AREAS OF WISDOM

4 Lessons Fyre Festival Taught Us About Influencer Marketing

How the Infamous Festival-that-Never-Happened is a Learning Opportunity for How Brands Work with Influencers

As the 5 year anniversary of the now notorious Fyre Fest comes around, the Festival continues to make headlines as it’s referenced in headlines like “Revolve apologizes for Fyre Festival-like Coachella event.” Just weeks ago, Kendall Jenner agreed to a $90k settlement stemming from allegations that she intentionally misinformed the public about the event.

In case you were living in a hole and missed the social media circus nearly 5 years ago, let’s set the stage. Festival ticket-holders were promised a three-day party on a private beach on the island of Exuma in the Bahamas, an immersive music festival, a host of celebrity guests in attendance, white sand beaches, luxury beach houses and gourmet food.

But what did they get when they arrived on the island? Hours of waiting at the airport, accommodation in disaster relief tents, no entertainment, and let’s not forget those now infamous soggy cheese and tomato sandwiches. 

How could something that promised to be so good, be so bad? And what lessons can we learn about influencer marketing in the wake of this scandal? 

Lesson 1: The Power of influence is real – But it can come at a high price and low ROI.

In the “blame game” that ensued , the glamorous group of influencers who had been employed to promote the fraudulent festival through their highly-followed social media channels came under fire

While it could be argued that  “they should have known better” than to lend their names to the scam (see Lesson 3), the ability to command high $$$ amounts to unlock access to their fawning fans through brand endorsements is a lucrative game for the top 1%, making it hard to say no. 

But if you take a close look  at the price that was paid for the overall influencer marketing effort surrounding the Fyre Festival, the math just doesn’t add up to an ROI that made sense from the start. Consider this:

  • The initial influencer campaign launched in December with 63 influencers simultaneously posting a vague orange graphic to their social feed. Each influencer was reportedly paid $20k+ with Kendall Jenner topping the list with her $250k fee. 
  • The festival marketing team spent hundreds of thousands of dollars flying models/influencers to the Bahamas every other weekend, so that they could be photographed on beaches and yachts for the purposes of promoting a VIP experience. 
  • But by April, when the first event goers started to arrive on the island, the festival had only sold 8,000 tickets, less than a quarter of the total reported 40,000 available and with many tickets being sold at heavily discounted rates. 

So while it’s easy to agree that influencers, while expensive, were able to drive an impressive amount of awareness, it is also fair to say that the Fyre Fest influencer campaign failed to convert impressions into purchases.

Lesson 2: Disclosure is not just important for transparency. It’s the law.

Many of the highly paid Fyre Fest influencers did not properly disclose their paid relationship with the festival organizers or clearly label their promotions as an ad. Most notable were the models who were flown out to promote the event. In doing so, they misled their audience into believing that they were independently promoting the event and sharing a personal recommendation rather than acting as a billboard for a brand for which they are being handsomely paid. 

Maintaining greater transparency by disclosing all sponsored content is required by law and also crucial to maintaining trust between influencers and their followers.While regulations on advertising disclosures can vary from country to country, influencer marketing is no longer the wild west. Globally, there is a movement towards transparency because of events like the Fyre Festival. You can see this clearly in EU’s recent Digital Services Act and America’s FTC crackdown on fake reviews and misleading endorsements.  The trend is clear that disclosures are making their way into law and being strictly enforced.   

Lesson 3: When influencer marketing goes badly, the reach is 10X

As one of the millions of meme’s sparked by the failure of the festival stated, “Where there’s smoke, there’s Fyre.” The festival was torn to shreds on social media, with tweets of the tents, the desperate airport crowds, the awful food, and the total chaos of the-festival-that-never-was, going viral all around the world.  Thanks to social media, tales of the festival’s nightmarish conditions traveled with a speed and reach that far exceeded that of the initial marketing push. 

The media fallout of the Fyre Fest reached millions of people and lived long after the tents were taken down and the organizer was sent to jail. Ryan Reynolds even jumped on the bandwagon in an Aviation Gin commercial, saying  “Can you ever really go too far for your company? I don’t think so,” the Deadpool actor says in an ad featuring Andy King, an unlikely breakout star of the Fyre Fest documentaries.

The fallout can’t be deleted or controlled and, in this case, has come to define the narrative around the festival. 

Lesson 4: Unlike experts, influencers are more likely to skip the due diligence

The influencers involved in the campaign promoted the Fyre Festival without doing their research. The appeal of the $$$, the all-expense-paid trips to the Bahamas and the false belief that they were part of the “in crowd” for a spectacular VIP event experience was too much of a draw.  The individuals and their representatives failed to take the very basic but necessary step of ensuring Fyre Fest was something they would be happy to lend their names and their reputation to. 

In the case of Fyre Fest, the influencers failed to protect their followers from being drawn into a scam that would have a significant impact on the lives of many. The experience took a financial and emotional toll on the fans and followers that “bought the dream”, and who ultimately ended up in a nightmare.  But for the influencers that sold them the dream, the consequences were minimal. 

(Kendall Jenner was recently held accountable through a settlement, but is only paying back $90,000 of a $250,000 salary)

But why is that? And what can be done to change the status quo? 

This case study highlights a key flaw in influencer marketing, one that is being addressed with a new approach called “Expert Marketing” where brands work with genuine experts in fields related to their products. 

When brands work with true professionals who have expert knowledge, they can build trust with their audience. Experts do their due diligence to ensure they know about the brand they’re promoting before committing to any collaboration because not doing so, would risk a reputation that has been built through years of training and hard work. 

It comes down to this: Reach can be bought, experience cannot. Influence is how someone reacts to your status. Expertise is how someone reacts to your knowledge. 

Through events like this, people are continuing to learn not to trust in someone based solely on their social status. The consumer trend is towards offering trust based on clearly demonstrated subject matter expertise.

Read about how experts create a deeper connection to brands and products

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The widespread joke that was Fyre Festival has achieved at least one positive outcome for consumers: the public demand for more authenticity and transparency. 

Marketers and brands need to decide if and how to use influencer marketing and they, along with influencers, need to take more responsibility for what they are promoting.

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