Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Sep-Oct 2018

The ethics of influencer marketing

Published Dec 03, 2018 11:21am
As influencer marketing gains traction as a communication platform, the need to regulate it has become essential.

The discussions have reached their third year. Every media platform has its controversies, but none come close to the polarising levels of that two-word animal that is influencer marketing.

Before continuing, it is important to understand what influencer marketing is. Many people have their own definition, but for the purposes of this article, let’s elaborate. A person whose opinion is valued on any topic and who has the ability to use his opinions to sway those of his audience is an influencer of that topic. The topic could be film, music, food, fashion, politics or any other. The audience can be anyone from family, friends, social circle, colleagues or a wider demographic. Influencer marketing is when the said influencer is paid in cash or kind to influence a target audience on a topic.

Now, for what influencer marketing is NOT.

Many people conflate influencer marketing with being a blogger, an Instagram personality or a social media user with significant followers. None are correct if the audiences catered to by these people are not influenced to change their behaviour or opinion. For example, a person may have a blog about jazz music which has 10,000 hits a week; however, if their review of a new jazz album does not result in even one of those readers buying it, he is not an influencer. Similarly, someone may have an Instagram account on shoes with barely 500 followers; however, if 50 of those 500 followers buy a new pair because of his review, that person is an influencer. Another fallacy is that influencer marketing is the same as celebrity endorsements; this is incorrect because celebrity endorsements rely on the person being well-known in a particular field. Influencers, however, are regular people who have day jobs and don’t hold glamorous roles outside their social media presence.

A better way to explain influencers is to divide them into three categories. Macro-influencers; they have a following of at least 10,000 people on a popular social media platform and their opinions generate engagement. Micro-influencers; they have a following of less than 10,000 people, but their opinions generate a decent amount of engagement. Non-fluencers; they think they are influential due to the number of followers they have, but have limited engagement and don’t usually influence people’s opinions, although they think they do.


In all this noise, there arose a smaller group of bloggers churning out quality content, who succeeded in generating organic growth among their followers. Among them were bloggers such as Anika Morjaria for travel, Lavina Israni for food and Desi Wonder Woman for fashion. They mastered the business angle of social media, they knew how to boost posts, target specific audiences and maximise their reach.


In the UAE, influencer marketing began as a loosely-managed community of bloggers specialising in food. Over time, they harnessed the power of Instagram to exponentially reach audiences that could enjoy bite-sized (no pun intended) reviews in the shape of captions to photographs of food and venues. (The same tactic was embraced by fashion, lifestyle, travel, entertainment and media bloggers). Pretty soon, there were more food bloggers than restaurants and everyone with a camera and a passport was a ‘travel expert’.

In all this noise, there arose a smaller group of bloggers churning out quality content, who succeeded in generating organic growth among their followers. Among them were bloggers such as Anika Morjaria for travel, Lavina Israni for food and Desi Wonder Woman for fashion. They mastered the business angle of social media, they knew how to boost posts, target specific audiences and maximise their reach.

Then, two things happened. On one hand, there were the mediocre bloggers who paid to gain followers and use them as evidence of their social clout; when brands asked for their rates for posting something good about their product, they would quote ridiculous prices. On the other hand, there were well-known bloggers who boosted their posts despite the fact that this defeated the purpose of their calling themselves influential bloggers. In the end, the market quickly saturated and this paved the way for micro-influencers. Brands such as cinema and fast food chains were quick to get on this new sub-channel. By using the local/friend-circle influence of micro influencers, brands took advantage of the ‘greed’ factor, such as invitations to premieres, restaurant launches and so on, by tagging five of their friends and the brand on their social media pages.

Does this work? It is too early to tell. The fact is that in most non-Western markets, there is still no standard or set of rules that work across all marketing mixes. This results in a lack of KPIs and metrics that can be set beyond the top line fluff (likes, views and clicks) and actually provide insights into behaviour and ROI. So, what defines the ‘work’ in ‘does it work’? Does work mean the activity, the ROI, the engagement, the reach, the purchase volume, the number of units or value? All of the above? Without set standards and guidelines that brands can follow, the current situation is a free for all.

There are influencer marketing companies which seek to help companies develop KPIs and metrics based on their needs and investment concerns. Some of them include the number of organic comments under influencer posts; number of shares; the geographic reach and the purchase of the product. There are even tools developed solely for influencer marketing which include Followerwonk, BuzzSumo and PeerIndex among others.


Pakistan has a long way to go regarding legislation. It must first fix its digital marketing, digital information and electronic information laws to be more adaptable to the 21st century. With the exponential growth in social media, the laws are too foundational and are not adaptable to the fast-paced growth of the medium. For influencer marketing to be regulated in Pakistan, agencies must establish a baseline to define influencer marketing and its parameters, technologies, platforms, costs and other finance related systems.


In Pakistan, the journey of influencer marketing took shape in a slightly different context. Twitter is one of the biggest platforms in Pakistan and hashtag marketing became a force to reckon with. What initially became an exercise for brands was overtaken by bloggers who would be invited to test products or services and then tweet about them using a hashtag. Initially, there was proper vetting of bloggers and social media folk to ensure quality propagation. However, this soon became an easily-abused tool. Hashtag ‘agencies’ started showing up, charging brands a fee to ‘trend’ the brand’s hashtag. This fee was then used to pay a small group of tweeters to tweet about any brand without even testing it. The job was to get the word out and the money was good. The good news, however, is the pushback by larger brands such as Coca-Cola, Nescafé, Pepsi and several fashion labels who are now vetting their bloggers more thoroughly.

In the UAE, until recently there was no regulation, causing problems in terms of fraud, misleading information and unsavoury processes. In some cases, the so-called non-fluencers would promote the market leadership of a particular product and a week later, they would (after money exchanged hands) announce the same leadership for a competitor’s product. Every burger was ‘the best in Dubai’ and every shoe brand was ‘the most comfortable’. The UAE government decided to step in and after consultation with the digital marketing industry, formulated a series of legislations. As a result, any influencer who receives money to promote a brand must have a licence to operate in the UAE. Influencers without a licence can be fined a hefty sum, negating the amount they earn from brands. Furthermore, influencers are required by law to specify if a post is sponsored by a brand. At the moment, the law is a work-in-progress and is constantly monitored for improvements.

Pakistan has a long way to go regarding legislation. It must first fix its digital marketing, digital information and electronic information laws to be more adaptable to the 21st century. With the exponential growth in social media, the laws are too foundational and are not adaptable to the fast-paced growth of the medium. For influencer marketing to be regulated in Pakistan, agencies must establish a baseline to define influencer marketing and its parameters, technologies, platforms, costs and other finance related systems.

To conclude, influencer marketing is here to stay. What is required to turn it into a full fledged media platform is for brands and users to adapt it based on Pakistan’s business and legislative needs.

Anthony J. Permal is a marketing specialist based in Dubai.
@anthonypermal or @marketingdude