Comment: Bloggers and 'influencers' battle for attention but is it ethical?

Instagram has provided a platform for 'influencers' who may not be wordsmiths - and companies are using them to promote products. Source: AP

Bloggers have been overtaken by 'influencers' - Instagrammers with thousands upon thousands of followers, promoting brands but not always declaring who's behind the post. So is it ethical?

Bloggers, be afraid, be very afraid.

Mention the b-word to many journalists and you’ll encounter a snarl. As more and more reporters are being made redundant, “bloggers” are popping up all over the place. Take the food industry - once Fairfax and News Ltd had a legion of food writers, those numbers have dwindled.

Newspapers are discovering recipe pages are cheaper to fill then restaurant reviews; no reviewer costs, dining bills or location photography. Today, there are over 12,500 food blogs in Australia according to Zomato. Food writers face the fate of Hichcock’s Tippi Hedren – pecked and poked by countless eager blogging birds.

“I think most journalists are dismissive and derisive of bloggers and extra suspicious of some in particular. There are some appalling bloggers out there, and we know they are on the take and post reviews that are advertorials scarcely declared” says Elizabeth Meryment, chief food critic at the Daily Telegraph.

Though she adds, it’s not all that black and white. Meryment cites John Lethlean’s recent feature on Bangkok-based food blogger, Mark Wiens of eatingthaifood and migrationology in The Australian. Lethlean’s cynicism for food blogger is barely contained in his flattering description of Wiens “In a blogosphere of fakes, he’s the real deal…”

But something’s not right in the sunshine world of the bloggers. Interests in bloggers are a little flaccid lately according to Google Trends, which tracks the relative popularity of search terms on Google. It doesn’t mean traffic is necessarily down, but it’s a measure of relative search interest.

The graph below tracks Google Trends of three key blogging topics - food, travel and fashion. Interest in fashion and food blogs peaked late 2012. The decline is of bubble bursting proportion for fashion blogs and also noticeable for food blogs.

What the hell happened?!

One word: Instagram.

Instagram, a simple photo sharing app, with cool filters launched in 2010. And it was simple. Back then pictures had to be square, no links allowed in the image or post description. A nightmare for marketers and self-promoters but heaven for users fleeing the click-bait online world, looking for visual-porn - food, fashion, travel and more.

By April 2012, the start-up had amassed 100 million active users and was swallowed by Facebook for a mind boggling $1 billion.

The graph below shows why they paid that price.

Almost from the day that simple, photo sharing app was bought by Facebook (or maybe because it was bought by the social media giant), Instagram took off. Look at the impact on the online fashion world in the graph above – a dramatic increase in fashion Instagram interest compared to an inverse decline in fashion blogs (though in fairness many fashion bloggers are also highly active on Instagram). In hindsight, that’s probably not that surprising - fashion appeals to a visual aesthetic making it perfect for Instagram. Similarly, food bloggers have been impacted by instagrammers.

Instead of newspaper stories about bloggers, it seems like the sun is shining on Instagrammers. You might not have heard of Li-Chi Pan before, but this Sydney “Foodgrammer” was outed recently by Meryment. Pan has over a quarter of a million followers but before the story, many would not have seen her face. With popular posts attracting over 45,000 likes, she’s wooed by brands.

It’s the metrics that attract brands to instagrammers. Unlike blogs, the number of followers, likes and comments are transparent. Most bloggers don’t publish their metrics; UBs, page impressions, subscribers are not publicly discussed. For time-poor publicity agents, it’s much faster to research a potential influencer via their Instagram metrics.

“In some ways Instagram has superseded blogging because few bloggers, when you get down to it, are wordsmiths," says Meryment. "So in that realm, the image is more important than the word and also more reliable. I know of publicity agents who have told me they don't bother with bloggers at all any more - they only go for 'influencers' on instagram because they don't have to worry about them making errors in the copy or making stuff up, and the reaction to each post is there for all to see.”

I’ve long argued that food blogs have democratised restaurant reviews, giving the ordinary punter a say. Instagram has taken this a step further; you don’t need fancy prose or grammar. Visual storytelling is open to everyone - young, old, migrants who don’t speak English, or any language really. A captivating headline, unique ‘voice’, a beginning, middle and end – traditional prose techniques are replaced with composition, filters and the 'rule of thirds'.

But somethings haven’t changed. In the relatively unregulated blog and social media environment, issues of ethics and disclosure continue to haunt. The ACCC have released their guidelines in relation to online reviews, but the industry is still relatively poorly policed.

These food-loving, fashion-forward digital-first citizens are living the “look at me” dream. Enthusiastic and a tad egotistical though well-meaning, they are generally ignorant of ethical issues. Free products, comp meals, invites to events usher them into an exclusive VIP world, away from the mundane offline humdrum. Little thought is given to disclosure or consideration that a hosted event is a different (and usually better) than if you walked off the street and paid for the meal. And those who declare, wear it as a badge of honour – a proud sign of their popularity with brands. Content on some blogs are made up almost entirely of freebies and associated positive reviews, with little consideration on how this is perceived by their audience.

I could dine out on free dinners every night if I wanted to, that’s how pervasive the free review industry can be.

Once it was journalists seeing the flock of bloggers in the rear vision mirror. Today, those bloggers are waking up to a taste of their own medicine, out-snapped daily by a new Insta-generation. In the online ecosystem, the only thing for sure is that Instagrammers should watch their back.

This game of thrones story is still being told.

Thang Ngo served as a local councillor in Fairfield for nine years (1999-2008). He is managing director of IDENTITY Communications, part of IPG Mediabrands, and publishes the noodlies food blog.

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