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Senator Richard Blumenthal criticizes the influencer marketing practices of detox tea firms. Image source: Richard Blumenthal

Many marketers and PR pros consider influencer marketing a valuable strategy. But working with influencers has led to serious problems for some brands.

The Federal Trade Commission is investigating if Juul Labs, the e-cigarette outfit, used influencers as part of deceptive marketing practices to push its product to teens, The Wall Street Journal first reported. Several state attorneys general are also investigating Juul’s marketing practices. Juul maintains that it doesn’t target youths and only used influencers in a “small, short-lived pilot” that ended last year.

In addition, Senator Richard Blumenthal has asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the marketing practices, and particularly the influencer marketing, of companies that advertise detox teas as weight loss tools. “These products marketed to adolescents and young adults through celebrity endorsements and social media for weight loss and wellness, are ineffective at best and dangerous at worst,” Blumenthal states

“Unfortunately, manufacturers of these products are taking advantage of young people’s insecurities and the power of celebrities on social media platforms to endorse their products,” he adds.

The Core of Influencer Marketing Problems

The problem is not the particular brands or their products or the influencers themselves, argues Evy Wilkins, vice president of marketing at Traackr, an influencer marketing platform. The problem is how marketers work with influencers.

Celebrity influencers don’t post about detox tea companies often; they typically share a handful of posts to satisfy contract quotas, Wilkins writes in Mobile Marketing. In addition, 51% of all posts about detox tea companies from influencers are paid. That strategy is more akin to traditional advertising than influencer marketing, Wilkins argues. “True influencer marketing focuses on relationship-building, solidifying brand affinity and encouraging authentic messaging,” he asserts.

In addition, their endorsements fail to accurately describe how the teas work and don’t list their potentially dangerous side effects, contrary to influencer marketing recommended practices of authenticity and transparency.

A PR-based Influencer Marketing Strategy

E-commerce fashion company Resolve, which raised $212 million in an initial public offering, offers better example, Wilkins says. The company embraces an organic approach. Just 2.36% of influencer posts about Resolve are paid.

Other experts agree that using public relations strategies to gain earned media placements from social media influencers produce better results than simply paying influencers to mention a brand. “The mentality should be going after earned media and getting people to share it,” states Benjamin Trinh, head of influencer and marketing strategy at Postmates, in a Forbes article. “I’m a believer that PR can be so beautifully orchestrated that it should be the number-one priority for a company looking for long-term growth.”

Honest product reviews are essential, even if the influencer receives a payment or a sample, advises digital marketer Stacey Dsylva. Influencers who only praise the product won’t appear more authentic than traditional advertising. “Encourage them to test the products before giving an honest and transparent assessment, stating openly what their personal experience was with the product,” Dsylva says. “This kind of credibility is what will seal the deal with your potential consumers before they hit the ‘add to cart’ button.”

To develop relationships with influencers, PR pros can offer free content, product samples, company tours or other special services in return for brand mentions. Seek creative approaches to compensation. Help them reach more followers, and offer informational content, visuals, and insights they can share with their followers. Provide them with an opportunity to give their followers a behind the scenes look at your product or service.

Brands may find greater success at developing deeper relationships with micro-influencers or nano-influencers rather than expensive celebrities. Those social media users with smaller followings enjoy higher engagement levels, greater trust and relatively fewer fake followers than celebrity influencers.  Also, their followers are more likely to heed their product recommendations.

social media analytics tool can help find influences who can become ideal partners by analyzing engagement rates, content and other information. A social media measurement service can also gauge the effectiveness of your influencer marketing and demonstrate its value to management.

Bottom Line: Influencing marketing practices of some companies have drawn the ire of politicians and the attention of regulators. The problem is not influencer marketing itself or the products influencers endorse. It’s how companies work with influencers. These recommendations from experts will help other brands avoid similar problems.