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Saturday, January 20 2018 12:58

The Business: The Manufactured Controversy Between White Moose Cafe and the "Social Media Influencer"

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Behind-the-Curtain: Some words about the business...

In the summer of 2016, I made a rare appearance at a conference in New York City - Blogger Bash. The event was a presentation of the team behind The Toy Insider, and at the time I'd just become a member of their Parent Advisory Board and a regular contributor to their publication (read my January 2018 column here!). Paired with Sweet Suite (a must-attend gathering for the toy industry) the event brought together a wide array of media from traditional press to social media influencers and everyone in between. Following breakfast, I was having a conversation with a group who was at first surprised that I was actually able to exist in the physical realm rather than as a voice that lives only within their digital devices (I'd become known as a conference-avoider). Where I'd raised a few eyebrows and turned a few neighboring heads was when I stood there, drink in-hand, and casually made the comment that "you should never use the term 'influencer' in a front-facing manner." When asked why, I said it was "because it can be construed as being condescending to your audience." Two years later, I stand behind that statement, because "influencer" is a behind-the-scenes title that should never be pointed at an audience, and right now that's more important than ever. 

About a year before that conference, I was on a shuttle with a group of publicists from one of the biggest agencies in the U.S. I'd been hired for a Brand Ambassador gig through them, and as we were moving from one destination to another, the conversation somehow shifted to "influencer" as a title, which was at that point just gaining steam. It was explained by one of the publicists that they'd recently had some "lengthy inner-agency discussion" as to what their content partners should be called. "Last year it was 'digital content creators,'" she explained. "Before that it was bloggers or YouTubers."

As the lines between traditional media and whatever we're into now continue to blur,  there is constant evolution. Traditional press and "journalists" are seemingly a minority at this point, with opinionated coverage bringing what used to be the op-ed to the forefront. Almost all of the media we consume has a personal spin on it, and with that, these personalities have emerged. Writers, bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers, Twitter celebrities, Instagram stars, television personalities, actors, athletes - they're all around us, and every single one of those has the ability to influence an audience. By saying "influencer," it's industry-speak to be a catch-all for a person that is perceived to reach a specific audience and be able to potentially influence a reaction or purchase decision. That's all it is.

Until recently, no one would've ever considered saying that they are an influencer (we'll drop the quotes from here), nor would that be something that they'd aspire to be. True influencers got to where they are - developed their true influence - by simply being who they are and doing what they do. The influencer has existed as long as marketing has... but they just didn't have a buzz-word title until around 2015 or so.

If you have the word "influencer" in a front-facing spot - whether it be a Twitter bio, a welcome statement to your website, your Instagram profile or any other location where your daily audience will see it, remove it now. And while we're at it, if the phrase "PR Friendly" is there - ace that one, too. A notable VP of a massive agency has noted that phrase to be used as "an industry flag that they'll work for a $5 gift card," but that's a whole different discussion. Save influencer for your advertising pages, media kits or other business-facing spots. I know a lot of wonderful people who make this same mistake repeatedly, and until now I've felt bad about saying anything about it. Get rid of it.

We've now turned a corner where there's an evolution of the term to be "Social Media Influencer," and in many cases it's the individual bestowing that title upon themselves, often before they've even built a true audience. Of course that also opens another can of worms, which is the fake followers - numbers bought via bot or cheaply-paid workers in third-world countries who can create the appearance of an audience where there is none, or inflate the perception of an existing one. As the saying goes, "perception is reality," except when you're faking it, that's not true. But -- if your actions help to taint or tarnish an entire industry, perception will quickly become the reality for a lot of honest people. With a certain sub-set of these self-proclaimed social media influencers, their actions are having a ripple-effect, and there's a lot of folks becoming quick to move without thought, and it's creating collateral damage that they don't even yet realize.

Paul Stenson of The White Moose Cafe and Charleville  Lodge is 2018's Marketer of the Year (and it's only January)

Perhaps you've heard the story in the news this week - the one about the "rude hotel owner outing a social media influencer." The story goes like this - 22-year-old YouTuber Elle Darby, a self-proclaimed "Social Media Influencer" sends a poorly-worded pitch to Paul Stenson requesting a four-night stay at his property in Dublin, Ireland. She offers positive coverage in exchange for the accommodations, but rather than saying "no," Paul posts the email on his Facebook page as a statement against freebies.

In the post, Paul blacked-out Elle's name and url, and never once mentioned her publicly... yet she quickly followed-up with a nearly unwatchable (I couldn't make it through it) 17-minute video about how she'd been "exposed" and was "SO embarassed" about the situation.

Was she really "exposed" until she revealed herself?

Now, following the initial post, Paul did a few others with titles like "OFFICIAL APOLOGY TO BLOGGERS," "THANK YOU BLOGGERS," and "ALL BLOGGERS BANNED FROM OUR BUSINESS." These prompted a lot of reaction from all corners of the world, but what few (some did, but very little) seemed to mention in their reporting is that this has happened before. The pattern of the Facebook posts and all, from a 2015 "scuffle" with vegans and the gluten-free to a war against breast feeding. He's built a business on ribbing people on social media, not unlike Wendy's is doing here in the States by roasting their Twitter followers.

Paul is a brilliant marketer who I believe has some fantastic ideas, but is it at all possible that Elle Darby is actually in on this round? What I have yet to see reported in any of the recent coverage is the existence of this video from October 2017. "House of Influencers" is a Funny or Die-style satire of influencer culture, particularly in the fashion, beauty and travel space. It's a video produced by Stenson, starring comic Jen Hatton and it's brilliant:

Isn't it just a tad bit of an odd coincidence that what occurred in that video ended up happening in real life just three months later? But underneath this, there's a darker thing brewing, and while I think it's extremely misguided to paint all social influencers as unethical, Paul has some real points that need to be considered, and hopefully this entire controversy (no matter real or fabricated) will open some eyes and allow some folks to pull back and take a good look at their behavior. Of particular note is that Paul, in a just-posted video, calls out a barrage of other influencers who have left 1-star reviews on his businesses due to this week's events. Indeed, can you trust the influence of someone who leaves a bad review of a property that they've never even been to?

That type of behavior, paired with much of the immediate reaction of "being offended" without looking deeper into things, helps to make an entire industry look worse. While we have FTC guidelines that need to be followed here in the States (some still skirt them) looking at Miss Darby's channel makes me wonder about how other countries handle such things. Sadly, what I do see is that the Kardashian-style trash culture is infecting the rest of the globe.

But what do I know? 

I've spent the past 1400 words or so pondering how marketers and influencers can be better, but at the same time I can't help but think about planning a trip to Dublin. I've never really had much interest in international travel (that's my wife's thing), nor have I ever considered visiting Ireland. Yet now, I really want to stay at the Charleville Lodge and enjoy a meal at The White Moose Cafe. Should I ever find myself in that area of the world, I'll gladly pay for both. This infomercial has me sold...

Bottom line for today: Think about what you do. Think about how your actions might reflect not only on yourself, but on your industry. Think about the ethics of media and how you will make a commitment to being the best you can be. As an influencer, serving your audience should be priority #1 - providing content that they will find entertaining, informative, and truthful. You don't set out to become an influencer. That's the first lesson. And once you are, you never admit that or say it to your audience. That's lesson #2.

Influencer marketing can be a powerful tool, but it needs to be done right.

Bonus: What is all this "negative" publicity worth? The 2015 incident with vegans was said to have garnered "six-figure results," and this current round of "#bloggergate" (yes, there's a hashtag) has been estimated by Dublin-based PR firm ClearStory to have benefited both sides handsomely. As of yesterday, the media placement generated is said to have been worth over $2M in favor of the cafe and lodge, and over $4M in favor of Elle Darby. 

UPDATED: January 22, 2018. Another fantastic video...

James Zahn

James Zahn is not a journalist, nor a blogger, though he may be credited as such by others, or even accept the title... depending on the circumstance.  Instead, he considers himself largely to be an "entertainment and lifestyle writer," bringing 25+ years of experience in the entertainment and publishing industries into the family realm as THE ROCK FATHER™.

As a media personality, commentator, adventurer and raconteur, James now finds himself raising a pair young girls - The Rock Daughters™ - along with his wife from their Illinois home.

He is a member of The Toy Insider Parent Advisory Board, has contributed to The Toy Book and writes a regular Star Wars column - Transmissions from a Galaxy Far, Far Away for The Pop Insider. He also regularly serves as a Brand Ambassador and spokesperson for several Globally-recognized pop culture and lifestyle brands in addition to consulting for a number of toy manufacturers. 

Creatively, James has directed/edited music videos, lyric videos, and album trailers for bands such as FEAR FACTORY, has appeared as an actor in feature films and commercials, written comic books, and performed in bands. He currently serves as an artist manager and video director for PRODUCT OF HATE, whose debut album was released by Napalm Records in 2016, distributed by ADA/Warner Music in the U.S. with Universal Music handling global.

James and/or his work have been featured in/on CNN, FOX Business, NBC, ABC, WGN, G4, The Chicago Tribune, BusinessWire, Babble, Fangoria, Starlog and more. He's appeared as a music expert on CNN's AC360 alongside Anderson Cooper, and has been interviewed by Larry King. In the past he served as a writer for the Netflix Stream Team,  Fandango Family and PBS KIDS, penned articles for Sprout and PopSugar, and was a contributor to Chicago Parent.

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