influencer marketing

Diversity and representation in influencer marketing – the uncomfortable truth

Influencer marketing has disrupted the advertising industry over the past few years, but hasn’t managed to escape the pitfalls of traditional media, not least when it comes to being predominantly white, straight, able and privileged. 

I was proud to host a panel at the Influencer Marketing Show (IMS) discussing the issues around diversity and representation in industry. This was actually my second panel of the day: the session before we discussed how to assess an influencer’s true value to a packed out room – it was one of the busiest sessions of the conference. But clearly getting bang for you buck is the priority for most as the room emptied out in between the two sessions. In truth, we managed a half full audience for the diversity panel. This was extremely disheartening to see, and perhaps speaks to why there is still a problem in the advertising industry as a whole when it comes to diversity and representation.

Below is a run down of our discussion on the panel to help you rethink your own strategies and help you persuade the powers that be where you work why this is something you should be thinking about in your campaigns.

The panel:

Nicole Ocran, Independent Talent Manager at The Fifth
Simon Ragoonanan, Marketing Manager at Hopster TV
William Soulier, Co-Founder and CEO at Talent Village
Chair: Amie Shearer, Influencer and Social Media Marketing Consultant

Tokenism: the lazy marketer’s crutch or a step in the right direction?  

Traditional forms of advertising have long been criticised for relying on and perpetuating stereotypes. Despite hugely disrupting the advertising industry and breaking the mould in so many ways, influencer marketing is slowly falling into the same woeful habits, with ‘tokenism’ becoming one of the key issues of the moment.

It’s the idea that brands employ a roster of talent for their campaign, including one individual who is (for example) black to ‘tick the diversity box’, while everyone else involved is straight, white, privileged – and often even blonde.

But is tokenism itself really all that bad?

Nicole Ocran (Black Ballad, Disney and more recently working at The Fifth) suggested that if a ‘tick boxing exercise’ is what it takes to ensure a campaign is diverse, then that’s better than failing to be diverse at all – at least it shows the team are consciously trying to be inclusive in their marketing, which in itself is a step forward. The problem is when a brand fails to move beyond tokenism time and time again.

During my time at Mumsnet, I chose to put quotas in place to ensure diversity and representation was front of mind for my (all-white) team: influencer shortlists sent to clients required a minimum of 20% of the creators being from a minority background – whether that was BAME, SEN, adoptive or LGBT families or other. This didn’t mean that quality, relevance or engagement rates dropped. It simply meant the team had to work harder to ensure all criteria were met.

But this is an industry of two sides and Jess Jones (The Fat Funny One) has challenged the influencers themselves to take a more active role in the campaigns they are a part of. Speaking on Grace Victory and Simone Powderly’s podcast The Sister Space (listen here from about 8mins in) Jess called for influencers to ask who else is on the roster before they sign onto a campaign, and if it’s not diverse, call out the issue, recommend alternative talent and be a voice for change.

Myth: diverse talent only access a niche audience

Have a quick think – how many brands can you name that have a vegan focussed product already on shelves? Tesco has an entire vegan range (Wicked Kitchen) and recently launched it’s first vegan ad (much to the Farmer’s Union’s disgust – awkward); and if you search ‘vegan leather’ on Net-A-Porter you can fit out your entire Autumn Winter wardrobe in smug, animal friendly chic.

Yet only 1% of the UK population are actually vegan.

By contrast, there are 13 million in the UK who are considered terminally disabled, which stretches to 53% of the UK population when you include carers, friends and family affected by someone who is disabled.

Still sounding niche?

But how many advertising campaigns have you seen recently including a disabled individual as part of the talent roster? Likely not that many as research by The Valuable 500 – a global organisation putting disability on the business agenda – has discovered that only 0.6% of adverts represent those who live with a disability. (Stats via the SocialMinds podcast here).

What’s more, M.I.N (Muslim Influencer specialists) presented case studies at IMS showcasing how they had helped major UK brands increase sales with targeted Muslim messaging via Muslim influencers. Omar Shahid shared how their Ramadan campaign contributed to Anchor becoming the second largest butter brand (in terms of sales) in the UK.

But such a niche group couldn’t manage that – surely?

So is it really minority groups ‘being niche’ that is the problem, or is it modern discrimination at play? An uncomfortable thought for all of us that work in the industry, but one we need to openly consider if we’re going to make a change for the better.

Are ‘niche’ talent pricing themselves out of the market?

But many brands and agencies alike complain that ‘niche’ talent are charging a premium for their services – women over 50 with half the engaged audience of a woman in her 20s charging twice as much, “simply because she’s more experienced”.

This very phrase could warrant an article all and of itself, outlining some of the major issues in the influencer marketing industry currently – in that specific example, do you know any other industry where you wouldn’t pay a premium for quality and experience? But I digress…

On the panel at IMS, Nicole and Simon Ragoonanan (HopsterTV) both felt that it was wholly acceptable for talent from minority backgrounds to charge a premium. If you don’t agree that an individual is worth what they are charging then maybe they’re not the right talent for your campaign anyway.

It has been the case in the world of talent long before digital influencers joined the fray that talent and their agents charge what they believe that individual is worth. It is subjective, and sometimes murky. The influencer space has actually really disrupted the talent space by expecting fees to be more reliant on objective measurements of return on investment – something that William (Talent Village) felt was crucial regardless of a creator’s race, gender, ability or any other personal classification.

But where the panel did agree was that we live in a Capitalist society and it could be argued this is a very simple case of supply and demand. The digital influencer default is able, straight white, aged 18-35. For instance, Vuelio published research earlier this year confirming the industry is hugely lacking in diversity, with only 9% being people of colour.

Turning that on its head, Vuelio also found that over 80% of influencers in the industry are female, and that on average male creators charge more, and earn more than their female counterparts – but no one is calling them out for charging a premium for being a minority in the industry.

So again we return to the question: how much are the problems within this discussion simply a result of modern discrimination?

The uncomfortable truth: the problem lies with advertising professionals

I wrote earlier that while I was Head of Influencer Marketing at Mumsnet, I introduced diversity quotas. This is often seen as an unpopular course of action, but after speaking to those from minority groups within Mumsnet HQ and our influencer network, I felt it was the right one to ensure we broke out of our own echo chambers and removed our own unconscious bias as we were an all-white, all-female team.

We started searching for creators on Google Incognito so our personal preferences that had been training algorithms for years didn’t get in the way. On Instagram and YouTube we didn’t rely simply on the ‘Like this profile? Try these’ suggestions, but instead delved deeper – who were these profiles following, and who were they following? Over three months, we discovered hundreds of new profiles that had never before been on our radar. Not all of them had a strong enough relationship with their audience yet for all our campaigns, but at least we now knew who they were for when they had grown their influence further.

Simon echoed this need for agency teams to work harder:

HopsterTV is a progressive brand, targeting a progressive parent audience. But I want it all – I want an agency to come to me with a diverse range of influencers who will represent and reach our desired target audience, and ultimately convert that audience into customers. Sometimes these are competing priorities, but that’s what agencies should be aiming for.

Influencer Intelligence (2018) found that 38% of marketers still rely on recommendations from friends within the industry. So is it any surprise that so many campaigns utilise the same faces again and again?

But at the heart of all of this is the issue that the advertising, marketing and media industries are still largely white, privileged and London-centric. And until we address this within our own teams at brands, agencies and platforms alike, diversity and representation in advertising – of all varieties, not just influencer marketing – is likely to continue to be something teams have to actively consider through quotas, tick boxing and other means rather than it simply coming naturally to the creative process.



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