The Age of Influence

Remember Cindy Crawford in that legendary Pepsi commercial? Or Marky Mark’s “Nothing gets between me and my Calvins” campaign? Celebrity endorsements have been fashions favorite advertising tool for what feels like forever—and that doesn't seem to be going anywhere. But what is changing is our definition of “celebrity,” and we have social media and influencer marketing to thank for that.

Anyone with authority can be an influencer, but for the purposes of this article, I will be strictly talking about social media influencers, with a concentration on Instagram. 

Just like traditional celebrities, social media influencers get paid by brands to post and promote their products and/or services. With the rise of the “social media star” in recent years, influencers have earned more and more favor with brands because they create a more intimate and “person-to-person” marketing experience which seems to be more bang for their buck. 

These days, instead of searching google or asking mom what brand of face cream they should buy, consumers can simply take to their favorite blogger’s Instagram feed or YouTube channel to look for answers. This marketing goldmine is now a $1 billion industry and is based on trust.

Like anything, influencer marketing has changed and evolved over time, but in the past few years it has picked up quite a bit of steam. It may seem as though marketers have just realized the steer power of this tool, but I don’t find that to be the case. Social media influencers have become popular because the market has finally made room for them. 

To understand influencer marketing, you must first understand how we got here. Nick Levine writes for Dazed Digital that, “[Paris] Hilton's most significant impact on pop culture could be the career path she helped to pave for today's reality stars-turned-social media influencers.” He is of course, referencing Hilton and Nicole Richie’s early 2000s reality TV show, The Simple Life

Why is this important? Have you ever heard of a little known star named Kim Kardashian-West? I thought you might’ve. She is the direct evolution of The Simple Life. As Levine writes in his article, “Kardashian has refined and super-sized Hilton’s formula of turning reality show notoriety and an ostentatious LA lifestyle into an extremely lucrative business portfolio.” 

What followed these pioneers was a slew of insanely entertaining reality shows, followed by the birth of social media. One would be remiss to think that these things are not all extensions of each other. 

As humans we are naturally curious. We also are naturally attracted to people who seem to be “better” than us. This is why the concept of “reality” works—whether that be on television on on the internet. Regular people get an intimate look into the lives of the people they aspire to be—we laugh with them, cry with them, and watch them fail. And now that people are spending less time in front of the TV and more time in front of their iPhone, Instagram is just the 2018 version of a reality TV show. 

Normally when you think of an influencer, people like Chiara Ferragni of the “the Blonde Salad” or Danielle Bernstein of “We Wore What” come to mind—they are the business people of social media. These influencers have over a million followers and regularly do sponsored posts with brands. We see them at parties and fashion shows, they get products sent to them for free, and get paid thousands of dollars by brands to post. Even with the push to more “realness” on social media, they seem to be living the ideal life at all times.

These influencers have been building their brand and their following for the past 5-7 years, and most of them started out with just a blog. Through networking and brand relationships, they became a marketers wet dream. That is, until the lawsuits started pouring in. Because it is such a new concept and there was no real legal legislation, social media based influencer marketing became the wild wild west. 

Unfortunately for them, fashion news blogs like The Fashion Law (TFL) started picking up on sneaky tactics that both brands and their influencers were using in order to market products. 

Take for instance the above mentioned Chiara Ferragni, who is currently being investigated by the Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (“AGCM”) for undisclosed Instagram ads for the Italian airline, Alitalia, The Fashion Law Reports. The AGCM is the Italian equivalent to the Federal Trade Commission (FCC). TFL reports that, “The authority notes that in the course of 2018, it ‘successfully completed a second action against forms of hidden advertising on social media,’ which run afoul of the provisions of the Italian Consumer Code.”

After about two years full of lawsuits and questions surrounding brands, influencers, and their duty to be honest when advertising, these titans are starting to lose their touch. The many lawsuits, just like the one above, have proven to be extremely detrimental to both influencers and brands reputations alike. Like I mentioned before, the whole concept of influencer marketing works because the influencers are trusted and they provide a sense of community for their loyal followers.

You trust your favorite YouTuber or Instagram girl crush to be honest when promoting a product. I can’t help but draw comparisons here with the current political climate. Is money in politics really that different from money in influencer marketing? When they start getting paid 60k—or even 100k—to post about Flat Tummy Tea or the latest Tommy Hilfiger campaign for relevance, it becomes less about the relationship with the followers and more about the money.

So, what’s the solution? An even newer trend in the world of instagram marketing is micro and nano-influencers. Micro-influencers have anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 followers and nano-influencers average less than 5,000 followers many of them even under 2,000. 

Why have they become popular? Surly someone with hundreds of thousands of followers is a better investment than someone with only 1,000? A lot of brands are finding that not to be the case. It isn’t as cut and dry as before: more followers plus more exposure does not equal more money these days. 

“We honestly find the smaller-scale influencers to be more effective,” says Jamie Lombardo, a LIM senior and PR assistant at Tory Sport. “Not only is it cheaper for us but in terms of the likes to clicks ratio, they have way better engagement than people with massive followings.” 

And it’s true. What was once a cheaper and more effective way to market has evolved into an even cheaper and more effective way to market. Micro and nano influencers will post for free rather than a monetary interaction—they just keep whatever product they were sent. This alone makes the relationship more authentic. 

Skin Care and green beauty micro-influencer Chris Pond of Tophcam says that of the hundreds of posts he’s done he’s never been paid. Thus far I have not been paid to post any form of content, it’s always been through gifting. I’m open to it, but the relationship has to feel right.” 

Most micro and nano influencers didn’t even set out to become influencers, I’ve found that in most cases it just happens organically. And everyone that I’ve spoken to cringes at the word. 

Isabelle Estrin, another New York micro influencer, has 30k followers and says it’s all about the relationship for her. “I definitely care about the relationship, I only post about brands that I genuinely love and align with.” When I asked her if she considered herself an influencer, she said she didn’t like the term, “I don’t! I have nothing but respect for influencers but I really cringe at that word as it relates to me because I don’t see myself as trying to influence anyone or anything.” 

An important part of this formula is the actual brand who is looking for influencers. There has been a huge push for brands that are—for a lack of a better word—woke. As a whole, the fashion and beauty industries are moving away from fast fashion and unethically sourced products and moving towards companies with a strong ethos. Suddenly major players like Sephora or Zara aren’t the kings of the jungle anymore. Consumers are now flocking to places like Credo, an all natural, green beauty store or buying vintage. This, in large part, has to do with the awareness of large companies impacts on the environment. 

Instead, people are actively seeking out and spending money on brands that promote women's and LGBTQ rights, body positivity, for the most part are organic or vegan, and are transparent about their products and practices. 

These companies are small but growing, local, and make products that consumers feel good about using. Great examples of this would be Fur Oil or Her Line, they understand their market because they are millennials just like their customer.  

Thinking from a brands perspective, there is a serious vetting process when it comes to finding the right influencer for you. Because their relationship with their followers is the key to the process, it is important to look at their analytics and engagement, seeing what kinds of content they post and how they interact with their followers. 

I have quite a few friends who are both nano and micro influencers and who regularly get send products by brands in the hopes of getting a beautifully curated post out of them. As a marketing student and a friend, I’m a little bias, but when I see a friend has posted about a product, nine times out of ten I will click onto the brands page. And though my debit card doesn't want to admit it, more often than not I have made a purchase either in that moment or down the line. And isn’t that the point? I trust my friends and what they post because they’re my friends. That's cognitive bias if I’ve ever seen it, but it the best way possible.