When Is Influencer Marketing Too Much & Can We Trust It?

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Recently I’ve seen an influx of posts on Instagram from food bloggers who have all been ‘gifted’ a meal at a certain restaurant in return for sharing a post on their grid / page. Aside from being curious as to how the business is making any money whilst giving away so much food (and drinks), it made me think about this particular marketing approach in general and whether it would actually convince people who follow these food accounts to visit the restaurant and hand over their hard-earned cash.

I want to be really clear that I’m not bashing influencer marketing in general, nor am I saying that I think there’s anything wrong with the arrangement between the restaurant and bloggers. I actually think that influencer marketing can be a great method if implemented in the right way, for a number of reasons. My question is around the strategy of inviting so many all at one time, and therefore saturating the restaurant’s social media presence with influencer only content. I’d be more convinced to give the place a try if I saw any of the people ‘invited’ go back a second time, or if I’d seen anyone tag them on social media who wasn’t a blogger / influencer. 

For transparency, I too have received an ‘invite’. However, if in the unlikely event I do decide to visit I will pay the bill in full. I don’t believe I’d be adding value to my followers by accepting, to potentially only ever mention them once because they’ve asked me.

I understand that by airing some of these views and asking what people think seldom wins me any popularity contests. That being said I do think it’s important that we think about these still relatively new marketing methods and consider; from a business perspective, how our influencer marketing is impacting our bottom line and reputation. If you are a blogger / influencer, how does who we partner with and what content we share impact on our followers’ confidence in us? As a diner or customer (which the majority of us are), how do we choose where we decide to spend our money?…When is influencer marketing too much and can we trust it?

I wanted to know your thoughts on this interesting topic, so I asked you on Instagram; ‘does this aggressive style of marketing instil you with the fear of missing out or does it make you think something entirely different?’.

A few of you said you were also interested in this topic and that you were keen to hear other people’s views. I’ve collated some of the replies I received, which are from the point of view of a number of food & drink businesses, bloggers and diners.*

Business “My thoughts on ‘influencers / bloggers’ who are invited / gifted meals puts me off slightly. To support a small business I think they ought to pay or at least contribute towards the bill. I feel like it could be a dreadful meal but as its for free, they will big it up anyway.. I could be wrong?! But personally, it doesn’t usually make me think I must visit. I think it’s totally off putting when a restaurant has lots of bloggers all in a short period of time with #ad #invited all over their social media. I get that it takes time to build a following, so yes in that case, a couple of invited bloggers is fine. But, again in my opinion, too many, one after another can look a little on the desperate side”

Diner – “Would put me off massively. I think ‘Influencer’ marketing is everything that’s wrong with the Internet. Everyone’s an Influencer now a days but really whether they’re getting paid or not I don’t care. Maybe add some value or write and an article or a review instead of countless accounts of usually well off people trying to flash and boast but calling it ‘content’.”

Blogger –  “I only ever accept but tell them I’ll only post if I enjoy it – as I don’t believe in posting negative reviews and I don’t want my page to not be genuine, but I agree with it being saturated too much with people all going at the same time. They’re obviously having a tough few months and trying to get their name out there, but would have made sense to stagger it a bit more. Obviously if I don’t enjoy then I’ll tell them that, which I did with {name blanked out}, but they didn’t want my opinion. I also agree I’d be more inclined to go if someone went back after an invite. What I think would be nicer would be businesses inviting people that are regulars / loyal customers, however I guess it defeats the object of new people trying, but just a thought.”

Business – Completely agree with you about influencers being given free meals and pretending like they have just chosen to go there for a meal. I do however agree that foodie accounts that bring knowledge to their followers should get a complimentary meal if they are asked to go via the establishment to ‘review’ their food… BUT I do think it should be made very clear that you are there to review food and there should be a detailed response to their food with how you rated it, and with an HONEST response. Too many of these foodie pages get a free meal and feel obligated to put a good review on even when the food is shit. At the end of the day you have a wealth of followers that the establishment are utilising you should get something in return, but people should make it clear you’ve been invited there to give your opinion. I just feel like it’s really dodgy territory! You on one hand are a foodie page which we know is honest reviews because you only post about places you’ve been to personally for a meal, that you’ve paid for, and you post because you think it deserves mentioning. I think on the other hand when people are just floating around getting free meals left right and centre, they just go for the food, and just because of the status of being ‘invited’. Even if it’s the worst food and service they will pop a fabulous review on. It’s verging on bribery. I would love to see an honest foodie critic pop some bad reviews on if they thought it wasn’t great!”

Blogger“I know of a certain local company who have recently adopted this strategy. I don’t agree with it. 95% of food bloggers tend to mislead people of their hard earned money by claiming something is good and very few are truly honest. I have so many meals in my phone which were crap and I don’t dump on the company, I just don’t share it on social. I know someone who is epic at praising or slamming and she does it even if she’s been invited, it’s legendary but that’s not me. Each to their own.”

Diner“Too many ‘gifted’ meals at once makes me a bit wary. Plus if food is free how can you honestly give a decent review? But then I don’t blame them as we are in a time when social media is a great form of advertising, especially in these times. I don’t think bloggers can give an honest review of food or service that they aren’t paying for. BUT, I can understand the logic as technically it’s ‘free’ advertising. £500ish of free food but a few thousand potential customers reach is worth its weight in gold. I try places or add them to the list of where you try. And then I recommend to others. So it works.”

Blogger I believe it’s not so much about influencing, but awareness. A PR agency in Bristol used to do this (launch parties), because they know it would create an almost unmissable stream of content and hype all at one time.

Business – “I’d love to see your collated responses if you do find a way, you’ve opened a really interesting topic and I love your view on it.”

Blogger“Please share responses to this, as I am also quite curious. Now, we did visit said restaurant this week, and we spoke to the owner who informed us of their different strategies each year with regard to improvements. This year, their focus is on people, mainly their front of house and customer experience. This was apparent because we found the whole team particularly helpful, interested and friendly, which in my opinion goes a long way when eating out. We would have felt left out if we weren’t invited, however the fact that everyone has been does make it feel less special! The food was great though.”

Diner“I prefer your style, it’s a genuinely recommended restaurant that you’ve chosen to go to.”

Blogger – “I think as well you lose a sense of whether somewhere is actually any good when it’s clear so many people have been told to post. Defo need posts from paying punters to gauge if it’s worth it or not. Unless said bloggers are happy to be constructively critical in their post. What pissed me off in {name of town blanked out} is the “anything for a free lunch” crew who would go somewhere that was no way good and they knew beforehand but just go for the sake of a free (shit) meal.”

Blogger“We have recently been contacted by a few who want us to try them and shout out about them. There hasn’t been a mention of it being gifted, but also I’m not going to go somewhere just because they have asked. We eat where we like or want to try. Begging for people to go try them just seems desperate and I’m not a fan personally. Don’t get me wrong, being treated to the occasional free meal as pr sounds nice, but I would be leaving an honest review as I do for everything.

Blogger“It’s a basic marketing strategy. They get a lot of exposure from the posts. As a viewer you see the restaurant so many times on your feed, so from a psychological perspective you might get the fear of missing out, and want to try the place to see what the ‘hype’ is and not miss out. It’s actually saving the restaurant money, because they’re getting so much content just for the food. One video, like a reel, for organic use can cost brands starting from £100. I’ve seen creators get deals and sell these pictures/videos for 4 figure deals. They’ve gotten so much user generated content from multiple creators they can use for a long time. It’s a great strategy. People get the fear of missing out. They’ll see it so many times they’ll want to try it out so they don’t miss out. It’s like that TikTok toilet paper. It won’t work for all the population, but I’ve had 5 people message me saying they loved the food and they weren’t ‘bloggers’. They keep inviting ‘bloggers’ so something must be working. I think it’s working because they keep inviting people. I heard they were looking to invite 100 influencers. You should give them a try! The food is very nice so is the venue.”

Diner“I think we’d also prefer to see more organic growth in this respect. I’ve not heard of this approach so on-mass, but see the influencer dinners/launches and understand that.”

Business “I think in certain situations it’s a good idea. For example, to somewhere you visit regularly for a menu relaunch. Works as a ‘thank you for your support’ as well as proving you have a good experience. The venue receiving valuable marketing (when followers will also believe your opinion). However, if this is somewhere you haven’t been and it is just with the intent of gaining biased publicity, I’d say it’s pretty counterintuitive and I’d probably trust both the restaurant and blogger less! Any good restaurant shouldn’t rely on that kind of unauthentic advertisement. I’d take it as a con rather than a pro! But maybe that’s me being pessimistic!”

Diner“I actually won’t go to restaurants that do this. I think it’s so obvious someone’s only saying it’s good because they’ve been told to? I don’t know how many people are fooled by it, but I’m definitely not. I think it’s ridiculous! If a blogger went and gave an honest review that’s what I’ll believe, not just a free meal review! It’s like advertising, celebs will do an advert and act like the product is the best thing ever, but we know they don’t, they’re just getting paid to do it! I’m more likely to think something is good from just good marketing, not people influence to be honest! That’s why I like your page because I just go and find good places to eat because the food looks amazing, not because you went to dinner with Beyoncé.”

Diner“I think it depends for me. If they have like an open night where lots of foodie influencers/bloggers go along that just feels a bit like a launch party or something, and I sort if expect to see a lot of coverage (same for something like the launch of a new make up or perfume line). If it’s loads of people going individually, but all around the same time and not for a launch, it does make me question slightly if the wave of positive reviews are legit. I think after you see 5 or 6 for the same place you sort of think “of course they’d say that”. But it does raise your awareness of the business and maybe that’s enough for them to be in your mind next time you’re thinking of going out for food? Also, I wonder if most people only follow 1 or 2 foodie Instagram accounts, so don’t necessarily see the same place being reviewed multiple times? Interesting topic though!

*Some of the above comments have been edited to remove names of bloggers and restaurants which were mentioned. The aim of publishing this article is no way intended to suggest that any agreements or relationships between businesses and influencers is wrong. As you can see from the responses, there are very mixed views, and I believe this article to provide a balanced opinion on this subject.