ago.
The strategy was akin to assembling a lineup of the biggest and best (and most expensive) social media stars on the planet. Using just one of these influencers would have created waves; a unified effort from all of them at the same time sent tidal waves—tickets sold out almost immediately.
Unfortunately, that’s where the positives end for Fyre Festival. After the hype, you know what happened next in what can only be politely described as a dysfunctional unfolding of events. The festival was poorly planned, with the vast majority of the over 400 influencers involved having little-to-no knowledge of the venture and the marketing team showing little compliance or regard for FTC guidelines—many influencers failed to disclose being compensated to promote the festival.
How It Could Have Been Avoided
Fyre Festival was something of a masterstroke of influencer marketing. The promotional material featured some of the world’s top influencers and the buzz it created is an excellent example of the power of influencer marketing.
But the unfolding of the festival was a stark reminder of the responsibilities of influencers. The festival’s greatest success—the initial online campaign, was also a huge thorn in its side. What would normally be considered a win was instead a massive influencer marketing fail—all because influencers failed to adhere to FTC sponsorship disclosure guidelines.
People lost faith in influencers’ ability to be straight with them, and the debacle shook confidence in influencer marketing as a whole.
It might not sound glamorous, but stick to the rules—a lax attitude will come back to bite as it has with so many others.
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I’ve been waiting seven years for The New York Times to take notice of what I write on Instagram. And guess what? Today that finally happened. But to quote The New York Times quoting my Instagram: “There’s a twist.” There’re so many twists. Twist: The New York Times never wrote about me until I went viral as a scam. Twist: Now that it’s finally happened, I realize none of it fucking matters because if you live for the compliment, you’ll die going viral as a scam. Twist: The New York Times printed a SCREENSHOT OF MY INSTAGRAM IN THE GODDAMN PAPER TODAY, which is wild because there was a time—specifically all the years when I was creating the online posts like the one IN PRINT in THE NEW YORK fucking TIMES today—when no one believed that my long-form captions would go anywhere beyond Instagram. Twist: The Times captioned my photo, From Caroline Calloway’s Instagram account. She is considered a social media diva. Twist: Like the words “spinster,” “mistress,” and “slut/whore/hussy/tart/skank,” DIVA is a sexist word that has no true male counterpart in the English language. Twist: A woman, Ruth La Ferla, wrote the piece. Twist: I really like Ruth! She seems mellow and grandparently and self-possessed and and I can only imagine the sexism she’s had to overcome in her own career. Twist: I am not a diva. I am kind and thoughtful and generous and easily excited and loving and flawed and anxious and sensitive and fiercely ambitious and goofy and empathetic and whip smart and creative and prone to run-on sentences and strong. In person, I prefer to listen more than I speak. In my art, I try to entertain and dazzle and transport and surprise and soothe. I love plants. I’m jazzed to raise butterflies and paint a fresco on my ceiling. I love words. I love love! I refuse to let what other people “consider” me to be after the last news cycle reduce me to a sexist female trope or dehumanize me to a caricature I’m not. Twist: I still want to be liked. I don’t know how to stop feeling this. Twist: Today the New York Times published a piece about my captions, but I haven’t written stuff like that since 2016. I mainly do IG Stories now. Twist: I just returned to posts.
What Went Wrong
Caroline Calloway is something of a rarity; an influencer who found fame using Instagram as a blogging platform, a trend that has since become increasingly common amongst online influencers.
Calloway’s Instagram blog rapidly gained popularity while studying abroad at Cambridge University, using long-form captions to offer her followers an intimate, flowery portrayal of her personal life. She currently boasts over 800,000 followers, though now only posts to Stories of her day-to-day life in New York City.
Trouble began when she began pursuing the financial incentives that arise from the macro-influencer status she had achieved. She received a half a million dollar book deal to publish a memoir in 2015 which later turned sour.
It was, however, her creativity workshops which caused her the most problems. At $165-a-head, attendees were promised home-cooked lunches, elaborate care packages, and seminars on creativity; ‘how to cultivate it, how to nurture it, and how to express it.’
It wasn’t long before Calloway’s worldwide (yes, worldwide) tour began falling apart. Cancellations followed and events were unprepared. Some even compared the workshops to Fyre Festival, and customers complained about the fiasco. Put simply, she was in over her head.
How It Could’ve Been Avoided
Much like the aforementioned Fyre Festival, Calloway’s venture failed because she lacked the resources and skills to put on an event, let alone multiple events spanning many major cities.
This is also a classic influencer marketing fail in that she underestimated the trust that her following had in her and her personal brand. Influencers command a lot of loyalty from their fans, and taking that for granted can lead to calamitous results.
As is the case here, Calloway would have done well to better respect the relationship between herself and her fanbase before organizing such an ambitious programme of events.
What Went Wrong
This is a story that is yet to quieten down since it blew up in March 2019. Social media influencer Olivia Jade and her sister were found to have illegally gained entry to USC, with their mother Lori Loughlin bribing the college $500,000.
Olivia Jade has a substantial following on social media; her Instagram has 1.4 million followers, while her YouTube has 1.9 million subscribers. She usually uploads videos about fashion and beauty, as well as vlogs about her school life. She accrued partnerships with large brands including Amazon, Dolce & Gabbana, and Marc Jacobs.
She is, in many respects, a typical young influencer enjoying the perks of lucrative brand partnerships that come in tow from building a large online presence. Unfortunately for her, being at the center of a major scandal has not done wonders for her influencer career. Since news broke, she has been dropped by several of her major backers, notably Sephora and TRESemmé, while other major brands are evaluating their partnerships with her.
How It Could Have Been Avoided
Of course, Jade isn’t principally responsible for this turn of events. Ultimate responsibility falls on her parents and her knowledge of the bribery is uncertain. It goes without saying that this could’ve all been avoided if her parents didn’t break the law.
The main issue for Jade is her dismissive attitude to college, frequently telling her fans in previous vlogs and on Twitter that she cared very little for her college education and only showing interest in ‘partying and game days.’ She would later apologize for some of these comments but reiterated her disinterest in school.
While it’s hardly a crime for a college student to be more interested in socializing than studying, it proved to be a huge sticking point after the scandal erupted—had she been more careful in opening up to her fans, she may have been afforded a lot more sympathy.
What Went Wrong
This is the perfect example of a misguided marketing stunt. JetBlue announced a sweepstakes contest, with the winners receiving free travel on the airline for one year. The company asked Instagram users to delete or archive all their posts and upload a JetBlue image from the contest website with a brand-centric caption and hashtag.
The intention was that in the course of the week that the contest took place, a slew of JetBlue material would appear on the feeds of users—not dissimilar to the orange tile that Fyre Festival used so effectively in their campaign.
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If you could fly free for an entire year… where would you go? Well, exciting news, because the All You Can Jet pass from @JetBlue is back and they are giving three lucky winners (and a companion) the chance at unlimited travel for a full year! . Hmmm where to go, where to go? I think I’d head over to Utah first… All You Can Zion, baby! . Visit jetblue.com/AYCJ for more details on who can enter and how you can win! #AllYouCanJetSweepstakes #Ad
JetBlue employed several influencers for their marketing push, particularly travel and fashion Instagrammers. What’s clear in the influencers’ sponsored posts is a lack of clarity about what the contest involved. Just a quick scroll through the comments sections of these posts will reveal a litany of comments from users who looked at the contest rules; many expressing dismay at the prospect of essentially wiping their entire feeds to enter.
Criticism also headed to JetBlue’s Instagram, with users venting their frustrations. Those that did follow through with the contest lost followers after having wiped their accounts to enter and the sweepstakes had the unintended effect of encouraging junk accounts to enter. The result was that the contest had many spam entries and lacked authenticity, a crucial element of any digital campaign, particularly on Instagram.
JetBlue never publicly announced who the winners were, instead opting to simply declare that the contest ended. Again, this move opened up JetBlue’s Instagram account to verbal attacks from angry and begrudged contestants.
How It Could Have Been Avoided
This is a lesson in how not to conduct an influencer marketing campaign. Authenticity is key, and JetBlue’s approach to this campaign had several weak points; influencers involved were not clear in stating what the contest entailed and what was expected of entrants.
The assumed intent of having the sweepstakes entrants effectively act as the bulk of the marketing themselves is a common tactic employed by brands—usually posited to followers through a question or call-to-action.
Asking them to wipe their entire feeds, however, might have been a step too far, and anyone who knows anything about the internet would suspect that this would go down with users like a lead balloon. Worse still, some of the influencers recruited to promote the contest apparently did not participate in the sweepstakes, setting an odd precedent for the campaign.
What Went Wrong
Grown-ish actor Luka Sabbat may not have a Wikipedia entry, but his 1.7 million Instagram followers certainly define him as a verifiable social media influencer.
Sabbat ran into trouble in late 2018 when a collaboration with Snap Inc’s PR firm, intended to promote the company’s Spectacles product, went badly awry. In a $60,000 deal, Sabbat agreed to endorse Spectacles with one regular Instagram feed post and three Stories posts of him wearing the glasses.
You can probably see where this is going. Sabbat uploaded one feed post and one Story post and failed to don the glasses at two events, the Paris and Milan Fashion Weeks. This predictably led to a lawsuit, causing embarrassment for both Snapchat and Sabbat.
How It Could Have Been Avoided
Instances like these often prompt the urge to state the obvious: be sure that the influencer and the brand are on exactly the same page in any given promotion. Misunderstandings can lead to major issues with collaborations.
In this case, Sabbat caused himself a lot of trouble by not following the agreement—admitting that he didn’t follow through with what he was supposed to do.
This isn’t the first lawsuit to be caused by an influencer not upholding their end of the deal and it won’t be the last. Brands would do well to be thorough and ensure that agreed terms are met by both sides to avoid a situation escalating this far. This is the definition of an influencer marketing fail, where nobody wins.
Beyond the five influencer marketing fails we just laid out, here are six additional examples:
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Kim failed to disclose potential side-effects of morning sickness pill Diclegis, in violation of FDA standards. She had to issue a correction and amend the post after a warning. The incident caused several pharma companies to re-think their influencer marketing strategies.
This influencer fail hardly needs an introduction. Paul recorded himself with a dead body in Japan, prompting massive mainstream outrage and leaving many brands to question brand collaborations with controversial influencers.
Like Luka Sabbat, Mota failed to uphold her end of a promotion agreement with Studio71. She agreed to promote a skincare brand in her YouTube videos in exchange for $325,000 but failed to do so. Subsequently, Studio71 has filed a lawsuit.
Beauty YouTuber Laura Lee faced criticism when leaked racist Tweets from back in 2012 sparked outrage among fans. She lost hundreds of thousands of subscribers and several major sponsorships.
The comparisons to Fyre Fest are endless, this time with YouTuber Tana Mongeau’s TanCon event. Unprepared and unable to accommodate 20,000 fans flooding the venue, it was eventually canceled outright, with Mongeau’s reputation taking a huge hit.
YouTuber PewDiePie stands out from the crowd; he has had a few influencer fails which may otherwise have tanked a career. FTC violations and being racially insensitive are big no-nos, but PewDiePie has accrued so much influence that he seems impervious.
While influencer marketing is prone to blunders, brands and influencers can run through a checklist of reminders to prevent influencer fails from befalling their influencer marketing strategy. In general, influencer marketing goes wrong when there’s:
Make sure both parties are on the same page when launching a campaign to minimize potential issues. Clearly outlining expectations will likely prevent missteps rooted in uncertainty.
Understand the channel being used and know what kind of campaign is appropriate for that specific platform. Additionally, know the influencer you’re working with and how they’ll resonate with your target audience on that channel.
Be crystal clear on what is expected in an influencer agreement in order to avoid potential legal issues. Loosely defined contracts leave more room for error.
FTC compliance is a major issue and should not be taken lightly. Be completely informed with disclosure rules to avoid running into trouble with FTC guidelines.
Communication between the influencer and the sponsor is imperative; each party should be clear on what they expect from a collaboration by constantly communicating about deadlines, deliverables, payment, performance, and more.
Authenticity is a staple of influencer marketing and one of the reasons brands invest in it. Users are good at picking apart campaigns without authentic messaging, so ensure authenticity is central to your campaign.
Similarly, denying influencers creative freedom can cause campaigns to come across diluted and generic, failing to take advantage of the individuality that makes influencers in high demand.
Give influencers an appropriate amount of time to craft their sponsored post, particularly when a creative element is involved. Rushed content will give the impression that the collaboration is an afterthought and will come across as sloppy.
Picking the right influencer is an important consideration for a brand. Influencers should be receptive to the message and values of the brand to create a good, natural fit. Working with the wrong influencers will simply be ineffective.
One way to ensure an influencer marketing fail is to not thoroughly prepare for the campaign. Make sure you have every step of the campaign mapped out so there are no surprises for the brand or the influencer, and don’t forget to benchmark and measure performance for insightful learnings.
There are several ways that both influencers and brands can send an influencer marketing campaign off course, often stemming from a lack of organization on many fronts. Effective communication and a clear understanding of what both parties expect from an influencer collaboration are vital components to steer clear of influencer marketing fails.
While influencer marketing has the potential to go wrong, brands and influencers just need to take the necessary precautions and learn from the mistakes of others. When in doubt, influencer marketing agencies can provide brands and influencers with an experienced go-between to conduct effective influencer marketing campaigns.