A Google search for 'influencer' includes among its results links to definitions of what an influencer is, a Wikipedia page on influencer marketing, a link to sign up to Amazon’s Influencer Progam ("As an Amazon Influencer, we give you the tools you need to select the best of Amazon's products and services, easily recommend them to your followers...") and, unsurprisingly, a link to a site called Influencer.com ("for influencer marketing with speed and impact"). Influencers are clearly no longer outliers. Is it time we started taking them seriously?

Here's the thing though, isn't it still a little unclear just what exactly constitutes an influencer? Sure, the woman on TikTok telling us how a particular brand of make-up works for her, it’s probably safe to say that she’s an influencer. But what about Matt Damon doing his best to convince us of the benefits of a particular brand of crypto currency? Does that make him an influencer or is that just, well, an ad? And then there’s the guy on Instagram talking about the athleisure gear that makes him work out better and attract more admiring glances. Is he getting paid to tell us that? How are we supposed to know for sure?

Research by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) has found that almost half of all advertising by social media influencers is not clearly marked as paid content or not marked at all. On Drivetime, reporter Barry Lenihan gave us some background into the world of the influencer:

"Influencers, content creators, arbiters of style, these are celebrities and bloggers who promote brands and products on social media through Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, creating and sharing content about their enthusiasms, experiences, their expertise, and they attract followings by virtue of being seen as original or entertaining or informative and so they can be worth big money on social media. And the role of the influencer, controversial at the moment, particularly in America, after a catalogue of A-list stars, including Justin Bieber, Serena Williams, Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, Paris Hilton, Snoop Dogg, among 37 defendants named in a class action lawsuit against Yuga Labs, the parent company of Bored Ape Yacht Club."

This issue Bored Ape is the allegation that Yuga Labs didn’t disclose to investors the celebrities’ involvement in promoting their non-fungible tokens (NFTs). And it’s disclosure that’s been behind some rumblings in the influencer space here in Ireland, as Barry explained:

"Irish influencers, they too have found themselves in hot water recently. In August, rapped on the knuckles by the Advertising and Competition watchdogs, three social media influencers, for not following rules and for not giving followers the full picture about products they were promoting."

The Social Media Influencers Report from the CCPC makes it clear that consumers are potentially being misled by some prominent influencers on social media. Barry quoted the report’s findings that, as well as mislabelling of content and the absence of any labelling at all, 9 out of 10 people surveyed didn’t trust influencers generally:

"However, they did add that they trusted influencers that they followed, but they were reluctant to use the word influencer. While 66% of consumers who followed influencers reported purchasing a product as a result of an influencer promoting it."

The kicker though, is that nearly a quarter of those who bought a product promoted by an influencer they follow reported feeling misled about that product. Again, disclosure is the key issue. Barry spoke to Stephen O’Leary, founder of Olytico Social Media Monitoring, who underlines how influencers should conduct their business:

"The key thing here is transparency. So, if you’re being paid to promote a product or service, or you’re being given something in kind to promote a product or service, and you then promote that product or service to an audience, the audience has to know that that transaction has taken place, otherwise they’ve no context for why you might be claiming that something is very, very good or giving it a very positive review."

For Stephen, it’s a question of education – influencers need to know exactly how clear they have to be:

"I mean, this should be an absolute standard that needs to be met. You should only work with an influencer who is transparent with their followers because in the end, it’s the consumer that benefits here if that transparency is in place."

It may be a struggle for some of us to take the whole notion of influencers seriously, but it’s clear that Stephen – and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission – take them and their actions very seriously indeed.

You can hear Barry’s full report for Drivetime by going here.