Social Media Influencers: Beneath the Surface of A Seemingly Superficial Industry
This is the first part of a series on social media influencers.
In future editions, we will look at topics like:
- Brands that are getting influencer marketing right.
- “The Highlight Reel Effect” (or, social media and mental health).
- Influencer marketing scams.
- The impact of social media on modern aesthetics.
- Influencer marketing technologies.
Today, I want to provide an overview of the industry, before trying to pin down the slippery concept of influence.
The old adage runs that you are much more influential if people are not aware of your influence.
Today’s social media influencers are often self-appointed, once they reach a threshold of followers.
Their performative authenticity is strained to breaking point once the #sponsored posts start clogging up their followers’ news feeds.
There is much to mock in such an industry and this newsletter-writer is not above such temptations.
But I also want to see what lies beneath that glossy surface. Influencer marketing is powerful, for those that truly understand its dynamics.
So, this week’s story will cover:
- Social media influencers: A brief overview.
- Influencer marketing today.
- The essence of influence.
SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCERS: A BRIEF OVERVIEW
There are many different types of social media influencer. We can look at this picture through a range of filters, let’s say.
For the purposes of this article, we will assess the influencers who are famous primarily for being really good at social media.
They build sizeable followings of over 500,000 people, by posting photos of their gilded life in moments of rehearsed spontaneity.
These personas are “authentic” in a way that supermodels in glossy magazines are not. (If you want to get anywhere in this influencer world, just keep saying “authentic”.)
Juha Munnukka, a Finnish academic, has spent years studying this phenomenon. In an interview with Elemental (a Medium publication), he said:
“Most influencers peddle in sharing private or supposedly private information about themselves, but various studies show that all aspects of these disclosures are thought through and intentional.”
A 2016 study on the role of social comparison noted, “the act of posting is akin to self-disclosure, which activates the suspension of disbelief.”
This creates a persuasive power that brands are falling over themselves to co-opt to their own ends.
The interplay between artifice and authenticity is essential here: artificial enough to make reality appealing to the senses; authentic enough to make it believable.
Influencers are distinct from ‘traditional’ celebrities like actors and so forth, who make their name through working in the public light, then cash in on that position with endorsement deals.
That is not to say that these influencers have no skills or talents. Many are savvy and shrewd, and they take the role seriously.
They have built their career within the digital recreation of life that is social media, but some have turned this into roles on TV and book deals.
The ruthlessly consistent, conformist aesthetics of Instagram are the ideal setting for brands to sell their wares, too.
A branded post feels “inauthentic”, so they need other ways to sell where their audience hangs out. TikTok feels chaotic.
Instagram allows for control over medium, message, and recipient.
When it goes to plan, the posts end up looking like this:
People see these images and, in some sense, want to create the moment for themselves.
Such an aspiration can be partially realized by clicking to buy.
In that regard, it’s classic advertising in a capitalist society, infused with modern-day technology.
Being an “influencer” is now a career ambition in itself, rather than a natural by-product of ambition achieved.
In a recent survey of 2,000 children aged 11–16 in the UK, the most popular future professions were as follows:
- Doctor (18%)
- Social media influencer (17%)
- “YouTuber” (14%)
The three aren’t even mutually exclusive. Soon enough, your doctor will be livestreaming your consultation for the Likes.
The reasons the children gave for wanting a social media career were ‘For the money’ (26%) and ‘For the fame’ (22%).
And why not?
Would I be writing this if I could stand near a backpack, take a picture, and charge $10,000 instead? Probably, but that level of integrity is scarce in these times. Until the theory is tested, we shan’t know.
That survey drew the typical, everyday outrage of the tabloid press, but it is a relatively harmless symptom of the modern world’s ills.
We, as a society, have chosen to reward quick-wins, popularity, and style over substance.
Small wonder that so many people train all year to apply for the big reality shows, with the guaranteed 500k+ followers and fast-fashion sponsorships even a short appearance will bring.
If we look at this from the marketing perspective, we can start to evaluate the role influencers play in promoting products.
The most important channel for senior marketers in the US is now social media, with old-fashioned TV playing an important-but-diminishing supporting role:
As both competition and advertising costs continue to rise on the major social platforms, brands will welcome more efficient ways to reach their audience.
The chart below shows that Instagram is the most important social media channel for the majority of companies, but the likes of LinkedIn and Twitter do receive a few votes:
Perhaps we will cover influencer marketing for non-Instagram/YouTube platforms in a later edition. It’s not all about posing with handbags, I know.
It is interesting to see that, following on from the chart above, brands will spend most on Instagram by such a considerable margin:
The two charts do not allow for straight comparison; the first asks for multiple answers, the second for just one.
Nonetheless, the marked preference for Instagram in the second chart is still revealing.
So far, this follows a logical path.
Brands will gravitate towards their audience and Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook each have over one billion monthly active users.
They can pay to advertise directly on these platforms and they almost always do, but influencer marketing offers an extra dimension.
Influencers have a closer relationship with the audience than a brand ever could, built on that elusive “authenticity”. This gives them the power to shape opinions and behaviours.
Of course, brands will pay to turn that influence to their advantage. And lo, I bring thee, Influencer Marketing.
However, this is not a static ecosystem. What’s good for the brand and what’s good for the influencer might not actually be so good for the follower.
The influx of sponsorship money upsets the equilibrium in a number of ways.
First, engagement rates start to decline.
As a metric, using ‘Likes’ to measure engagement is reductive, but it is still a widely used proxy for ‘success’. (Instagram has tested removing Like counts from posts and has found that this actually increases engagement, so its days may soon be numbered.)
This trend is stark and suggests that what the BBC this week termed “Influencer Fatigue” really is setting in.
People are bored of seeing the same posts.
And they are seeing a lot more of these #sponsored collaborations, which probably won’t help the issue.
Some hotel groups even send out influencer forms to any journalist planning to stay at one of their locations:
For the influencers, these sponsorships provide compensation for the very significant amount of time they spend creating content and interacting with the audience.
A lucky few avail of a brand-influencer relationship that is reminiscent of the patronage system in 15th century Florence, sans the prestige. They are given a commission to go and create some lovely mise en scènes.
Others, lower down the scale, are not admitted to the influencers’ guild. In an attempt to stay in the world of easy money, some (a very small minority, I must note) wilfully mislead their audience to ensure that the collaborations keep rolling in.
It is not so much that power corrupts here; it is the attendant remuneration that leads some down a murky path.
Just this week, the Advertising Standards Agency banned a number of ads for a “10-calorie” diet company, after influencers posted modified images of themselves with the products.
Everything in this market is optimized towards “engagement”, starting with the social network itself.
As a result, a shadow economy develops based on a rudimentary understanding of how it all works.
That said, influencers could post candid images of themselves in unflattering locations, but for what purpose?
Their influence would dissolve as the Likes retreat. In turn, their reach and follower numbers decrease. Such a stance may have a moral intention; but if no-one sees it, does it have an impact?
Influence had almost mystical connotations in the past, a substance that arose through a combination of authority, charisma, and wisdom.
Today’s iteration could not be further from alchemy.
Followers = Influence.
Influence = $$$.
It’s a form of syllogistic reasoning, albeit a very flawed one.
Visibility is everything and its permanence is afforded only to a very select few. A Love Island contestant from 2017 avails of no such guarantees. Why toy with a formula that seems to be working?
As individuals, these influencers are posting what the social network rewards, what the audience responds to, and what the brands pay them to achieve.
Can we truly lay responsibility with the people who have simply found a way to make a living in this system? Unless they are incentivized to act differently, they will continue to do what gets results today — just like the rest of us.
There is a compromise to be made here, but only a small minority has shown the imagination to reach it thus far.
Some elite influencers offer social media training to their clients in return for free products and services. That is a fair value exchange; for example, a hotel group or tourist board would surely welcome such expert advice.
The influencers also create images that their clients can use on their own social media channels, which saves on photographer costs.
More than anything, this demonstrates an understanding of the influencer’s own worth and the importance of delivering tangible returns for the client. It needn’t always be about cheap Likes.
There are shortcuts in influencer marketing, but over time they are blocked off.
Perhaps what we will see is a Darwinian thinning of the crowd, with only the most committed and talented influencers hanging around to reap the rewards.
“An oversaturated market, combined with the incessant demand for content, has forced some influencers to ask if the hustle is worth the limited payoff.”
Brand spending on influencer marketing is expected to range between $4–8 billion in 2019 and could go as high as $10 billion in 2020. That is still a drop in the advertising ocean, with global ad spend expected to top $350 billion this year.
However, the barriers to entry for wannabe influencers are low — especially since resourceful industry types introduced new categories.
You can now be a Micro Influencer if you have 10,000–50,000 Instagram followers, and you can rake in $200 — $4,000 just for hawking a product in one post.
Now that there is a clear fee per follower, would-be influencers are naturally doing whatever they can to inflate their follower counts.
HypeAuditor, an analytics firm, investigated 1.84 million Instagram accounts and found more than half used fraud to inflate the number of followers.
Influencer deception will cost advertisers $1.3 billion this year, estimated Roberto Cavazos, a statistics professor at the University of Baltimore.
In our introduction, we noted that influence is a concept in constant motion.
We see that in action here: Followers and Likes were once used as shorthand for ‘influence’, but now the center of influence has shifted. Brands are starting to see more impressive returns from their outlay by using mid-tier influencers.
When those engagement rates drop, they’ll move further down until even the pool of Nano-Influencers is dry.
Therefore, to use follower numbers as a heuristic to value influence is an incorrect assumption.
It is difficult to manage all of this activity, too.
Collaborations with Macro-Influencers usually require a bespoke agreement, but sometimes brands need large groups of smaller influencers at the same time.
New platforms (like Tribe) allow brands and influencers to work together on campaigns without having to strike up individual contracts for each piece of work. Brands can share their requirements and influencers can pitch for the work, removing much of the cumbersome research process.
This serves a need and it can work for brands that want the reach lower-tier influencers can provide.
In this model, the incentive for influencers is to promote as many products as possible. This leads to the saturation of news feeds with paid partnerships, which is far from ideal for the everyday follower.
Or, in the case of Manchester City Football Club this week, it can lead to public embarrassment. Fans noticed that the club had posted on Tribe asking for new influencers to attend their games and post about the experience. Football fans had a field day with this one.
Influencer marketing is not the same as buying Display impressions or billboard space.
Instead, a brand is trying to enter the delicate dynamic between an influencer and their followers without disrupting what made it work in the first place.
If this is indeed a relationship built on authenticity, its foundations are eroded when the influencer starts pushing products that they do not use or like.
This helps to explain those falling engagement rates, as they point to a failure to translate influence into action.
Brands that do not understand the basis of that binding influence will struggle to avail of its persuasive potential.
“Brands ruined Instagram by injecting their own messages. Consumers are wising up to the fact that just because an influencer posts about a product doesn’t mean they actually like it.”
— James Cole, H Hub
THE ESSENCE OF INFLUENCE
Brands have always used the popularity of screen-based stars to promote their products. Levi’s made sure James Dean wore their jeans in his movies for this reason, way back in the 50’s. Product placement in movies and TV shows was commonplace through the 80’s and 90’s, and still persists to this day.
Few things that pop up now are 100% new, though, so that shouldn’t throw us off the scent.
Today’s influencers are markedly different to their silver screen counterparts of yore.
We have looked at TikTok in a recent edition.
Part of its appeal for content creators lies in the lack of an established hierarchy of influencers and the built-in editing tools. Anyone can get millions of views with the right 15-second clip. That makes it difficult to project the return on an investment in TikTok content.
Instagram’s hierarchy is established, allowing influencers to pitch their following as a stable commodity.
Instagram also provides a range of tools that permit anyone with a smartphone to create images of the same quality as the most popular influencers.
Even people with a couple of hundred followers pose like professionals.
Social media promised us self-expression; instead we have crammed ourselves into conformity, one 1080 x 1080 box at a time.
Influencers work with the technology at their disposal to create and then reify a new status quo.
Their followers do precisely what their dubious honorific suggests: they follow the trodden path.
The curated images that influencers post create a sense of envy, but not in the same, distant fashion as a perfume advertisement. There is a sense of attainable aspiration at play on social media.
The image is frozen, a target, something to aim for. Those desires are latent, but no less potent for their furtive nature.
There is a connection between influencer and follower; they are like us, but not. Our life could be like that, if only just.
The connection is strengthened by the communicative styles preferred by social media influencers. They are informal and energetic, unafraid to reveal their vulnerability.
Although we are attracted to the influencer’s life and look, a gap between our reality and theirs always exists.
Influencer marketing puts a price on that aspiration, thus making it material. We can be a little more like them if we click to buy.
That is a profitable tension, for those that get influencer marketing right.
Equally, there is always a gap between the influencer’s real life and their online persona.
I have mentioned the proliferation of #sponsored posts, but these are purely the result of new guidelines from Instagram, introduced under pressure to regulate the platform.
The influencers themselves were not exactly forthcoming with suggestions to clamp down on deceptive practices.
This is one area that has always puzzled me with the influencer marketing industry.
I understand that some have seen an opportunity to make money by paying people with a large audience to push a product.
Yes, it can have a positive impact; if an influencer introduces an audience to a new product and the latter choose to buy it, there is nothing wrong with that.
There is a semi-virtuous circle at work, when this all goes according to script: the influencer gets paid to promote the product, which allows them to keep producing the content the follower loves; the follower has the option to buy the product or not, but at least they get more content; the brand reaches their audience and sells more products.
If the brand does not sell more products — and most are growing curious of the direct impact influencers have — then they will review the investment.
It’s not the stuff of fairy tale, but it keeps the whole machine ticking over.
However, the influencer industry is open to a number of insidious practices that can cause genuine harm.
It need not be one or the other: both can be true, to varying degrees, at different times.
Those I have spoken to in influencer marketing are surprisingly prickly about the industry’s obvious shortcomings.
I wonder if they are purposefully evasive because they know there are rotten elements to hide, or if they are blinded to these failings by the potential to cash in. We’ll return to some of these topics later in the series, you’ll be delighted to hear.
A simple truth, from which social media benefits greatly, is that we believe what we see.
“Pics or it didn’t happen”, as people seem to say.
The lop-sided and sometimes-loopy BBC drama The Capture played on this innate human weakness recently. CCTV footage is used in court cases because it is reliable evidence. But in an age of deepfakes and image modification, should we even take recorded testimony as truth?
Followers on social media know, deep down, that the images they are seeing are “enhanced”. They may even know that the influencer has had cosmetic procedures to arrive at their lucrative look. Buying charcoal toothpaste will not change their lives, of course.
And yet, we are seduced by what we see. A part of us cannot help but believe what is in front of our eyes.
Our senses deceive us anyway, but the challenge is heightened severely when a multi-billion dollar industry sets out to deceive us, too.
Today’s influencer industry is a reflection of what we prize in our culture, mediated through the structures of social media and handheld technology.
As our culture changes, so too does the influencer industry. Brands can make a positive contribution and, as always, they will swim with the tide.
There are some excellent examples of companies who have truly understood what links an influencer to their followers, and how they can enter this arena without disrupting that exchange.
Next time, I will cover these examples, from the beauty industry to PC gaming.
There is plenty of room to manoeuvre with this topic, so just get in touch if there’s something you’d like me to investigate!
Until then, thanks for reading!