Possibly the most unanimously derided term in social media among brand managers and PR firms today is ‘influencer’.

A brief introduction to the term for those just joining in on the conversation: over the past few years blogging and other social media activities have gone mainstream to the point where a single post, photograph, video or tweet can single-handedly define for thousands the reputation of a brand or topic.

The people who create said effective content are termed as influencers for obvious reasons.

However – and here’s where this becomes interesting – the fickle nature of the internet when it comes to quality check as well as the consistent need of the 21st century brand manager to continue to stay relevant to his company has embraced the influencer culture at face value.

Where, up to 2013, such influencers were genuinely popular content creators with thousands if not millions of followers and fans on various channels and platforms, the evolution of ‘share’ algorithms on Facebook and Instagram as well as reach metrics have made anyone with more than 500 followers and something to say a potential influencer in the eyes of brands. This is where the downward spiral into hacks and enthusiasts considering themselves influencers began.

Fast forward to 2016. Today, regions where blogging and social media are still in their infancy regarding a large scale, quality blogging community or where good Instagram content is hard to find have become infested with what I call ‘influenzas’: people who think they are influencers when they’re not, they really just have a virus that makes them think they are.

In Dubai, for example, the current trend on this topic is food and fashion or as they prefer to call it: ‘lifestyle’. A quick search for food bloggers on any of the major social channels brings up at least 40 blogs, Twitter and Instagram handles, a few Facebook pages and at least one Youtube channel. Of the 40, perhaps 6 or 7 are of high quality, belying that the creator is a qualified writer with a great command of the English language and with excellent graphic or photography skills they employ when creating a post. These 6 or 7 are true opinion leaders, who treat their chosen topic with the respect a good critic is wont to. Brand managers call them ‘KOLs’ or ‘key opinion leaders’ on their balance sheets.

Of the rest of them, probably 10 are enthusiasts who are still respected among the wider community, whose opinions are usually well-founded and who genuinely influence a small circle of people towards a brand or product. These enthusiasts are the ones who frequent movie premiers, restaurant launches or the latest pubs for a quick review. Their reviews are usually unbiased and don’t promote the product itself, rather the experience.

Now come the rest. These are the influenzas. These are people who believe they know what critiquing is, or how a review is meant to be written. You know who I’m talking about, the ones who have ‘foodie’ in their social bio but really have no clue about what constitutes food critique or the difference between . Or the ones who are ‘lifestyle’ bloggers who really just hound PR agencies for freebies from brands or free culinary experiences at hotels. I know of one particular blogger who only blogs reviews of restaurants that allow her to bring a minimum of 5 friends for free food.

Why am I so upset at this trend? Well, here’s why:

This morning I was sent two rate cards by friends who work in Dubai’s dynamic PR industry. The rates were of bloggers who were inviting these PR execs to add them to their list of content creators/curators. You’re probably as interested as I was to know what these rates were, so here goes:

Blogger 1:
Blog post: AED 1000
Social Media Post: AED 500
Ad on blog home page: AED 3500 for a month
All inclusive package: AED 3000 for a month

Blogger 2:
Blog post: AED 5000 (including social media support, whatever that means)
Photo shoot: AED 5000 for photos to appear on a slide show on their blog home page
Banner Ads on home page: rates vary

Can everyone see what’s wrong here?

  • There’s no consistency on what is supposed to be charged and how
  • Large variance in market rates
  • Quite honestly no real indication of how these rates were arrived at
  • How many hours is the blogger going to work on a post?
  • Are the photographs taken using a DSLR and special lighting equipment or just an iPhone and a fancy lens?
  • Are the banner ads animated or static and are they exclusive?

My opinion: These rate cards are similar to many I’ve seen over the last year. All these rates seem to stem from a misguided sense of self-worth. The blogger sat down one day and figured ‘I received 3 free invitations for food reviews from X and Y Hotels last month, I should tell brands what they can pay me now that I’m in demand’. Said blogger creates a rate card on PowerPoint or Excel, adds some colours and a logo they made using Pixlr and eventually decides ‘I think AED 3000 is good for a blog post, they spend millions on a TVC I’m pretty sure this is nothing for them’.

And boom: a rate card appears and is then spammed to all PR agency email addresses.

Some of you are probably going ‘meh, they’re kids and it’s an open market for this right now, what’s the harm?’

The harm is manifold: Brands are being tricked into hiring amateurs and immatures, thereby having no control over quality or influence factors, they end up being associated with badly written reviews or unfair critiques based on the emotional maturity of the reviewer. The brand also ends up having to defend itself in the case of a rogue reviewer. Example: last night I visited a great restaurant in Dubai Healthcare City. As I took photographs to add to my Zomato review of the place, the owner came by to check if I had enjoyed my experience. As we got talking, he mentioned how one ‘reviewer’ had come by and because he was made to wait longer than 2 minutes for a table, took photos of badly lit corners of the restaurant to post in their review, which said it was a bad place with dingy ambiance (far from it) and gave the restaurant one out of 5 stars.

This is even before I start off on the legality of rate cards in a budding industry that’s not regulated. Do these bloggers have a trade license that allows them to charge for services? Are they operating with a business bank account which helps businesses and brands during their auditing? Are they accountable for libel? Who really knows? No one, at the moment. This could prove to be unethical at best and illegal at worst, especially for the brand that chooses to employ the services of such ‘influenzas’.

One lifestyle blogger in the UAE in a discussion with me mentioned the fact that Dubai has been spending a lot on promoting the blogging and influencer culture – as can be seen in advertisements by du, Etisalat, Lexus etc – and would have cracked down on this if it was illegal. I am on the fence with this one. Dubai is very clear on certain things when it comes to revenue and business. If it involves the exchange of money from a brand to another entity, it better be to a licensed entity. Otherwise there’s no way to track this, especially in the case of money laundering if that. Strong words, but a necessary question. How does one know, really?

This is not the end of my post but I need to take a break because I do have a day job. More on this topic tomorrow, where I cover the second issue that’s far bigger than this one: quality.

Do let me know your thoughts in the comments.