Be Careful How 'Fyre'd' up You Get About Influencer Marketing

Fyre Festival was an immense marketing success, which set it up to be an epic failure in execution.

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By John Boitnott

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You've heard the one about the disastrous music festival that never happened. Of course you have. With two documentaries (one on Netflix, the other on Hulu) and countless articles about it, the Fyre Festival debacle has penetrated the global zeitgeist.

Yet beyond a healthy dose of schadenfreude, the failure of Fyre certainly offers some valuable lessons in marketing and branding, specifically regarding its influencer campaign.

Leasing the social media "real estate" of supermodels and other Instagram influencers is certainly nothing new. Fyre Festival organizers paid Kendall Jenner an astonishing $250,000 for a single Instagram post (since deleted) and that was only one instance. Now Jenner and other models and Instagram influencers may have to testify in bankruptcy court about the money disgraced organizer Billy McFarland paid them.

While influencer marketing admittedly sometimes yields phenomenal results, there are serious risks to taking an unprincipled or haphazard approach to its implementation. Entrepreneurs need to be well aware of these risks before committing funds to a marketing program that relies heavily on the fleeting nature of "Internet celebrity."

Related: Creator of Doomed Fyre Festival Gets 6-Year Prison Sentence

Influencer marketing offers little to no accountability.

So, your preferred influencer has a million followers on Instagram. Are those followers real or fake?

Even Fortune 500 companies can't always tell. Look at Procter & Gamble, for example. Last year, two of their brands (Olay and Pampers) placed in the top 10 brands using influencers with large fake follower counts. The number one brand on that list was Ritz-Carlton. The hotel and hospitality group used "influencers" whose followers were 78 percent bought and paid for, instead of the real deal.

Olay and Pampers had to rely on someone else (the Points North Group) to find and illuminate this problem for them. You can use tools such as Instascreener to identify influencers with large fake follower counts before you pay for their services.

Influencers can put the focus on the wrong thing.

One of the mistakes Fyre organizers made was prioritizing buzz over substance. Tasking multiple influencers (mostly young, popular models) to post content simultaneously certainly achieved the buzz they sought, but it came at an astonishing price. The focus on the big-name supermodels ended up costing cash that could have gone elsewhere—say, to building the necessary infrastructure for the festival location.

Too much focus on the big name hawking your brand doesn't necessarily translate to favorable views or conversions for your actual product or service.

In the long run, influencers grab eyeballs but don't necessarily help grow businesses. It's all too easy to get caught up in the star-gazing aspect of it all and wind up valuing essentially meaningless metrics over actually building your brand.

Related: 4 Influencer Marketing Lessons Learned From the Calamitous Fyre Festival

The risk of guilt by association flows both ways.

If the influencer goes off-script or causes a scandal, you get tanked too. And there seems to be no end of ways for some influencers to get into public trouble. Just ask YouTuber Logan Paul, whose posting of video footage of a dead body earned him months of bad press and tough consequences.

Moreover, it doesn't take that kind of spectacularly poor judgment to prompt a public outcry and make sponsors want to run for the hills. Ask Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who lost dozens of sponsors thanks to a tweet that many perceived as mocking Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg.

The nature of the social media milieu that gave rise to influencer status in the first place rewards those digital celebrities for saying and doing surprising and even shocking or outrageous things. If there's a close association between your brand and that influencer, then, you can expect some significant blowback and pressure to choose a side of the debate and cut ties.

Related: 10 Influencer Marketing Trends to Keep Your Eye On

Influencer marketing offers questionable value.

These days, influencer marketing has been so constrained that there may be no value there for your customer or brand. SEO expert and Moz founder Rand Fishkin noted this last year in a tweet, when he observed that influencer marketing used to mean a brand would "discover all the sources that influence your audience and do marketing (of all kinds) in those places."

This approach to influencer marketing is value-added. It prioritizes the customer and the brand over ego-inflating intangibles. Moreover, it actively supports and furthers brand awareness through a diversified marketing approach as opposed to putting all of your marketing eggs into a single overvalued basket.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, it's often difficult to tell just what you're getting for your money. Measuring the return on your investment in influencer marketing is made more complicated since many of the usual benchmarks (likes, etc.) equate to vanity metrics. They don't necessarily translate into sales.

Influencer marketing still works when it's done less cynically and more aligned with Fishkin's first formulation. Find out what and who influences your target audience, then commit to a diversified marketing approach that reaches out to that audience where they already live.

John Boitnott

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Journalist, Digital Media Consultant and Investor

John Boitnott is a longtime digital media consultant and journalist living in San Francisco. He's written for Venturebeat, USA Today and FastCompany.

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