Influencer marketing is big business, but are brands thinking things through when they hand over their valuable reputation to ‘influencers’ with high follower counts but low credibility?

A recent University of Glasgow study assessing the nutrition and diet information provided by key UK social media influencers suggests people turning to influencers for advice and guidance should do so with a healthy dose of scepticism.

The findings, presented at this year's European Congress on Obesity, reveal just one out of the nine most popular UK health and wellness bloggers studied met the criteria for transparency, evidence-based references, trustworthiness and adherence to nutritional guidance, and bias.

“We found the majority of the blogs could not be considered credible sources of weight management information, as they often presented opinion as fact and failed to meet UK nutritional criteria,” says the study's first author, Christina Sabbagh. “This is potentially harmful, as these blogs reach such a wide audience.”

Of course, Belle Gibson is one of the most publicised examples of an influencer deceiving their followers and trashing the valuable currency of trust. Gibson’s Instagram fame rested specifically on the claim she had devised a diet that had cured her of terminal cancer. Her ruse was exposed in 2015 when it was revealed she did not have any form of cancer. Gibson had no educational background or qualifications relevant to the areas in which she was giving advice. She faced the Federal Court in 2017 and was ordered to pay a fine of $410,000 after being found guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct.

Influencer marketing has been with us in some form or another going back to the rise of the celebrity sales pitches of the 1950s and 1960s on TV and radio. In the digital age, with the proliferation of online platforms and channels and its myriad forms of celebrity, from the Kardashians through to social media stars who have made their name in niche areas, the numbers of so-called influencers has exploded.

Apparent influencers are everywhere. The problem is that these people are generally really only as influential as they say they are. Rubbery social media metrics such as follower counts and likes are difficult to trace and verify. Thousands of followers does not necessarily equate to any kind of authentic engagement or real influence on the behaviour of consumers. This is often where desperate brands fall foul of the influencer bubble. They too often mistake vanity metrics for trust, authenticity and actual influence, and consequently end up seeing their marketing spend on influencers disappear into the digital ether.

That’s not the worst result though. Even worse for brands is they open themselves up to the potential of being aligned with someone who spreads false or even dangerous information, as in the case of Belle Gibson.

With something like health advice, it’s not just about being misled about buying a product like a TV or something, which is bad enough, it’s about people potentially putting their health at risk because of something someone told them on YouTube.

Our research at The Female Social Network indicates only 6% of the population is effective in changing someone else’s opinion, in having influence, and it’s certainly not always the person with the biggest follower count. It’s important not to confuse social media vanity metrics with credibility, which is why we actively seek out women who are smart, trustworthy and credible to work with our clients as effective opinion leaders.

Companies madly scrambling to reach and connect with consumers have turned to influencers as the answer to their digital engagement problems. However, as the University of Glasgow study, Belle Gibson and countless other cases have shown, without proper due diligence, they risk tarnishing their brand and eroding the trust they should be looking at building between themselves and their consumers.