Double or nothing? Social media influencers' value is open to debate

An ice cream truck owner's Instagram post recently went viral after he started charging social media influencers double for a cone. Has having tens of thousands of followers lost its lustre? The answer, say experts, is complex.

'Savvy business people' realize followers don't necessarily represent sales

Fashion blogger Clizia Incorvaia, right, takes pictures of her friend, singer Vittoria Hyde, as they have lunch at This Is Not A Sushi Bar restaurant in Milan, Italy, where payment can be made according to the number of Instagram followers one has. (Luca Bruno/The Associated Press)

The story of a resolute ice cream truck owner in Los Angeles has been making headlines around the world.

Frustrated by self-described social media influencers who kept asking for freebies, the businessman is taking a stand: Not only will he not be scooping complimentary cones, he's intent on charging these so-called "influencers" double.

So, have the tides turned? Has the cachet of having tens of thousands of followers lost its lustre? A new report shows that influencers seem to have lost their, well, influence.

But say what you will about the ubiquity of so-called "influencers," it would seem for small businesses, there is no choice but to have an online presence, whether that depends on relying on individuals with social media fame or just doing it themselves.

Due to Instagram's popularity and reach, the social media platform's distinctive esthetic seems to have become the gold standard for new trends. Even within the niche world of ice cream purveyors, the hottest flavours are those that are seemingly designed to be photographed and shared, such as black charcoal ice cream and unicorn treats in rainbow hues.

But not everyone is enamoured with this obsession to share the minutiae of our lives — and our snacks — online, especially when the individuals posting to Instagram expect free cones in exchange for "exposure."

Indeed, a week ago, Joe Nicchi, the founder of CVT Soft Serve, stated: "We truly don't care if you're an Influencer, or how many followers you have, we will never give you a free ice cream in exchange for a post on your social media page. It's literally a $4 item … well now it's $8 for you."

Lest there be any confusion about how he feels, he added the hashtag #InfluencersAreGross.

According to Jaigris Hodson, an associate professor in the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Royal Roads University, who studies digital culture, "Savvy business people are getting tired of being constantly approached by people who want free products or services, and they are starting to realize that just because a person has many followers, doesn't mean a social media post will actually deliver any additional customers."

Free of influence?

Indeed, as the authenticity of those promoting products online increasingly comes into question, so does their motivation, and that's where the business model starts to backfire.

"People want to feel confident that the influencers' recommendations for products and services are genuine and not influenced by payment or free swag," says Jenna Jacobson, an assistant professor in retail management and research fellow at Social Media Lab at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University.

Due to Instagram's popularity and reach, the social media platform's distinctive esthetic seems to have become the gold standard for new trends. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

As for the sway that influencers have over people's purchasing decisions, "It is difficult to truly quantify influence on social media," says Jacobson.

On one hand, there are entire agencies that are set up to pair these influencers with brands that want to reach their followers. Research group McKinsey claims that influencer marketing has been shown to influence 20 to 50 per cent of all purchasing decisions, and according to some reports, the influencer advertising market is poised to be worth up to $10 billion US by 2020.

Still, in terms of actual return on investment, there's not a lot of hard data on how much sway they actually have, or, say, whether one post from one person proclaiming to be an influencer is really worth a free ice cream, explains Hodson.

What's more, she says, their reach may not actually be what it seems.

Hodson points out that it is still possible to buy followers, which makes the number of followers a person has basically worthless. And even if the followers are legit, she says, these vanity metrics may never translate into sales.

"I might have 50,000 followers, but if they're not located in the same city as the ice cream shop, then for the ice cream shop owner, they're not even worth a free cone. They're simply not in a position to ever patronize the establishment."

Still, one thing seems certain: one way or another, small businesses rely on social media marketing to get the word out.

Chiara Valenzano, right, takes pictures of her dish as she has lunch with her friend, Giulia Terranova, at This Is Not A Sushi Bar. (Luca Bruno/The Associated Press)

After all, there aren't a lot of other options as traditional ad avenues disappear. Broadcast and network television viewership has all but collapsed. Even online, consumers have grown savvy about avoiding sales efforts; ad blocking is said to cost advertisers tens of billions of dollars, each year.

There is no doubt that being clever about how you use social media can be beneficial for businesses. For better or for worse, we do tend to believe what we read online, and there is no shortage of tales of how people have been able to manipulate review sites based on amassing favourable reviews, like one man who turned his shed into the top rated restaurant on TripAdvisor.

But if a lineup of people claiming to be influencers is costing you more than it's earning you, it may be time to try another marketing strategy — such as, perhaps, posting about your aversion to influencers, on Instagram.

Indeed, the irony is, while the ice cream truck owner's digital tirade was a stance against the increasing number of self-proclaimed influencers asking for free stuff, now he himself has gone viral, which is no doubt good for business.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.