According to an article on MediaKix.com, there are currently millions of influencers promoting thousands of brands worldwide. These influencers are attempting to persuade their followers to use their personalized discount code or link sticker to purchase or sign up for whatever it may be that they are promoting. In most cases, when a follower uses said discount code or link, the influencer receives some sort of compensation or commission. Essentially, the influencer turns into a salesperson. That raises the question: Do influencers always believe in the products they promote? We asked five self-described influencers to answer that question.
Louise Rudow, a 22-year-old content creator living in Dallas, has an Instagram following of over 8,000, a TikTok following of over 18,000, and over 459,000 likes on TikTok. Rudow is the owner of the LouiseMontgomeryBlog where she highlights predominantly affordable fashion and home décor products. Rudow began her blog after graduating from the University of Mississippi in 2020 and has continued to grow her digital presence through Instagram and TikTok content. In the past, Rudow has collaborated with fashion brands such as Petal and Pup to offer outfit inspiration to her followers. Rudow shared her approach as to deciding what brands she wants to work with.
“I ask myself two questions: Is this something I already use and love? And is this something my audience would enjoy?”
For Audrey Muse, consistent posts and brand promotions are key. Originally from Jackson, Mississippi, Muse now lives in New York and has an Instagram audience of over 12,000.
“I have always stayed authentic to what I want to post and only sharing products I actually like,” Muse said. “I would not promote anything I do not use or like, I think people know that about me and is a reason they keep following.”
Brands began reaching out to Muse a few years ago and were mostly smaller, newer products. For example, Muse began working with a jewelry line, Soflojewels, when the brand had little to no followers and has now grown to have over 71,000 followers.
Sometimes a job can help someone become an influencer. Caroline Sundvold, a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, has an Instagram following of over 24,500 followers. Sundvold says she takes into account a brand’s mission, product type, and payment when considering partnerships or promotions.
“I only would work with brands that align with my values,” Sundvold said. “I would never sell myself to promote any products that I don’t personally enjoy using.”
Brands, mainly fashion and dance-related, began contacting Sundvold when she reached about 15,000 followers. Sundvold’s current mission is to uphold the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader brand; therefore, the organization’s sponsors are the only brands she works with today.
Influencers have changed the marketing industry significantly. Madisen Theobald, a content marketing manager living in New York, has just over 10,800 followers on Instagram and has grown familiar with brand deals through her career and personal content creation.
“People used to just take any brand deal that was offered and try to relate it to them, but now customers can see right through that,” Theobald said. “I typically decide, based on my demographic and my niche, what I want to do so that it does not seem unauthentic.”
Leeza Edmundson Smith agrees. The lifestyle micro-influencer has over 10,500 followers on Instagram and has been working with brands for almost three years. She says there are reasons to say no to brand partnerships.
“I have turned down brand deals if the product is something I’ve never used or have any interest in using,” Smith said. “I would turn down a deal if the brand wasn’t reputable or didn’t fit with my personality, beliefs, etc.”
An article on Influencer Marketing Hub predicts the influencer marketing industry to reach 16.4 billion in global market size in 2022, but for Smith, it isn’t about the money. Smith produces two to three sponsored posts a month to keep up with partnerships while balancing the organic content she enjoys sharing.
“I would much rather share my regular life over free stuff or money,” Smith said.
A Closer Look
But what happens when the financial stakes are much higher? We did a content analysis of influencer Helen Owen, for example. Owen is an influencer with over 1.6 million followers on Instagram, over 88,500 subscribers on YouTube, and over 841,200 followers on TikTok. Owen has been working with brands for over five years and posts sponsored content in relation to each focus area of her content including health, lifestyle, beauty, fashion, and modeling. In 2021, within six months, Owen promoted three different haircare brands. Beginning June 21, 2021, Owen announced Pantene’s sponsorship of one of her YouTube videos when she left her review on the products.
“I test every product rigorously before I share it with you guys, so I was testing these and using them for the past few months,” Owen said. “These products I find do a great job of clarifying and cleaning the oil and the buildup without stripping my hair and without dehydrating it.”
Three months later, September 16, 2021, Owen posted her newest hair care obsession on Instagram. Owen posted an advertisement for Bondi Boost hair care products where she said she brought the products all the way to Ecuador.
“This haircare is made with natural and organic ingredients, formulated to cleanse the scalp,” Owen wrote. “I’m now three-plus months into consistently using their HG shampoo & conditioner (HG=Holy Grail!) and can report back that my hair is thriving: it’s longer than it’s been in years and so full and shiny!”
Owen accompanied this post with three photos of her long brown hair with Bondi Boost products featured in the background. Owen’s timeline (should there be a “was” here?) from June to September of 2021 when she was “rigorously testing” the Pantene products in June and then being on ”three-plus months of consistently using” Bondi Boost products in September overlaps, calling into question the theme of honesty and brand deals among the influencer community. < this is an incomplete sentence as you’ve written it here
Just two months later, November 3, 2021, Owen posts her third hair care advertisement in the form of an Instagram reel. This time Owen is highlighting Tea Tree Hair Care hemp line from Paul Mitchell.
“The new @teatreehaircare hemp line from @paulmitchell gives you a full aromatherapy experience while nutrient-rich hemp seed oil and upcycled hemp seed extract nourish your hair and skin,” Owen wrote. “Love that the products in this line have multiple uses, i.e., shampoo is also a body wash, hair oil is also a body oil!”
The redundancy of product type and description in Owen’s advertisement posts brings the second theme of authenticity into question. How authentic really is Owen’s approach to trying to introduce her audience to what she believes is the best hair care? Does she believe in the products and the words she uses to tell her audience about the products? The brands, Pantene, Bondi Boost, and Paul Mitchells hair care line, do align with her beauty audience, but is her opinion authentic when it is easily swayed by the next best thing, or the next best brand deal?
On February 22, 2022, Owen posted a question box on her Instagram story as a place for followers to ask her questions about any subject, a common connection tool for influencers. A follower asked if Owen had ever worked with a brand and later regretted it. Owen responded explaining the learning curve she experienced transitioning from a college student with little funds to realizing the power she has in turning opportunities down that she did not feel genuine endorsing. Owen said in turning down brand deals, she hoped the brands she did love would take notice and stated that this decision paid off.
“It also builds up trust with your audience when you’re only recommending products/brands that you really stand behind,” Owen said.
Research suggests that audiences tend to trust the influencers they follow (Schouten et al., 2019), but trust is fragile and influencers who try to game the system risk losing their credibility along with a sizeable amount of cash.