In an effort to create successful social campaigns, more and more brands are aligning themselves with social media influencers, boosting the fortunes of consumers-turned-digital celebrities in the process.

But are brands setting the stage for an influencer marketing implosion?

The story of Essena O’Neill, a popular 18 year-old influencer from Australia, raises numerous questions that brands may have to grapple with sooner than they expect.

O’Neill, who had well over half a million followers across Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr and YouTube, has created headlines by shuttering her social accounts and revealing some unpleasant truths about her life as a social media celebrity. 

Among her revelations: photos that appeared to capture random moments in the perfect life of a beautiful young woman were “contrived” and the product of more than 50 hours a week of painstaking effort.

Another revelation: many of O’Neill’s posts were published specifically for fashion brands that paid her for product placement. 

According to O’Neill, who has launched a website called letsbegamechangers.com, her sizable following put her in a position to earn “$2000AUD a post EASY.”

Too much of a good thing

Not surprisingly, O’Neill’s actions have sparked controversy and debate. While it would be foolish to believe that one influencer’s decision to abandon social media and call attention to its ills will lead to social’s downfall, brands shouldn’t ignore O’Neill’s message.

The reason? One of social’s most powerful attributes is that it’s widely seen as a more authentic medium.

If consumers start to believe that it’s just an extension of the Madison Avenue marketing machine, brands could find that it becomes a much more difficult medium to take advantage of.

Obviously, many consumers know that much of the content posted on services like Instagram, particularly by influencers like O’Neill, isn’t exactly au naturel, and a growing number are aware that brands are paying their favorite internet celebrities to incorporate their products into content.

But if large numbers of consumers come to see influencers as fakes and sell-outs, and distrust the content they post, brands could find that they’ve contributed to killing the goose that laid a golden egg.

Influencer marketing needs to change

So what should brands do? Unfortunately, there are few easy answers.

Essena O’Neill is shining a light on the fact that her brand of “social media [was] not real” but one might argue that she probably wouldn’t have amassed such a large following if she didn’t so meticulously choreograph her online presence.

The truth of the matter is that consumers are largely an aspirational bunch.

We admire celebrities because they are not like us. Social media doesn’t change this dynamic just because we refer to digital celebrities as influencers.

That said, it is wise for brands to factor authenticity into their influencer marketing strategies.

Throwing money at influencers like O’Neill for one-off product placements is easy, but brands will eventually need to consider the cumulative effects of turning services like Instagram into digital equivalents of magazines filled with page after page of ads. They’re not good.

Instead, brands might want to consider treating influencers more like the traditional celebrities they work with.

Instead of short-term, one-off product placement posts, many of which are never properly disclosed, brands should identify influencers with whom there’s a clear brand alignment and establish longer-term relationships that involve content co-creation.

These relationships will still require brands to tread carefully, but could help reduce the worst parts of today’s unsustainable version of influencer marketing and deliver the kind of results marketers want but probably aren’t getting.