Four Rules for Authentic Influencer Marketing

“I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam.”
                                                              – Popeye the Sailor Man

By Sara Olkon

Marketing strategy decks these days are full of advice about embracing “authenticity” in your influencer marketing campaigns. Influencer marketing is what happens when advertisers, seeking to woo a specific audience, sponsor “influencers” to create and post unique content across social media channels. The strategy exploded in 2016.

For the uninitiated, it’s influencer marketing when Kim Kardashian (100 million Instagram followers) posts a photo of herself next to a package of FitTea Fit Shakes and gushes that the low-cal drink “tastes amazing.”

…which brings us back to authenticity.

Consumers are increasingly adept at sniffing out insincerity, and are quick to call out social media personalities who appear to only be shilling for a buck.

So, how do you sell without being a sell-out? Here are four influencer marketing rules to live by.

Rule number 1: Embrace your fans.

To be sure, celebrity endorsements are a big deal. But sometimes the most effective campaigns feature ordinary people—a.k.a. micro-influencers.

Glossier, a skincare and cosmetics company, is a master at this. The Manhattan startup grew out of Into The Gloss, a popular beauty blog started by Emily Weiss (Weiss was the infamous Teen Vogue intern on the MTV reality show The Hills). Leveraging her TV fame, she started a blog that features chatty interviews with “real” women, as well as celebrities and models.

Glossier, built on Into The Gloss’s shoulders, actively taps their fans—and their selfies—on their Instagram page (583K followers) to sell their wares and to crowdsource new product ideas. The company also grew by an estimated 600% last year; Weiss credits the lion’s share of that to Glossier’s super-engaged fan base.

Rule number 2: Have fun.

This isn’t a dental exam.

Lyft boosted brand awareness and upped its cool quotient with its “Undercover Lyft” video series on YouTube and Facebook. Celebrities from Odell Beckham Jr. to Demi Lovato surprised passengers as they engaged in small talk during their ride.

In one episode, Shaquille O’Neal jokingly pulled the car over and got out after a customer told him that her favorite NBA player was Kobe Bryant.

Total views across Lyft’s social media channels exceeded 73 million views, with an additional 2 million user engagements.

Rule number 3: Safeguard your name.

Heed the feds. This spring, the Federal Trade Commission reached out to more than 90 influencers, including celebrities and athletes, warning them that they must “clearly and conspicuously” disclose their relationship to a brand in their posts.

In other words, you must call an ad an ad. If the post is not on a brand’s page, an influencer needs to add to make it as an “#ad,” “Ad” or “sponsored post.” To make transparency easier, on Wednesday, Instagram introduced a new tagging feature that calls out sponsored content as a “paid partnership.” The tagging is voluntary, and not enforced, at least for now.

The failed Fyre Festival in April was a dramatic lesson in what can go wrong when that line is blurred. Organizers of the swank and ultra-exclusive music festival in the Bahamas enlisted A-list Instagram influencers Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski, among other celebrity “Fyre Starters,” to promote the bash on social media.

But the festival never happened. Before it was canceled, some partiers got stranded on the island, with bare bones provisions and shoddy tents. Not surprisingly, organizers now face massive lawsuits and the wrath of attendees, employees and event suppliers.

Influencers who did not disclose that they were compensated for their Fyre Festival endorsements also face legal jeopardy.

Plenty of brands disclose their relationships with influencers clearly. GAP, for example, launched a campaign by asking style mavens to incorporate GAP clothing into their everyday wardrobes as part of their ad campaign. The campaign spanned 21 countries and featured an eclectic mix of models, from a mathematics major in Johannesburg to a DJ in Tokyo. The photos look natural, not slick.

Rule number 4: Don’t try too hard.

If it feels like a stretch (e.g., your influencer doesn’t align well with your brand), don’t go there. If you try too hard, they take away your authenticity card.

A tell-tale sign of an overly controlled post is a highly staged photo. Even more obvious? When influencers cut and paste a caption straight from a publicist. Scott Disick, he of Kardashian fame, posted “Here you go, at 4pm est, write the below. Caption: Keeping up with the summer workout routine with my morning @booteauk protein shake!” (Painful.)

On the other hand, Diageo found a much better way to sell their single malt whiskey.

Fans know that Ron Swanson, the character played by actor Nick Offerman on the popular NBC show Parks and Recreation, drinks the Diageo Scotch whisky Lagavulin. With that association already established, the distillery went after the millennial male demographic, hoping to recruit a new generation of Lagavulin drinkers by going where they live: YouTube.

Nick Offerman’s “Yule Log” is a 44-minute video of the actor sitting by a fire, sipping Lagavulin in silence. Nothing more.

The video has nearly 3.2 million views. In response to the love, Diageo created a 10-hour loop for holiday gatherings.

When done well, influencer marketing can create a powerful connection between your brand and your influencer’s fans. It all comes back to Popeye’s advice about being true to yourself. Be real, don’t skirt the law and have fun.

Sara Olkon is Associate Director, Content Strategy at VSA Partners. She’s passionate about design thinking, storytelling and optimizing audience experiences. VSA clients have included IBM, Thomson Reuters, Hyatt and 
Sara spent more than 15 years as a journalist, including as a staff reporter at the Chicago Tribune and the Miami Herald. Overseas, Sara covered the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an embed with the U.S. Marines and wrote about Ernest Hemingway’s haunts in Cuba. She makes the best vodka penne in all of Chicago.

Contact Sara at