Top Social Media Influencers: How Fyre Festival Exploded

by: Dustin Hawley | Friday January 25, 2019

The numbers are staggering. 400 influencers. Millions of dollars spent. And numerous lives negatively impacted. All at the hands of the now infamous Fyre Festival, an epic fail of a music festival that is now a subject of interest that has both social and traditional media abuzz with an intoxicating blend of drama and intrigue. Two brand new documentaries about the would-be luxury event were released in the past week. 'Fyre' was released on Netflix first (in an apparent attempt to beat its soon to be mentioned competitor to the punch), and 'Fyre Fraud' on Hulu was released thereafter.

fyre and fyre fraud documentary covers

Both Fyre Fraud and Fyre do a stellar job of shedding light on both the operational blunders and cunning deception of the festival's organization tactics. It simultaneously highlights how integral influencer culture, specifically on Instagram, was pivotal in the successful marketing of Fyre Festival.

Here's a brief rundown

The event itself was ultimately intended to promote the launch of the Fyre app, which was built as a high-end booking app for people to book high profile artists for private events. It was designed with the affluent in mind, offering access to those who could afford to have an artist the likes of, say, Lil' Wayne at their Sweet 16th birthday party.

Festival organizers spent jaw-dropping sums of money on an extravagant launch campaign with 10 of the world's top supermodels all sharing gorgeous promotional pictures and videos of themselves partying on a luxurious, sun-drenched island in the Bahamas. Supermodels like Bella Hadid and Hailey (Baldwin) Bieber shared a mysterious orange tile to Instagram with a link to the Fyre Festival website. The mystery only fed the intrigue of the audiences who viewed the posts. A-list celebrities and social stars like Kendall Jenner were reportedly paid $250,000 for a single Instagram post announcing the launch of ticket sales for the event, offering her followers a discount code in the post. This was influencer marketing at a scale we had arguably never seen before.

It almost seemed too good to be true. Likely because it was. But despite the advertised "luxury" tickets running for thousands of dollars, the event still sold out - and fairly quickly at that. A large portion of those initial tickets was set aside and snatched up by social media influencers beaming at the idea of documenting their exclusive experience in exchange for entry and free accommodation to the exclusive event. The vision for the festival was for it to run annually for five years. A pipe dream quickly demolished by the apparent lack of moral compass possessed by the event's brainchild, Billy McFarland.

A photograph of billy mcfarland walking around the city

The event in its promotional form never took place. Far from it. And as a result, McFarland is now in prison for fraud, Bella Hadid eventually apologized to her followers and said she had "trusted" the event would be "amazing and memorable", and Kendall Jenner subsequently deleted her post. The residual consequences felt by those who worked on the festival - and were also victimized by McFarland's deceit - can still be felt to this day. 

Few can deny the monumental failure of the Fyre Festival, and the stain it put on misconceptions around influencer marketing. In all honesty, what the Fyre Festival did with its social marketing is probably closer to celebrity endorsements than a targeted influencer campaign. Though there is some fluidity between the two, a line of distinction could be argued based on the lack of context in both the execution of the promotion and the nature of the content itself. But that's a different conversation for a different day.

How Fyre changed influencer marketing

"If anything (the Fyre Festival documentary) was showing utilizing influencer marketing was part of its success in terms of marketing the event," says Werner Geyser, founder of the Influencer Marketing Hub. Geyser says that since the release of the documentaries, he has seen his web traffic spike as a curiosity in both the industry and general public has increased.

Geyser went on record to say he believes the documentaries will emphasize the importance of regulation - and the responsibility of flagging promoted content using hashtags like #ad, #spon, and #sponsored. "Trust is lost when you are selling something that you were paid for but didn't declare," says Geyser. 

However, all is not dark. Fyre's failure can actually be marketing’s success, depending on how you approach it. Influencer marketing has been subsequently put in the spotlight, albeit not under the most ideal circumstances. But the magnified attention and scrutiny behind the controversy will likely force a more rapid maturation of the industry.

"It's all publicity at the end of the day. I think brand managers and influencers will be more cautious and that can only be a good thing." - Werner Geyser

There were other positive elements of the festival's fallout. Though done so in vain, elements of the campaign were deployed with tact. First is the sheer scale of the social effort to reach as many eyes as possible. BBC covered this subject and released some intriguing data that sheds light on the value of this marketing in volume and beyond, shown below.

The firm Neoreach offers data on influencer industry growth. According to its research and forecasts:

  • The number of Instagram posts using popular hashtags to denote advertising or promotion has risen from 1.1 million in 2016 to 3.1 million in 2018
  • They predict there will be 4.4 million officially promoted posts in 2019
  • The average return on investment in 2018 was $5.20 for every dollar spent on influencer marketing, according to a study of 2,000 campaigns
  • Instagram is the most popular platform for influencer campaigns, followed by Facebook and YouTube
  • The influencer market size has grown from $1.7 billion in 2016 to $4.6 billion in 2018 and is forecast to hit $6.5 billion in 2019

In an industry driven by data, numbers don't lie. People do. Simply ask all the victims of this dramatic failure of a festival. Every thread in this tangled web seems to have been bamboozled by McFarland in some fashion. At least that's what a lot of the media sentiment and inside information is built around. But the influence (no pun intended) of this campaign tactic at its core, and the publicity it generated, displays its effectiveness on an emotional level that is measured outside of most data metrics. They were selling a dream.

Turning a negative to a positive

At the end of the day, social media influencers were not the reason that Fyre Festival failed. That burden falls largely on the shoulders of McFarland and his business partner, 90's hip hop icon Ja Rule. It's agreeable that one should not overlook the fact they misled people into paying for a luxury experience that turned out to be anything but. But the silver lining is that it was a major issue that the FTC needed to address, and has done since the time of this event. 

Having a share of voice on social is imperative, and regardless of the lack of follow through by the event's founder, and general lack of execution as a whole, the practice itself proved the potential value of this groundbreaking approach. Both brands and influencer marketing agencies can use this example is an ample opportunity to learn and adapt to the industry. Preferably in a fashion rooted in stronger values and business ethics, of course.

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