Instagram influencer Essena O’Neill exposes self-promoting tricks: Why businesses should be wary of paid endorsements backfiring

Instagram influencer Essena O’Neill exposes self-promoting tricks: Why businesses should be wary of paid endorsements backfiring


A Queensland-based Instagram influencer with thousands of followers has put a spotlight on the ethics of the increasingly popular marketing form, sounding a warning to SMEs that use social media influencers along the way.

Essena O’Neill, whose Instagram account still has a following of about 871,000 people, this week revealed how she made thousands of dollars by marketing products on the social media platform, in some cases compromising her health and ethics.

Eighteen-year-old O’Neill reportedly quit Instagram this week, but not before changing her profile on her account to “Social Media Is Not Real Life” and encouraging her followers to “reread the edited captions” of her earlier posts, which now include references to how she made “$2000AUD a post EASY”.

On one edited post, O’Neill wrote: “paid for this photo. If you find yourself looking at ‘Instagram girls’ and wishing your life was there’s [sic]… Realise you only see what they want. If they tag a company 99% of the time it’s paid.”

On Friday O’Neill also uploaded a YouTube video titled ‘How people make 1000s on social media’, in which she identified herself as a self-promoter and “someone who uses self-promotion for financial gain”.

“I was promoting a system that was like, ‘hey, I have heaps of followers, I get paid to promote shit, you should buy it’,” she says in the video.

ONeill also used the video to encourage others to be critical when it comes to why some Instagram users might have high follower counts but she admitted she doesn’t think being paid for posts is a bad thing in itself.

“Anyone in social media who has a large following… it’s a rare few that aren’t making money from it,” she says.

“It’s not a bad thing… I’m not against making money from promoting a message I think in terms of myself promoting vegan, ecofriendly, environmental, anything small business even… or handmade.

“I think all of those things are so important and should be promoted all the time. But those things just listed have very small budgets.”

O’Neill expressed her own shock at first realising how much money could be made by promoting brands on the social media platform, “I was like $100,000 grand to promote lipsticks?”

Nicole Matejic, author of the book Social Media Rules of Engagement, told SmartCompany this morning she applauds O’Neill’s change of approach if it was something she questioned, as well as her quest to be more authentic with her audience.

“When you’re on social media you have to be authentic and have conversions that matter with the people that follow you,” she says.

But Matejic says O’Neill’s statement about be willing to promote smaller businesses and ethical companies with smaller budgets, while also admitting how much money she made off larger brands is “paradoxical”.

“Clearly it will affect her income,” she says.

While O’Neill is not the first blogger or Instagram user to have come out with such controversial admissions, Matejic says, but it will be the next steps following the expose which will be the most telling.

“The real proof in her change in direction and ethical dilemma will be in what we see out of her in the future,” she says.

Matejic says brands that use influencers on platforms such as Instagram will be taking notice of O’Neill’s actions.

She says the ethics of brands paying influencers is currently a topic of debate among people in the social media marketing industry, with disclosure and transparency about payments for promotions becoming increasingly important.

“More brands are looking at the blogger, Instagram influencer arena to get their product in front of very niche market,” she says.

“You have to be careful they don’t become collateral damage if that identify goes into crisis.

“Everyone is very keen to jump on the (promotion) bandwagon but as soon as things start going wrong and… the brand becomes collateral damage.”

Matejic says there are several things brands can do to militate against such damage, including being transparent about any sponsored posts.

“Make sure the blogger or influencer is saying this is a sponsored post,” she says.

 “That gives brands the ability to step back in such a situation and say clearly this is a sponsored post.

“(It gives a brand) the ability to use that influence in transparent way and also the ability to step aback if things are not working out.

“It’s about credibility and authenticity on both sides of the fence.”

SmartCompany was unable to contact Essena O’Neill for comment prior to publication.


Tags: social media, Instagram, influencers, Essena ONeill, Nicole Matejic


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