Under The Influence: The Sometimes Murky World Of Influencers

Things used to be pretty clear in the old days. Elite runners used to be sponsored by a brand, you’d see them wearing the kit, you might see them in adverts in magazines. Then brands started using ambassadors, who may or may not be elite, but it was still pretty clear they were affiliated to the brand. Then came influencers and it all became a bit more murky. So, what do all these terms mean, who’s getting paid and what affiliations or payments do people have to declare?

Sponsored athlete

This one still seems pretty clear, but there are different levels of what athletes could be getting in return for their sponsorship. Athletes can be paid a retainer (a monthly fee), and it’s likely to be spelled out what the brand expects in return (eg a minimum number of social media posts or appearances at events). Many athletes at this level will be attempting to make at least a proportion of their living from running and this is one stream of income for them. They may receive money to put towards race entry, travel and accommodation and at the very least they will be given a certain amount of kit. It should always be pretty apparent that elite runners are sponsored.

Brand ambassador

This is defined (by Wikipedia) as ‘a person who is hired by an organization or company to represent a brand in a positive light and by doing so help to increase brand awareness and sales.’ These might be runners who brands have approached because they have a big social media following, or they might have got good results but aren’t quite at the level where they might get sponsorship. It might also be that the runner has badgered the brand into submission by constantly tagging them until they gave in. It could even be a ‘celebrity’ runner. There can be different tiers of ‘ambassador’ for different companies, so there’s a lot of variance in whether/what they’re paid and what they’re expected to do. A glance at Instagram will show that everybody seems to be a ‘brand ambassador’ for something!


This is where it seems to get a bit more confusing. What is an influencer? According to the Influencer Marketing Hub it is ‘an individual who has the power to affect purchase decisions of others because of his/her authority, knowledge, position or relationship with his/her audience. An individual who has a following in a particular niche, which they actively engage with. The size of the following depends on the size of the niche.’ So it’s kind of vague. It’s likely that an influencer has a big social media following, otherwise how would they have influence? It’s possible that an influencer has won a competition run by a brand, and as part of the deal they help to promote that brand. For instance, they win race entry and kit, but in return they agree to do a certain amount of social media activity for that race/brand. Some brands might spell this out (x number of posts), others might leave it up to the individual. Influencers tend to have shorter relationships with brands than brand ambassadors or sponsored athletes.

So what makes a good influencer? I asked somebody who works for a large PR company and this was their response:

‘A good influencer will have a strong level of engagement and a professional level of content, they will be unafraid to talk about difficult subjects and not have too much brand variance. They need to be seen as believable and reliable.’

That makes good sense. People aren’t idiots, they know they’re being sold to. Good content, believability and reliability sound like important things for an influencer. If they really believe in a product, they post authentic content and you find them reliable, then their recommendation seems legit. But here’s where it gets a bit more murky…

What if, for instance, they are being paid? While not in the league of some beauty influencers who can apparently earn up to £750,000 per post some influencers in the world of sport are paid per post. Would you trust a recommendation to a lesser extent if you knew an influencer was being paid for it? 48.7% of people on a Born Social survey said they would. But how do you know? If an influencer is posting paid-for content then they have to make this clear by using the hashtags #sponsored or #ad. But does this always happen? And how many people know what these hashtags refer to? Apparently, not as many as you would think.

And what about the authenticity element? Here’s where I really start to get annoyed.  My social media is littered with influencers who I know aren’t authentic. There’s the one who did a photo shoot in a brand’s clothing and I see them post the same photos over and over again for different runs on different days. There’s the one who DNFd a race but claimed to have finished, crediting the magical effects of a particular brand of drink with ‘getting them to that finish line’. There are even claims to have run world records.

Also, in terms of authenticity, how did they get those followers? Did they buy some of them? I spoke to somebody who told me that a low like to follower ratio can be an indication that an account has bought followers. And they told me that it’s easy enough to check, via an analytics tool like Social Blade, whether their number of followers suddenly increased dramatically. Even more murkily, some of these people are allegedly using software to like posts automatically to give the impression of artificially high levels of interaction and attract new followers. The person who told me this showed me examples of certain influencers who like hundreds of posts at all hours of the day, often quite random stuff. Nobody could be this prolific on social media, surely! But why would you go to such lengths in the pursuit of freebies?

Here is the thing: why don’t brands or their marketing companies check up on these people before they use them? It would take two minutes to look at Social Blade or access somebody’s Strava to see if their ‘epic 30 mile run in the mountains’ with 15 photos was actually ‘2 miles on pavement’ and the photos were taken two years ago. You could argue that people don’t Strava everything, but in my experience this sort of runner doesn’t do much without publicly announcing it.

This is why I get annoyed. There are so many really brilliant runners out there of all abilities, who are so positive for the sport. So many people out there doing it, authentically, inspiring others, and loving it. Not doing it, or pretending to do it, to impress others, or try to get free kit, but really, genuinely doing great stuff. There’s no shortage of people who would be great influencers, who have social media followings (actual ones, not ones they’ve bought), take lovely, authentic photos and who people would be interested in. Why do different brands insist on keeping using the same people over and over, when a bit of due diligence would show that they’re not very authentic? A quick glance at one of these people on my Instagram feed shows them posting about different brands – nutrition, apparel, races, lotions and potions – and none of them have an #ad or #sp hashtag. And a quick glance at their Strava reveals… an average of one run per week and a current average of one mile per week, despite their constant posting about running. This is not what I would call an authentic influencer for running!

Ok, I’ve gone on and it’s turned into a bit of a rant, but to bring us back to the original point I’ll quote Guy Parker, the Chief Executive of the Advertising Standards Agency: ‘people shouldn’t have to play the detective to work out if they’re being advertised to. That means the status of a tweet, blog, vlog, Instagram post or story should be clear’. The lines are becoming blurred and there’s definitely a lack of transparency with some of the people and some of the posts. But the watchdogs are revising the guidelines all the time and it’s likely that more of the poor examples of influencers will fall foul of these in the future.

Latest Running News

Doi Inathon Thailand by UTMB
Doi Inthanon by UTMB: Route, live tracking & how to enter
UTMB World Series adds Kitz Alps Trail to schedule
Valsir extend WMRA World Cup partnership for two more years
Canfranc, Spain announced as 2024 World Masters Championship hosts
UTMB World Series announces new South Africa race