When I first embarked on my career in the Communications sector almost 15 years ago, at the birth of Facebook and just after the rise of MySpace and online forums, influencer marketing - or the targeting of aspirational thought leaders, taste-makers and game-changers - was one of the hottest topics and tools in the marketing industry. 


From style setters and mummy bloggers to foodies and then wellbeing warriors, targeting people at the forefront of their industry - and with significant online followings - was considered an essential element for many brand campaigns. These people were the trusted experts in their fields, and their decision to endorse a product, or service, could have a major impact on its reputation and credibility. 


It may have only been added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2019 to describe “a person who is able to generate interest in something (such as a consumer product) by posting about it on social media", but influencers have long promised brands an authentic way to engage with their target audiences in a more personal way. The catch came however, when the influencers once used to promote brands in a more authentic manner, started to become brands themselves…  


In 2020, for example, 63% of Australians were found to be turned off by brands who pay social influencers (except for females aged 18-29). And with countless millennials, Gen Y and Gen Zs now aspiring to be the next big thing on social media - particularly on Instagram and Tik Tok, the level of trust and novelty of targeting influencers, who now, concerningly, will pay brands for exposure rather than the ball being in their court, is front and centre. Which begs the question: Is the sun setting on influencer marketing? Or is it entering a new era? 


As someone with a fairly-sizeable social media following and online presence, I’ve had my fair share of brands approach me to engage in Ambassador opportunities and serve as ‘Influencer’. Some have been legitimate; others have been an attempt to make a quick buck off a potentially naïve, aspiring Insta-star by asking me to pay for their products “at a discount” (often, though, asking me to pay for postage too!). Unfortunately for them I am neither. Nor are audiences, who are becoming increasingly discerning when it comes to influencer marketing - and are often turned off by influencers who are obviously out there aiming to simply make them click and buy.

At a time when audiences are confronted with warnings about deepfakes, misinformation and the documentaries like The Social Dilemma – the first documentary to ever be on the list of Netflix’s most popular shows - sounding the alarm about the influence of social media on societal attitudes, the currencies most in demand are trust, transparency, and ethical communication. Authenticity is now the most valuable asset in the digital landscape. Take the Airfyer guy on TikTok with 700 000 followers and counting, who is all about a return to true blue Aussie sound, with his simple made-up serenades to... an airfryer.


Rather than just promoting brands, today’s most in-demand influencers are also now speaking out, not just for product placement but to also shed light on broader issues; they are taking their role as online leaders more seriously and being good digital citizens in the process. Take model Laura Wells, who is campaigning for a cleaner planet, and who promotes self-love and sustainable cozzies. Or Lisa Cox, an influencer, media activist and JustSociale Board Member, who is actively changing the way disability is represented in mainstream popular culture. After a brain haemorrhage left her in hospital for over a year, and necessitated over a dozen operations, including the amputation of one leg, Lisa is determined to use her social reach to break the silence on visible disability. 


In Australia, as of July 2020, there is also now a social influencer body, the Australian Influencer Marketing Council, which has an industry code of good practice - an innovation I applaud, not just for influencers but for brands to take heed of when it comes to professionally engaging with influencers. And just this week, British social media influencer, Emily Canham, became the first person to be reprimanded by the UK's advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), over a TikTok post for not "clearly and prominently” displaying the post as an ad or similar – and was forced to take it down.


Australians are some of the most active social media users in the world – with almost eight in ten people now using social media. We spend an average of 1 hour 47 minutes per day on social media, and in the morning, more than half of the adult population wake up and check their social media feed as the very first activity of the day. So, it’s safe to say social media and social marketing isn’t going anywhere. 


Plain product promotion may be passé, but trust and transparency are coming of age and are the new currency for credible consumer marketing, rather than pure popularity by follower numbers. 

Sarah Liberty is Founder and CEO of JustSociale, an ACNC-accredited NGO dedicated to the promotion of online human rights and good digital citizenship. 


For more information or to find out how to become a partner:

Website: www.justsociale.org Facebook: @justsocialeaustralia      
Instagram: @justsociale              Twitter: @justsociale


Sarah Josephine Liberty is the Founder and CEO of JustSociale. A social entrepreneur, public speaker, radio presenter, podcaster and human rights advocate, her career that has spanned senior roles in the media, communications and management in international NGOs in London, New York, Jogjakarta, Sydney and Paris, Sarah recently completed her Master of International Relations at Sciences Po University, Paris and hosts a weekly international #FeministFriday Podcast available on all major podcast platforms reaching 42 countries. Sarah is an Ambassador for UN Women’s #GenerationEquality campaign and is regularly approached by the media to comment on human rights, social entrepreneurship, international relations, technology and social media news. 

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