The business of influencers

Photo by Elijah O’Donell on Unsplash

I once found myself at a PR event called Regent Tweet. I later found out it had the aim of promoting the businesses on Regent Street in London. I ended up there because I worked in tech and was part of a ‘girl geek’ networking group. Most of us had blogs and social media accounts on the side of our day jobs, which we used with varying degrees of frequency. ┬áDuring the event, we visited shops and restaurants on the street to redeem offers.

True to our geeky nature, a friend and I plotted our route on a customised Google map, dashing about and taking the odd photo for Twitter or Instagram. Posting pics of a cocktail or a piece of cake was (ahem, is) typical for me, but I remember one shop wanted us to tweet about men’s shoes. I didn’t care much about men’s shoes and had never purchased any in my life. I went along with it, but had a weird feeling of ‘Is this an ok thing to do?’

The next year the same event had become much more focused on professional bloggers. Outfits felt competitive and people had selfie-sticks. I felt as if I didn’t fit in.

Looking back, this may have been the turning point when bloggers became influencers.

Influencers are people like Zoella, a YouTube star with over 12 million subscribers. They have influence because they have followers. And it’s a following often built from a specific niche area. If you aren’t one of their followers you may have no idea who they are. But if you are one of the followers, you likely listen to and watch the person daily, hearing their voice more often than your closest friends or family. It’s a powerful 21st century phenomenon.

It makes sense that we prefer our information through the lens of people we trust. The decline of traditional media and advertising accompanied the rise of the internet. Gone are the days of ads blasting out of the television and telling us what we should buy. That meant if you had the largest budget, you could control the conversation. What we do more often now is trust the general public. If you want to book a hotel or restaurant, you check the Google and TripAdvisor reviews. If it gets 4 stars often enough, it must be a safe bet. It makes us feel empowered as consumers.

Influencers might be the ultimate general public, with amplified voices.

Often why we like them in the first place is because they aren’t celebrities. They talk about real stuff. It could be running a business, juggling children and work, trying to stay on top of mental health issues, losing weight or cooking dinner. If something works for them, there is no reason it won’t work for us. But that gets confusing when they become famous and might actually be celebrities. Are they still like us then?

Agency DigitalVoices recommends thinking of influencers as local entrepreneurs. They run their own businesses and they are their businesses. They build their success on making unique content, which is unpaid work. Ads and sponsored posts allow them to make a living, meaning they can keep producing the content. Their connection to an audience is their livelihood. The amount spent by brands on influencer partnerships is still much less than traditional marketing, but it is forecast to grow and grow.

75% of 6 – 17 year olds want to be a social media influencer above all other career options. All those sun-drenched yoga poses on the beach do make it look like a fun job (kinda). But of course all is not what it seems. We don’t see the preparation and 200 photos they had to pose for. We don’t see the editing process. We don’t know if they are enjoying themselves. In fiction, authors are starting to explore the inner lives of influencers. Holly Bourne’s ‘How do you like me now?’ is one such example. The central character has appearances to keep up on Instagram, but her real life is a different and darker place.

Influencers have received some bad press recently, for asking for free holidays. There are increasing moves for them to be clearer about paid partnerships and freebies. Yet it must be tough to manage the opportunities open to influencers whilst being true to yourself. That’s the feeling I recognised years ago.

Shouldn’t we also recognise the impact of economic decisions? The undervaluing of creative industries, the raising of tuition fees and the tough job market all play a role here.

We’ve created a world in which new ways of making a living need to be found. Should we be so hard on the people who find them?


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