Influencer Marketing: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

influencer marketing

Influencer marketing has experienced explosive growth during the last five years. It peaked during the Pandemic, but it’s still going strong. So much so that experts project marketers worldwide will spend a whopping $4.5 billion in 2023 on hiring influencers to promote and endorse their products. 

In a world dominated by social media and the never-ending pursuit of engagement, we are constantly bombarded with information when we decide to check our social media accounts. 

You’ve likely noticed by now that much of that information is advertising, both overt and subtle. Two common examples are native ads and discreet ads from influencers disguised under the veil of “relatedness” to their personality, the subject of their post or aesthetic. 

The questionable behaviour of some of these influencers makes the audience catch on and realize that that said relatedness and relatability is actually just an illusion.

If you’ve been wondering if you should jump into the influencer marketing wagon, here’s what you need to know.

The Numbers Don’t Lie, Influencer Marketing Works

Let’s start by giving credit to influencers by admitting that they can really sell. Studies show that influencer marketing drives around 11x more ROI than other marketing tactics and that influencer content gets up to 8 times more engagement than brand content. 

Logically, this has inspired marketers to work with influencers even more, leading to an increase in dedicated influencer budgets of 67%, according to the Influencer Marketing Hub Benchmark Report, which surveyed 3500 brands and marketers.

This translates into a massive increase in market size for influencer marketing globally, which was valued at 16.4 billion at the end of 2022, and is expected to double in 2023.

Global influencer marketing market size in billion US dollars (updated until February 2023) – Statista

All these metrics make influencer marketing very appealing. However, audience sentiment towards influencers is starting to shift, leading us to examine what’s called the parasocial relationship phenomenon that makes influencer marketing successful.

Parasocial Relationships in the Social Media Era

Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships with media personalities we’ve never met. This isn’t new; ever since the concept of celebrity was born, we’ve formed some form of personal “connection” with celebrities we like. 

However, the surge of social media has allowed us to have a deeper glimpse of celebrities’ lives, and parasocial connections have become an immersive experience. 

Research shows that our emotional connection with traditional celebrities and social media influencers has substantial differences, and one of them stands out the most: relatability.

Our brains make us believe that influencers are like us, they’re like a friend who we follow everywhere in their daily lives through our screens, and we tend to take our friend’s recommendations to heart, right? 

This relatedness enhances influencers’ persuasive power over their audiences and makes them the selling machines they are now.

However, our bond with influencers can go through hardships or breaks, just like in every relationship. And due to some prominent influencers’ questionable behaviour and even abuse of their connection with their audience, the relatability mirage may have started to crack. 

Problematic Influencers

Many relevant influencers have faced backlash and scrutiny, and it seems that we have some news of an influencer being criticized for shady real-life behaviour almost every day, something CTI has covered in the past.

From the recent “mascara gate” when TikToker Mikayla Nogueira did an undisclosed (and misleading) ad for L’Oreal, influencer/fashion designer Danielle Bernstein, constantly under fire due to their alleged habit of stealing designs from small brands, to former fitness Brittany Dawn, sued by the State of Texas for scamming their followers, and crypto YouTuber Ben Armstrong (aka BitBoy Crypto) currently facing a class-action lawsuit with other relevant media figures for promoting the failed exchange FTX, it seems that some people in the influencer community think that they’re untouchable and can get away with anything.

Mikayla Nogueira reviewed a L’Oréal mascara and was accused of wearing false eyelashes to enhance the result. (Mamamia)

Of course there are honest and authentic influencers out there, however the scandals of the less-than-honest ones have made a lot of noise, and their audiences have started to get tired of the influencing space as a whole. 

This is very slowly starting to be reflected in the statistics. In the same Influencer Marketing Hub report I cited above, marketers also expressed more negative sentiment towards influencer marketing as a tactic, with 83% of the participants positively assessing it against the 90% support stated in 2022’s report. 

On the audience’s side, the rejection rate seems to be gaining traction. There’s a growing trend of “snarking” on influencers’ antics, especially on Reddit, and the death of the influencer era is frequently discussed. Let’s take a look at a few of the answers to one of these threads, specifically addressing TikTok:

And this reply from another thread highlights the fact that people are starting to see content posted by influencers as staged and inauthentic and influencers are slowly but steadily losing the “relatedness” that lured people in the first place:

Problematic influencers are just a tiny part of why some social media users are less enamored with influencer recommendations. Many negative comments mention the economy, which plays a huge role in their changing buying patterns.

The pandemic days when people spent most of their day scrolling on their phones and getting “influenced” to buy things they probably didn’t need online are behind us, and we’re living the consequences COVID left behind like soaring inflation and potentially  imminent global recession.

Is the Influencer Bubble Bursting?

While many influencers have become millionaires in recent years, many in their audience are struggling to make it until the end of the month. The more influencers seem to lose touch with reality and exploit their audience’s trust, the more brands need to think before jumping into influencer marketing. 

Is influencer marketing really dying? No, but the times are changing. Businesses must proceed cautiously with this marketing tactic; attaching your brand image to someone else’s reputation or values shouldn’t be taken lightly, as what they do or say will inevitably be associated with your business. 

For example, fitness products brand Bootea partnered in 2016 with Kourtney Kardashian’s ex-husband, Scott Disick, to promote their products on his Instagram account. Still, instead of taking a few seconds to read the brand instructions for the post, Disick copied and pasted the whole email, posted it, and called it a day.


The post was deleted almost immediately, but the internet did the lord’s work and immortalized this influencer flop for posterity. Bootea and Disick were laughed at online for a few days, and the incident gave yet another glimpse of how fake sponsored content can be. Although the best times for posting on social media and pre-approved captions are a regular aspect of online marketing, no brand wants to be a case study of this, especially not because of a lazy influencer.

A much-discussed recent example of an influencer partnership gone wrong and how linking a brand to a cause can do more harm than good is the partnership between beer brand Bud Light and trans actress Dylan Mulvaney in April 2023. 
The campaign unleashed the rage of conservatives and others with an anti-trans sentiment in the US and abroad, who launched a hateful campaign calling for a boycott of the brand.

The video ad posted on Mulvaney’s Instagram account was to promote Bud Light’s March Madness giveaway.

It is worth noting that Mulvaney has had multiple successful product partnerships that garnered no controversy whatsoever. Unfortunately, the marketers behind her Bud Light campaign appear to have neglected some key audience research and failed to predict their audience’s reaction.

So far, Bud Light’s parent company Anheuser-Busch has lost $27 billion in market value as sales plummeted after the campaign. 

This is a good example of the importance of authenticity. Unless a brand has a solid track record of supporting a cause, partnerships and campaigns can be a mismatch with the audience. This applies to influencers or any marketing method.

These examples can serve small businesses by offering a cautionary tale of how wrong these campaigns can go. However, successful campaigns working with influencers as a small business are still possible.

Tips to Work With Influencer Marketing

If you’re a small business wanting to give influencer marketing a try, here are some tips to get you in the right direction:

  • Identify your audience: Having a deep understanding of the people you want to reach, including which platform they spend the most time on is a critical step.
  • Set your goals: working with KPIs (sales, website traffic, leads, etc.) will allow you to measure the campaign performance and ROI.
  • Choose nano or mini influencers: this may sound like a no-brainer for small businesses, but big companies are doing this too. There’s a strong preference for working with nano (1k to 10k followers) and micro (10k to 50k followers). They’re not only more affordable and often easier to work with than big influencers, they have the highest engagement rate across all platforms.
  • Search the candidates: many websites like Intellifluence or help content creators and businesses connect, but most of them are paid. If your budget is tight, try going to the social media platforms you want to work with and do searches using the keywords your target audience would most likely use to find content related to your offer.
  • Spend some time watching the accounts you find: act like a regular follower and look at how your candidates interact with their followers, the type of content they post, and the comments they get.
  • Reach out to them: most influencers will display their email in their bio, but DMs are always an option. Discuss with them the idea of a partnership and ask for their press kit with details of their analytics.
  • Establish clear outlines: provide clear details for the content (you may also provide a caption or script details.) Always review the content they’re going to post before publishing.
  • Measure, repeat or try again: assess the campaign’s performance and determine if the influencer you partnered with is fit for future campaigns. The results may not be what you expected; in this case, you will need to do some trial and error with other influencers until you find the right ones.

I hope this article gave you a clear perspective on the current state of influencer marketing. It may not die soon, but it also isn’t the sure thing it seemed like during the pandemic. With the right approach, it can be a powerful tool to reach your ideal audience.