As questionable influencer practices begin to undermine trust, there appears to be a growing trend of de-influencing, where influencers attempt to reassert their authenticity, beliefs and motivations, says Natalya Saldanha.

While it might appear that influencers are losing their “sheen” with de-influencing, influencers are still influencing you, just differently. De-influencing – or the act of telling followers what not to buy on social apps – has surged in popularity this year. De-influencers, while pushing an anti-consumption trend amid a growing cost of living crisis, are still influencing followers by telling them what they should or should not spend their money on. 

Re-establishing trust

While some regard de-influencing as a trend that has arisen from the rising cost of living all over the world, there is another reason for this growing popularity of this trend. That reason is to re-establish trust with followers, an opportunity for influencers to reassert their authenticity, beliefs and motivations.

When influencers post their own original content, they are not only trying to “relate” to their followers and connect with them. A study found that original content leads to 15.5% greater ROI. This boils down to authenticity, honesty and transparency but also being “relatable”. Being able to relate to followers from an influencer perspective has actually become a very important aspect in the overall influencer-consumer relationship, especially post-pandemic. This has also been discussed in a recently published paper which showed how relatedness and belongingness are now taking precedence over superficial characteristics of attractiveness or expertise of influencers. For those who were locked-in and completely isolated, their human interaction was usually via influencers across platforms.

Posting critical reviews can help creators distance themselves from controversies that are eroding trust in the influencer industry. People expect honest, unbiased recommendations from their favourite influencers and more often than not, brands invest in influencers to positively promote their products across social media platforms. So when an influencer decides to be honest and not post a positive review of a product (usually one that they themselves are not associated with), then followers perceive that influencer to be genuine.

Questionable influencer practices undermine trust

In January 2023, an analysis of 521,000 Instagram posts from Australian influencers found that only 1,368 posts with brand mentions from 855 influencers had #ad or #sponsored. According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the industry watchdog in Australia, their recent study discovered issues in 81% of posts made since January 2023 by 118 notable Australian influencers, primarily involving not disclosing payments or gifts or not indicating that the content was an ad. The major defaulters were from the fashion industry, with 96% of their content deemed "concerning". This was closely followed by parenting and travel influencers who also had a high percentage of problematic posts, according to the report.

Similarly, an AI analytics platform analysed Australian influencer Instagram posts tagged as #fastfood and found 10 fast food brands that partner most with influencers. McDonald’s, referred to as “Maccas” Down Under, partnered with 199 influencers in over 319 posts. This poses a challenge to policymakers, especially after a bill  to restrict junk food ads on TV and radio between 6am and 9.30pm was just introduced to federal parliament.

While it could be argued that influencers decrying fast food in viral TikTok and Instagram reels might help, it will still be perceived as not being genuine, thus making the influencer labelled as not being relatable.

De-influencing can appear cool and anti-consumerism. However, it is still very much influencing and will comfortably sit in the influencer realm and likely decline with the global economic crisis. So the answer to de-influencing being the best solution at the moment is “No”. Influencer engagement needs to re-focus on relatedness and connecting with consumers again.

Reliability and belonging: More effective ways to establish trust

Feelings of relatedness occur when influencers are relatable, prompting consumers to feel like they belong. This simply means that post-pandemic, we are all seeking connectedness, even if this is in the form of an influencer. Gone are the days when only physically attractive and those perceived as expert-like were considered criteria for success. Today, what counts is being able to connect with your audience and maintain that connection but also ensuring you’re being genuine and honest the entire time.

A study by a US-based agency found that 69% of respondents are likely to trust a friend, family member or influencer recommendation over information coming directly from a brand. Consumers are seeking authenticity from the influencers they follow and prioritise relatable and original content.

In the study, the types of influencer personalities consumers find most appealing when deciding to follow on social media are:

  • Relatable personalities (61%)
  • Expert personalities (43%)
  • Just-for-fun personalities (32%)
  • Aspirational personalities (28%)

This indicated an inversion in priorities in influencer-consumer relationships pre-pandemic versus post-pandemic. Consumers substitute their usual preference of attractiveness, trustworthiness and expertise to instead focus on connectedness, characterised by relatedness, belongingness and attachment.

Doja Cat’s unofficial announcement at the 2022 Grammys, as endorser for JBL by holding a crystal-encrusted JBL portable speaker, saying “Jibble! Jibble! Jibble!”, went viral. As the VP of JBL indicated, “Doja Cat is merely connecting with her fans and… the only way to do that is to let her be herself.” In other words, Doja Cat was just being genuine.

Moving away from superficial connects

Influencers need to adapt their personal brand strategies by focusing on connectedness instead of superficial, glossy aspects of glamour and style. They need to focus on enhancing their trust with followers by promoting brands that reflect their ideals. So when Bella Varelis, a former contestant on “The Bachelor” revealed she had to leave her two-bed swanky unit in an upmarket Sydney suburb when her landlord increased the rent by A$267 per week, many followers claimed the former reality star – who regularly shows off her luxury purchases – could easily have afforded the rent increase if she reduced unnecessary expenditures. One user posted, “maybe she should get a real job?” 

Influencers need to carefully manage their credibility and their overall image to ensure optimum connectedness with their followers. This change in influencer strategy is also relevant for managers who select influencers for endorsements. They need to focus on relatedness and build trust with consumers by changing the focus of their influencer campaigns from attractiveness and expertise to relatedness, trust and belongingness.

Early this year, TikTok star and beauty guru Mikayla Nogueira posted a 44-second TikTok video reviewing the new L’Oreal Telescopic Lift mascara. After stitching another creator’s video, Nogueira tried the mascara for herself, before declaring that it would be hard for another mascara to compete.

It’s unclear whether it was a paid post but the video’s description contained the hashtag #LorealParisPartner. However, fans noticed that the influencer had added “extra eyelashes” to her top eyelids in what was meant to be a promo for a mascara. Nogueira has not responded to the controversy since posting the video and neither she nor the L’Oréal Group responded to Rolling Stone‘s requests for comment. As one user pointed out, “You’re not going to come on here as an influencer and insult our intelligence and just like think it’s gonna fly. Not anymore.”

If there is an influencer faux pas, the solution to douse the social media fire would be to post an apology and admit to your legion of fans that you made a mistake. Simple. Consumers are more willing to accept influencers’ mistakes when acknowledged compared to being ignored.

Finally, if influencers like celebrities were to launch their own brands or what I termed “progenic brands”, that would help increase connectedness with followers because the likelihood of influencers posting an inauthentic post about their own products would be slim. Influencers would then be perceived as being relatable by discussing their own brands, which would reflect their values and, in turn, makes their posts and their image seem relatable.

“Keeping it real” couldn’t be more significant than the times we live in. We are just bombarded with thousands of messages floating across various platforms on the web and what usually sticks with us is what appears to fit in with our ideals and our values. Influencers becoming legendary or standing the test of time is yet to be established, given emerging metrics and the relatively short longevity of this new age form of marketing.