Social media influencers are big news. The marketing trend – of brands offering free goods or services for (usually favourable) reviews on social media channels – has gained traction over the last few years. When a celebrity or popular blogger casually mentions on their Instagram that they adore the new grooming products, kindly ‘donated’ by Razors R Us? That’s social media influencing at work.

This style of marketing hit headlines this week, when Paul Stenson, owner of The White Moose Café in Dublin, decided to publicly shame blogger Elle Darby. She’d sent him an email inquiring about what she referred to as a ‘collaboration’ – where she’s given a free stay at the hotel and, in return, features the business on her highly subscribed You Tube and Instagram channels.

Stenson decided he would use Darby to create publicity for his business – but not in the way she imagined. Rather than emailing back with a polite ‘no thank you’, Stenson shared the post on the White Moose Facebook page and attached a comment (and video), accusing Darby of lacking self-respect and dignity. He questioned: who would cover the costs of her free stay? (The answer to that, of course, is you, Mr Stenson, that’s how marketing works). Darby has, of course, posted a tearful defence on her YouTube page.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, while Stenson’s actions have drawn criticism from many, even more have come out in support – the original Facebook post has over 21,000 Likes (and a paltry 797 angry emoji responses).

What then, does this tell us about social media influencing?

Well, viewing an Instagram story or a YouTube video is a great way for a consumer to see a destination, experience, or product in detail (albeit running perfectly, in a way the real world never does) before they commit. A quick glance at any comments sections can then back up the influencer’s opinion, for the dubious. Consumers are becoming more cynical of companies and brands – and word of mouth and peer reviews are becoming more reliable than traditional methods of marketing.

But, the authenticity of influencer reviews is questionable. Darby asked for free accommodation in return for a positive review of the White Moose Café. The whole affair runs dangerously close to a bribe – although most businesses would insist it’s an honest review. Social media influencers are trusted by loyal followers, who use their recommendations to plan holidays and buy products. Are these reviews genuine? Or are social media influencers using their popularity to gain discounts and freebies? Only recently, a popular blogger admitted rigging a competition she held on behalf of a jewellery company, Tower Jewellers - so her friends could win the prizes.

The regulation over social media influencers poses a problem (our Media Advisor, Fiona Peet explains in more detail in her blog). The law surrounding social media isn’t keeping up with the speed the tech is changing. It isn’t clear for consumers if what they’re seeing (whether it’s a video, blog or image) is endorsed by a brand. They may think that they’re looking at the social media feeds of people they trust, or who’s lifestyle they aspire to – when they’re in fact looking at a stream of ads. There’s a lack of transparency.

So, are social media influencers being deliberately deceptive, or are they smart entrepreneurs, utilising social media to build their own personal brand?

As proven by Stenson’s response and its supporters, this isn’t a style of marketing that’s a hit with everyone. But, the blog savvy generation are fast becoming the world’s decision makers and, like it or not, this style of marketing is one businesses must keep up with or be left behind.

Written by Rachael Williams, Marketing Assistant.