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The trouble with influencers

If you wanted to put content in front of millions of people some 15 or so years ago you had to have (1) a job in national media, (2) a record deal, or (3) some other variant of a production deal based on your medium of choice. The content gatekeepers worked to ensure a certain level of content appeal and took care of the mundane business details like making sure that there’s no cursing on air (thanks, FCC rules) and other types of generally unsavory content. The bar for breaking into the business was high and gatekeepers were more keen to support formulaic content that’s been known to generate revenue than bet on edgy, out-of-the-box stuff.

Today anybody with a proverbial dream and a Youtube login can take a pass at internet stardom and the advertising dollars that usually come with it. But what’s missing from this equation is the other part of gatekeeping: the professional side.

Influencers sell their amateur status: where traditional marketing campaigns are perceived to lack authenticity, these enterprising folks who command a new(ish) medium and build large followings are meant to be the exact antithesis of overly-produced content. They’re just regular folks — and therein lies the problem because they’re not. Anyone who can command 6-figure payments per posting and an audience in the millions is definitely no longer an amateur. But amateurism is still their main product.

Whether or not an influencer has a solid business team behind them, as usual the onus is on brands who pay the bills to also pay close attention to who it is they’re partnering with. For blue chip brands, direct relationships with a few key endorsers with strict contracts are the more brand safe option (akin to athlete endorsement deals and brand ambassadorships). In this case, the platforms where influencers exist are also responsible and we may be back to where we started: with platforms acting as new gatekeepers and quality enforcers, for the good of the whole media ecosystem. One thing is clear: someone — platforms, authors, brands who fund most of this or some TBD regulatory body — has to step up. What isn’t yet clear is who that someone will be.

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