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Richard Jordan: Are ‘influencers’ infiltrating theatre to its detriment?

Could influencers, with a strong following on social media, call into question the authenticity of online theatre recommendations? Photo: Shutterstock
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Downloading a press release from a UK theatre PR company’s website recently, I noticed the list of people who could access the publicity material. It included journalists and bloggers, but my eye was drawn to the specific mention of ‘influencer’.

A week after spotting the reference on the website, watching a Channel 4 reality show, one of the contestants introduced their profession as an influencer. So what does this mean for theatre?

Influencers are people, whether famous or not, who have built a strong following on social media – and the role particularly grew with fashion and make-up bloggers. Often promoting a particular lifestyle, they have huge marketing power with their followers flocking to buy products or services they recommend on social media. It didn’t take long for marketing executives to notice.

Influencers can make a lot of money from promoting products and events to their followers and, in 2019, influence advertising across social media has rapidly expanded.

Agencies have been created specifically to represent and coach influencers to maximise their potential and it has become a frequent component in advertising campaigns – although one you will hear little about.

The public understands that when they see a celebrity appear in an advert to promote something, the celebrity is paid for their services. However, when it comes to the role of influencer, celebrities aren’t usually sought for this task. A company is more on the lookout for a ‘member of the public’ with a trusted online following, but whose followers may be less aware that they are making specific endorsements.

In September, the Advertising Standards Authority launched new guidelines for social influencers in making clear that ads are indeed ads. But there is a grey area around all this. To see the role of influencer referenced on a leading theatre marketing site – suggesting this style of marketing may now be used in theatre – concerns me greatly. What effect will it have on the industry?

There is a question of public trust and industry credibility within all this, especially if it ever emerged that members of our industry were being recruited and remunerated for this purpose but not claiming that this were the case. By its nature, it would be challenging to quantify how widespread the practice is.

Theatre is nothing if it’s not authentic. There is a unique exchange that this industry makes with its public at all levels of the experience. That begins when first booking a ticket and is a relationship that builds to its conclusion when the curtain falls.

Theatre is nothing if it’s not authentic. There is a unique exchange that this industry makes with its public at all levels of the experience

It could be argued that the influencer in theatre is just an extension of good old-fashioned showmanship – the sort of antics that US producer David Merrick might employ if he were alive today.

But I do not agree. Showmanship likes to reveal itself as such and often in some sort of great theatrical caper. In contrast, this marketing approach – for obvious reasons – prefers to stay in the shadows.

This is a marketing tool that does not respect the theatre industry or its legacy. At worst, it insults the genuine fans and advocates of productions whose postings may become questioned. It is also wide open for abuse.

I sincerely hope that those hired influencers who post their appreciation for shows are not posting falsely for recompense or are opportunists who see the theatre as a useful tool for their own self-promotion.

It also means that anyone who champions work on social media could be called into question over whether they’re being compensated. That would be hugely damaging for the industry’s growth and trust with the public.

If and when the use of influencers in theatre eventually blows up, theatre itself will be the loser. While marketers can walk away, influencers could jeopardise the future relationship between the industry and its audience from which it may never recover.

Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan

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