How Social Media Influencers Have Infiltrated Earned Media

How Social Media Influencers Have Infiltrated Earned Media

By Gayatri N. Bhalla, Faculty, Master's in Integrated Marketing Communications

We all know that it is no longer enough to have a social media strategy—that social media has a seat at the table is now a given. Social media influencers have upended the earned media equation and forever changed marketing strategy.

Savvy brands not only include social media presence and engagement in their marketing plans, but they also deploy sophisticated tactics to introduce and re-introduce their products and brands to their target audience. Social media influencers are a big part of brands’ digital strategies because they offer marketers a chance to start and shape public discussion about their brand in ways that traditional earned media does not.

From Traditional Media’s Trust to Social Media’s Omnipotence

Traditional earned media outlets (e.g., newspapers, magazines, journals) adhere to strict editorial standards because that’s what keeps their audiences’ trust. The public didn’t used to have so many choices for their content—these traditional outlets served as gatekeepers for content, determining what information deserved coverage.

But the internet changed all of that. It allowed anyone to be a publisher. Then social media changed the landscape further by creating distribution platforms to share one’s published views. This has resulted in a paradigm shift wherein outlets such as the Huffington Post or Drudge Report can legitimately pull up a seat to the same table as the major news networks, or where fashion bloggers with massive Instagram followings can rival Vogue in terms of delivering sales for a retailer.

While one can debate the merits of public trust and disclosure standards in publishing, one cannot escape the new reality that earned media now includes as much effort and maybe even more budget as a result of the rise of social media influencers.

Defining New Standards and Disclosures

Influencers don’t come cheap, and increasingly the government is taking notice—the FTC has always posted guidance to bloggers about truth in advertising and disclosures, but recently it has cracked down in a few egregious cases. The now accepted practice of tacking on #sponsored or #ad to a post will soon not be enough. Expect to hear more in this vein as more media money pours into the influencers’ coffers.

Importantly, self-promoted influencers aren’t held to the same standards for trust or disclosure as traditional media, and arguably they don’t need to be: Tavi Gevinson has just as much right to make fashion observations as Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, and the public can vote with their clicks (and their wallets) whom it wants to follow.

— Gayatri N. Bhalla teaches Innovations in IMC for the Master’s in Integrated Marketing Communications program at Georgetown University. Gayatri has more than twenty years of experience working with top brands (including General Motors, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and T-Mobile) and broad, multidisciplinary experience in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. She earned her MBA from the Yale School of Management and has a B.A. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. Gayatri currently sits on the Boards of Northwest Little League DC, Yale Women, and the U.S. Fencing Association, Capitol Division.

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