Elle Darby: Anatomy of a social media scandal
This month one of the biggest debates in recent memory concerning influencer marketing broke out, calling into question the neutrality, legitimacy, role, and goals of those making money from their social presence. We investigate the grizzly details.
It all started when Elle Darby— a UK lifestyle and beauty vlogger— approached the luxurious, 5* White Moose hotel in Dublin, asking if they were interested in a partnership that would involve her and boyfriend receiving a free five-night stay during the Valentine’s period, in return for inclusion within videos and posts on networks such as Instagram.
The hotel responded via Facebook, blanking out personal details so as to keep Elle’s identity secret, basically tearing her apart for making such a request, and offering a short, sharp and unforgiving critique of influencers.
Social media and the press went into overdrive, Elle was ‘exposed’, then trolled and defended in equal measure, leading to her posting a video on YouTube addressing the situation. The hotel began receiving negative TripAdvisor reviews from those siding with the young lady in question.
White Moose woes
When it comes to the response from the hotel manager context is everything. Journalists, bloggers, influencers; these professionals often request and receive things for free because it’s the only way they can afford access to the content their audiences want.
As such, the White Moose Facebook post was more than a little eyebrow-raising. It may have attempted to hide her identity (although many say you can still see her name), but that’s not really the point. There are right and wrong ways to turn people. Adding to the issue is the fact the hotel considers itself an influencer, open to partnerships with other businesses, but presumably it would not approach prospective clients given Elle-gate.
Toys, pram, floor
One of the biggest aspects people in the media have taken umbrage with is Elle’s response video, which has been labelled unprofessional. The media is a very unpredictable place, and things often don’t go to plan. Content creators get called out, criticised and effectively slated; sadly all this should be taken on the chin.
Making a 10minute+ YouTube post about how people such as the hotel manager are standing in the way of others achieving their dreams is really not going to go down too well the public overall. Why should a social worker care if someone making money from doing fun things and posting about them online can’t get a free week in a beautiful hotel? Hopefully you get the point. It’s also bad form to claim ‘everyone over 30 doesn’t understand digital’.
The length of the stay itself is also a bone of contention. The closest thing to influencers are journalists (some do crossover), and at the luckiest end of editorial staff there are some excellent perks. A week in South Africa, a fortnight marauding the Caribbean etcetera.
The difference is these are almost always organised press trips run by several parties with a vested interest in promoting a destination, and unless one of those parties is the accommodation, that accommodation will still receive a rate for each room. Asking for five days, for free, with no prior relationship is arguably pushing things to the nth degree.
The ‘law suit’
The plot thickened last week when Elle received an invoice from the White Moose hotel for €5,289,000 to cover the cost of publicity ‘provided by the business’, which directly benefitted Elle. This includes 114 article features across 20 countries, offering a potential reach of 450million people.
We’re not sure what can be said about this chapter. Clearly the cash isn’t there to pay the bill, but more importantly the bill isn’t real, but a publicity stunt in itself. It’s also worth noting the hotel has also received a huge amount of exposure which would have been impossible without Elle’s involvement, making this the weirdest and most awkward media partnership in the history of media partnerships.
What the press say
Intrigued by what journalists thought of this minefield— given the press are no strangers to free review materials— we asked writers to offer their thoughts on the matter.
Simon Christopher; 22 years old, freelance journalist
“I think the hotel are excellent at marketing; they got more exposure than Derby could offer them and for free.”
Lynnette Peck; 49 years old, journalist/producer/stylist and owner @LovelysVintage
“Even though I have been a journalist for 25 years and I am not a blogger I do not think she did anything wrong. They are called ‘influencers’ and ‘marketeers’ for a reason. She was simply offering to write a review in exchange for a stay, which journalists have been doing for decades.
“It is up to the hotel to decide if her ‘influence’ is worth the free stay. To reply in such a snide way shows up the hotel to be unprofessional. It seems to me that also lots of journalists are jealous/critical of this new way and that seems short sighted to me. I don’t mind how people make their money and run their businesses— be it a blogger or journalist or a combo of both.”
Rachel Southwood; 44 years old, freelance journalist
“With how YouTube works, she has been very clever here.”
John Gutteridge; 36, owner of The Money Shed
“As a blogger I don’t see the issue. We don’t work for free in the same way I wouldn’t expect journalists to. She asked if they would want to have their hotel featured and if so what the payment would be (a comp stay) and they could have just said no and let that be the end of it, instead of naming and shaming and going public.
“Last year I took my family to Universal in Orlando and the tickets were provided for free in exchange for a blog post. As Elle, I approached them and they are free to say yes or no to every opportunity for promotion that comes their way.”
Craig Thomas; 60, freelance journalist
“Someone in the marketing industry really needs to analyse the business case for influenzas (sic). There’s an awful lot of bullshit about their value to brands and it seems as if PRs and marketers are just giving them stuff/inviting them to events using a strategy of ‘throw it against a wall and see if it sticks’.
“In the sector in which I work (automotive), we’re seeing more of them on car launches and many PRs, off the record, are telling us that they simply don’t know if these social media types have the reach that they claim to have. As the average age of a new car buyer is in the 50s, it seems unlikely that an influenza is reaching a car company’s actual target market.
“However, playing devil’s advocate, it could be argued that they add a youthful kudos to a car, which we 50-somethings are desperate for in middle age, so who knows? The short answer is nobody, at the moment, because nobody seems to have analysed the actual ROI of an influenza. Until there is some hard data, we’ll continue having these discussions.”
One video to answer them all?
During our research we came across this video from James Nord, CEO at influencer marketing specialists Fohr Card, which looks in-depth at the relationship between influencers, followers, brands, and sales conversions, where lines should be drawn and expectations set.