Influencer marketing often gets a bad rap but it doesn’t have to be that way, says WARC's Brian Carruthers.

At an industry conference, I once had the misfortune to witness a couple of self-styled influencers perform their schtick for a Periscope audience (that dates it); I can’t recall ever seeing a more inept, content-free, cringe-making few minutes. But I was encouraged by the fact that many of the comments that were immediately posted reflected my own thoughts, if in rather more robust language.

So it was heartening to read the news from California where a popular ice-cream truck has told influencers where to go. Tired of demands for free ice-cream in return for a post on Instagram, owner Joe Nicchi posted a sign stating that “influencers pay double”. A subsequent post on Instagram informing the influencer community of the stance went viral and the number of customers doubled.

“We’re the anti-influencer influencers,” Nicchi told the Guardian this week. “It’s weird … but I think it’s really fun. I hope it inspires small businesses to hold their own and tell people to fuck off.”

Less fun and far more worrying was a BBC investigation into TikTok influencers asking teenagers to send them “digital gifts” (the value of these ranges from a few pence to almost £50) in return for shout-outs on live streams or for likes and follows. In some cases the influencers offered their personal messaging deals or phone numbers; it’ll be no surprise that fans’ calls went unanswered.

TikTok fans have spent hundreds of pounds on such gifting with nothing to show for it. One 20-year-old who admitted to spending more than £1,000 said it was addictive and likened gifting on TikTok to gambling – an argument there for regulation perhaps?

The Information Commissioner is on the case, having launched an inquiry into whether the app does enough to safeguard its youngest users. TikTok has also indicated it will “further strengthen” its policies and guidelines, but since it takes a reported 50% cut of all gifting, one can’t think there’s much incentive to tighten those to any great extent. “We value your feedback,” it told the BBC, a phrase which has echoes of “your call is important to us”.

There’s plenty of reasons to be sceptical of influencers who have gained their prominence while displaying little discernible talent and an insatiable appetite for freebies. I might aim to parley notoriety into, say, a free luxury holiday rather than a $4 ice-cream, but I suppose that’s the thing with chancers – they grab what they can, where they can.

Keith Weed, until recently chief marketing and communications officer at Unilever and now president of the Advertising Association, has long warned of the dodgy practices that permeate the influencer ecosystem, such as the buying of followers to artificially inflate claimed reach, and demanded greater transparency.

It came as a surprise, then, when he revealed in May he had invested in Tribe, the influencer marketplace where advertisers can post a brief and micro-influencers (with at least 3,000 followers) can pitch their ideas along with a fee.

“The whole area of fake followers and fake engagement is one of the bad parts of influencer marketing,” he said. “There’s always a few bad apples, a few bad actors in every new industry. What’s great about Tribe is it ensures their platform and the people working on it are clean.”

We can assume Tribe’s crew won’t be hassling LA ice-cream salesmen or vulnerable UK kids, and Weed’s input is a vote of confidence in where influencer marketing should be headed. Tribe founder Jules Lund has argued that an army of micro-influencers is more powerful than a handful of top-tier influencers “because the smaller the tribe the more potent the influencer”. It’s about engagement, not reach.

It’s a plausible case and marketers need to carefully consider where they’re putting their influencer marketing budgets. While that won’t end the sort of requests small businesses like Nicchi’s are plagued with or protect kids from being exploited, it might just make life more difficult for all those chancers out there.

For more on influencer marketing, read the February issue of Admap: Influencers – beyond the hype.