When a well-known influencer questions the whole medium of social media, it often gives an industry pause. Longtime Instagram Influencer Essena O’Neill recently complained about social media and Influencer Marketing to her significant Instagram audience, even quitting all her social media accounts. She called social media fake and noted the many one-off endorsements she s been making as part of the content featured on her 600,000-follower Instagram account.

Does her admission and accusation mean anything for the world of Influencer Marketing and the 75 percent of brands now making use of this important promotional strategy In the end, brands can learn some valuable lessons about the relationship among brands, influencers, and the audiences they serve from this meltdown.

  1. Audiences Want Authentic Content  Audiences want to experience authentic and interesting content. While O Neill s audience engaged with her content regardless of whether or not they knew she was paid $500 to wear a certain dress, where the mask slips is when content being created shows too much attention on audience development. O Neill complained that being numbers-focused isn t real and she s right that this priority can kill the genuine feel of influencer content. In fact, her stunt has resonated far beyond O Neill s audience because the concerns she raised speak to the enormous pressure on influencers to build the right audiences and expand them to meet the needs of their promotional relationships. Brands need to be cautious about the level of pressure they put on influencers to grow audience because if they lose sight of what drew their fans and followers to their channel in the first place, the influencer and brand both lose when audiences look elsewhere for more authentic and substantial content.
  2. Social Media is Aspirational Followers and fans want to buy into the vision of O Neill s lifestyle and when products that suit her content are featured, it does not disrupt the experience. If she is producing pictures of herself at the beach, she needs to wear a bathing suit. Identifying the products she is using can actually help her followers connect with the lifestyle she is portraying because they can then purchase the items she is featuring and get some of the experience and connection they seek. Yet, if the choices are not genuine, audiences will reject the content being presented. O Neill breaking the 4th wall has led to alienating her fans who bought into her lifestyle and the world she created. That lack of trust can now likely spread to the brands she recommended to that audience, too.
  3. Brands Benefit from Regular Relationships O’Neill’s tirade was after many one-off promotional opportunities rather than a deep relationship with a brand that had built a strong connection with her personally and the persona she has developed. When a true relationship has been forged because the brand has identified that the influencer is truly a Brand Soulmate {link no longer active} whose interests and values connect with their purpose, there is far less of a chance that anyone involved will want to abandon ship (including the audience) because everyone understands the goals and how they are collaborating to achieve them. Furthermore, brands who invest in an influencer gain benefits from future campaigns where the influencer better understands how to organically include the brand s products (and goals) into their content without striking at the trust they’ve built with their audience.

While O’Neill’s comments were intended to strike at the promotional opportunities in Influencer Marketing, she s actually illuminated some reasons why the strategy is effective and reminded brands that they need to identify and effectively connect with influencers that best suit their brand needs. Brands need to understand that they run more risk if they just seek influencers with the largest social reach or greatest willingness to do as they request for short-term campaigns. Building a deeper relationship with ideal influencers that can integrate products into their content without compromising their authenticity will deliver brands much greater success.