“Outdoor Professional” Perks, Part 2
Influencers, Affiliate Links, and Contracts
If you have not had a chance to read part one of this two-part series, I will encourage you to explore my earlier post about Pro-Deals and Ambassadorships as they are two of the most common perks granted to Outdoor Professionals. In this second post, I will explain three additional categories of perks that can be hugely problematic. Understanding these perks is essential for you because they can damage the quality, authenticity, and accuracy of the information a “professional” or “expert” provides.
“Influencers” and “Sponsorships”
Ambassadorships make me uncomfortable because sourcing a professional’s motivation is challenging, but nothing disgusts me quite like the explosion of “influencer culture.” The surge in popularity of social/media platforms (Instagram, Twitch, YouTube) has been incredibly damaging to the outdoor industry (and others) and to your ability to choose a product that most fits your needs.
Information overload, cyclical review content, and the cult of personality contribute to the obfuscation of quality, helpful information. Fallacious argumentation filled with claims that have little to do with a given product abounds, making it extremely difficult to feel informed. Often, the more content you sift through in search of a “balanced” viewpoint, the more confused you become because of the polarity in representation. I detest it, primarily because it is so effective.
Much like the “professional” classification for ProDeals, what it means to be an “influencer” is not uniform. For the sake of this post, I am mainly using the term to refer to individuals with large followings (in the thousands). This definition is a gross simplification because the specific traits that bother me (sponsored posts/videos, emotional appeals, lack of knowledge) are not present in all influencers, so it feels somewhat unfair to lump everyone together. However, I have chosen to do so because the reasons “influencers” are so appealing to companies are implicit regardless of the influencer’s given ethics. Without launching into a comprehensive exposé about social psychology, influencers are an effective marketing tool because they can easily manipulate humans. Here are a few reasons why:
- We love stories, especially stories with a specific character. When a politician highlights the story of one particular mother within a particular state that donated $3.50 to their campaign, rather than presenting a statistical argument based on largescale data, they are doing so for a reason. We (humans) have a lot of data points that demonstrate donorship behavior, and, it turns out, we are more likely to give if there is a specific character with which to identify. In our case, an influencer is that character.
- Our identities matter to us, and we want to belong. Even a cursory glance at research on Social Identity Theory (and how it relates to our treatment of in-group/out-group members) demonstrates just how much we want to preserve our sense of self and our group. Influencers have large followings, and their cult of personality will listen to them,
regardless of objectivity. Again, politics is an easy example. Joe Biden licensed Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” for an election advertisement specifically targeting swing-state Michigan (Eminem has spent most of his life representing Detroit).Companies use influencers with the expectation that they will have a similar impact on their followers. This impact is one reason videos/posts often end with a question. It increases engagement, increases connection, and builds that cult of personality. Your favorite YouTube or Instagram star is not reading and engaging with every comment. They are, however, creating a so-called community and fostering a sense of belonging that serves as a powerful purchasing motivator.
- We are susceptible to a phenomenon known as ‘priming.’ Suppose we walk into a building and find walls covered with images of the number eight. A few minutes later, we are asked to pick a number between 1-10. We are more likely to choose eight than any other number; this is priming.
Advertising functions the same way. I know absolutely nothing about cars, but I have seen enough advertisements over the years to immediately think V8 and Hemi any time I hear someone mention being in the market for a vehicle. I do not even know what V8 or Hemi refers to, but I “know” to ask about them.
As I write this, I can imagine someone grumbling in the background, “it is not the influencer’s fault people are susceptible to X, Y, Z!” or “How is this any different than standard marketing?”
Thus far, I have not explicitly suggested that it is; I am merely explaining why you ought to consider/learn how perks work so you do not buy a product thinking YouTube Joe will give you a high five and know your life story. After all, YouTube Joe might be ‘reviewing’ a product that was sent to him for free, potentially with an additional financial component, despite little knowledge of its functionality, and he might do so without completely disclosing that information. If you are unaware of this structure, and these aspects of human psychology, when exploring reviews, you are less likely to make an objective decision.
Outside of specific arrangements in the form of ambassadorships or contracts, affiliate links have a relatively low impact on your ability to make informed decisions about potential purchases. I have included them here because they are becoming more common. Like the links mentioned in the ambassadorship section in part one, these links allow the professional to receive some financial return on a product. As far as I am aware, they typically function in one of the following two ways:
- Professional posts their affiliate link(s), and each click (I assume from a unique ISP address) generates a small amount of revenue for the pro (fractions of cents). These unique clicks increase engagement with a page/item, which can generate more advertising revenue/higher placement in google metrics, etc.
- Professional posts their affiliate link(s), and each purchase originating from the link generates a small amount of revenue for the professional. If you have ever explored a YouTube channel and seen a pro’s “gear list” with a bunch of links over to Amazon, these are often affiliate links. While I find these incredibly annoying because they clog a video’s description box and are posted in every video, I do not see them as too damaging to the industry. Pros get asked about their gear lists a lot, especially in specific industries (backpacking), and it makes sense to post their favorite items in a place everyone can access. Typically, though not always, these are items that they have used for a long time, tested in great detail, and are not being actively sold to you. If you are not using this as your reason for purchasing something and understand the pro’s background (whether they have tested any alternatives), you likely will not end up with buyer’s remorse.
The last perk commonly granted to outdoor professionals comes in the form of a contractual agreement. Like the other categories, contracts are not standardized and are challenging to write about due to their varying formats. Some pros are not interested in founding their own company but are interested in designing a product with features that might be missing in available designs.
For example, I might like 95% of a backpack’s design, but feel like it would be better with X and Y feature added and the Z feature removed. So, I approach a company and ask if they would like to collaborate on a backpack design. They do, so we work out a contractual arrangement. Or, perhaps I have already designed my own tent and want to mass produce it but do not want to fuss with purchasing a manufacturing facility, running a company, etc. So, I license my design to another company, and they produce it for me. But contracts can be much lower stakes than this.
This post is part of a contractual agreement that I have with Stout Tent. After purchasing a canvas tent from White Duck Outdoors and having issues with mold/mildew and problems finding best practices related to mold/mildew treatment (there is a lot of horrific advice out there), I reached out to Stout. Following a series of frustrations with the Canvas Tent industry, Stout’s advice worked for me; naturally, I warmed up to them. After a flurry of emails – including a brief pause over concerns that I was a corporate spy because of my obsessive line of questions, something I still find hilarious – we came to an arrangement wherein I would produce technical/industry blog posts in exchange for a tent. Our contract specifies that Stout Tent cannot alter the content and tone of the posts I produce, and I have no incentive to sell you any of their products.
That said, and despite being encouraged to be as transparent as possible – this includes detailing some of the issues I have had with my Stout Canvas Tent – I still feel some semblance of responsibility to the company for providing me with the opportunity to produce content. Like other industry professionals, there is a chance this feeling of responsibility will damage the authenticity of my posts, though I hope it will not.
If you have made it through the entirety of this both this post and part one, you should have a better understanding of the perks professionals receive from companies and how they can impact your ability to assess products objectively.
You might be feeling like you cannot trust anyone’s advice. Excellent! A healthy dose of skepticism will help you avoid an impulse purchase. That said, know that there are many great professionals out there providing outstanding advice on social/media platforms. This post meant to demonstrate that professionals are fallible and still must make money to function in our society – do not take their advice as gospel. Even professional advice that I consider “bad” or poorly researched can be more valuable than generic consumer ratings. I have seen people rate Canvas Tents 1/5 stars because the product was too heavy to take on a backpacking trip. As far as I am concerned, if you cannot be bothered to read a product description, and note the weight, then you should not be able to review a product. It drives me nuts!
Fortunately, my next post outlines how I assess products, what I look for in reviews, and other tips and tricks that should help you make sounder purchasing decisions.