Fyre Festival and the Limits of Social Media Influencers

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Fyre Festival was supposed to be a luxurious music festival for well-heeled millennials. But when festival-goers arrived, they found nothing but broken promises: a missing headliner, old FEMA tents instead of luxury accommodations, and unappetizing cheese sandwiches instead of gourmet meals. The disaster gained instant notoriety thanks to the heavy use of social media by the slighted attendees – something that Fyre Festival’s embattled organizers should have seen coming, considering the heavy use of social media in the festival’s promotion. Fyre Festival drew in potential attendees with Instagram posts promising luxury and fun, and its promotional team made heavy (and sometimes illegal) use of social media influencers (social media influencers are users with large followings that will help generate purchasing trends – for a price).

But Fyre Festival’s particular use of social media influencers is something fairly new, if not unique. Social media influencers have long been used to promote products, but using them to promote something like Fyre Festival – a music festival that had never been held before, and that therefore no social media influencer could claim to have attended – puts influencers’ endorsements on an unknown quantity. That’s a risky move for influencers, and Fyre Festival has been a costly lesson.

Social media influencers are a relatively new concept, but not a complicated one. Everyone knows a friend or family member that posts images of their purchases and lifestyle. Whether it’s an aunt who loves Limoges boxes or a cousin who vacations in the Caribbean, their posts represent exposure for products and brands. That’s why some companies pay users with large followings to tacitly endorse their brands. These “social media influencers” are a relatively new phenomenon, but even in their short history, we’ve seen changes in how they are utilized.

Social media influencers have long endorsed things like fashion and cosmetic products, and the strength of an influencer-based marketing plan is obvious in those areas. Influencers are usually good-looking people, and – importantly – they usually use these products themselves. Like good lobbyists, smart influencers look to preserve their influence, not exploit their audience. They know that providing inaccurate information will lose them the respect of their audience, and therefore their influence itself. They want to push their agenda while furthering trust, and influencers endorsing reliable cosmetic brands or quality fashion items are safe from disasters like Fyre Festival. With influencers like these, the audience can easily try out the same products, verify their quality, and use that knowledge going forward. Trust is critical.

Sometimes it’s hard to know if a social media influencer is endorsing a product or a lifestyle. When social media influencers start talking about health products or diets, it can be harder for consumers to verify the benefits. A good diet will stick with the core principles of good nutrition, of course, but not all influencers endorse products and diets that this is true of. Since most diets fail, the risk here is minimal for influencers. When influencers move from hard goods to services and lifestyles, their authority erodes – but they may not lose influence.

Fyre Festival represents the extreme edge of lifestyle-based influencer marketing. In this case, there was no substance or authority at all. With cosmetics or fashion, influencers can try the products and customers can verify their quality. With diets and health products, influencers can claim to have tried them, though customers cannot always reliably verify the quality. With Fyre Festival, influencers could not try anything out before endorsing – and the vast majority of their followers would not attend the festival themselves, so a disappointing festival would not hurt the influencers’ brands unless it was a massive disaster.

Fyre Festival was a massive disaster, of course, and its one that highlights the problems with modern use of social media influencers. Social media influencers aren’t the only tools that big companies use to track and manage their social media presence, but they’re an important part of the social media marketing scene. As customers begin to wise up to their limits, companies and influencers may have to change strategies.

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