During the pandemic, it has become almost orthodox to say that the age of the social media influencer has peaked, and may even be drawing to a close. But are such reports of death – or imminent death – exaggerated?
In recent years, as Instagram has become the world’s digital shopping mall, wellness centre and global trend-setter, major brands have progressively shifted their marketing and advertising budgets to social media stars in order to promote their products and services. Spending on broadcast commercial messages, billboards and old-fashioned social media ads has declined accordingly.
Yet – as you might expect – such a radical change, enacted at pace, has often been a bumpy ride. There have been accusations of inauthenticity, demands for tight regulation, and fears that the influencers themselves are at risk of mental and physical burnout, as they confect images of unattainable lifestyles around the clock and feel the pressure to post ever more content to earn their keep.
Such anxieties are well dramatised in the acclaimed new Polish film, Sweat, in which a fitness Instagram star, played by Magdalena Kolesnik, disintegrates before the audience’s eyes. In a recent New York Times piece – which quickly went viral – the newspaper’s technology guru Taylor Lorenz explored the mental health issues afflicting the stars of TikTok.
The easy conclusion to draw is that a bubble is about to burst. But there are grounds to think quite otherwise, and to interpret what is happening as a market correction rather than an ending. In fact, these tremors may soon be understood as a turning point in the social media story, and an exciting staging post in the democratisation of commerce.
In the early years of the influencer revolution, we were really applying 20th-century ideas about marketing to the 21st-century marketplace. Before the digital age, marketing and advertising was either explicitly commercial (billboards, broadcast commercials, press advertisements) or unpaid and unofficial (essentially, word of mouth).
The two cultures were distinct and rarely interconnected. Yes, word of mouth was undoubtedly the most effective method of endorsing a product; but it was never a direct priority for advertisers, because its reach was by definition limited. Their hope was that their mass market content would inspire individuals to recommend their brands to their peers. But they had no means of overseeing or enforcing that process.
Social media has changed all that. Advertisers are now able to reach enormous numbers of consumers directly through this transformative method of communication. Their pitch is not a tableau, or a visual gag, or a scene of an idealised family enjoying their product. It is delivered via the image and voice of an individual whose account has many followers – in some cases, many millions.
In the 20th-century marketplace, where brands were much more powerful and exercised far more control over what we saw and experienced, we were right to be wary of companies paying individuals to promote their products. Broadcast commercials and billboards very obviously constituted – and continue to constitute – paid advertising.
The digital era has not just yielded new tools for advertisers. It has also, crucially, enabled a massive shift in power from brands to consumers. Whatever happens to the current cohort of influencers, the creation of a single space, where social interaction, campaigning and commerce all intermingle, is an irreversible revolution.
Of course, advertising methods have always evolved according to the media available: print, billboards, television. But it is a mistake to think that social media is just another venue for existing formats and for the commercial culture with which we are familiar. The change is much deeper than that.
At the heart of this is a fundamental demographic shift: Generation Z consumes in a totally different way from its forebears. And, counter-intuitively, what it is doing is not really new.
In practice, these young people are consuming in a way that is in sync with natural forms of human interaction, but which has never been available on a mass scale – until now. The rise of peer-to-peer recommendation and direct contact with online gurus is no mystery to those who understand evolutionary psychology. It has restored the most deeply ingrained habits of trust and recommendation: albeit on a planetary scale, rather than within the confines of a village or a tribe.
Of course, the sheer pace and enormity of the shift means that it is vulnerable to early-stage problems To function, the new 21st-century marketplace requires shared values to be observed across three pillars: the brand, the influencer (or “creator” – more on that shortly), and the consumer.
Any misalignment will cause disturbance in the market. The growing numbers of burned out influencers and the increased concerns about inauthentic posts are symptoms of such disturbance. They are producing manically, rather than smartly.
This is a market which is governed by authenticity – an overused word, to be sure, but one which still captures the core principle of this revolution. In essence, power has shifted from supply towards demand.
Consumers want to know that the brands from which they buy share their values; conversely, companies need to demonstrate their environmental, social and ethical credentials, or they will lose business. To do this effectively, they need to show rather than tell; and partnerships with third parties who have the right ethical credentials, or personify a particular form of living, is the best way to do this.
The perfect case study in this change is the transformation of Vogue under the editorship of Edward Enninful. What was once a couture-driven, elitist magazine is now a multi-media company that cuts through on Instagram as vividly as it does at fashion shows or via print subscription.
What Enninful is striving to achieve – successfully – is an editorial mix of authenticity and glamour. So his Vogue is full of articles and images that raise awareness of contemporary issues, especially in the area of social and racial justice. Its style is often gritty and unsparingly candid rather than shiny and unrelatable. But that doesn’t mean that its ethic is any less aspirational or exciting.
On social media, the consequence of this revolution is that influencers must now have their own demonstrable area of expertise or experience, and a clear message about the world, to be of value to brands. And therein lies one of the principal challenges.
Bombarding users with paid posts is no longer enough; it probably never was. There needs to be substance and validity to the content, delivered by individuals whose advocacy is clearly more than performative and transactional. Gen Z are very effective BS detectors. They know when they are being spun a line.
As a consequence, the essence of what constitutes a genuine social media star is changing – which explains the recent shift from the term “influencer” to “creator”. Hence, the decline of the merely glossy celebrity Instagram stars: they will need to find new strings to their respective bows if they are to stay in the game, beyond posing in glamorous outfits in exotic locations. Envy is not enough to forge real connections with users – not for very long, at least. There needs to be a sharing of ethics and values.
In this new landscape, brand and creator have a shared interest in amplifying their message without sacrificing audience numbers – so both will be increasingly cautious when entering into partnerships.
This has two important corollaries: firstly, because the content is subject to multiple checks and balances, the consumer can trust it more than ever; and secondly, neither brands nor creators mind declaring that their content is sponsored.
They usually do this by using the hashtag #AD and tagging the brand clearly as a sponsor on the post – but they could go into more detail in declaring their alignment. Would-be regulators of older generations need to understand that after making a lengthy decision to work together, both sides are proud of their relationship.
It’s in the creators’ interest to declare it: instead of promoting an unobtainable lifestyle, they seek to maintain their authenticity, in the hope that their followers will respect them all the more.
As a rule of thumb, our clients at Northbank (the talent and literary agency I founded in 2018) accept just 30 per cent of the brand opportunities which we send them for consideration – and that’s after we’ve weeded out those that are obviously not a fit. We also make sure that our clients have other avenues to pursue, too, such as books, podcasts or TV series.
This obviously makes them more attractive to brands, adding depth to the values they offer. But it also steers them away from the potential trap of being perceived as only existing on social media platforms: precisely the problem that has afflicted the first generation of influencers, many of whom feel that they have no professional or even personal identity when they are not on Instagram or TikTok.
To an extent that is under-reported, the big tech platforms are aware of this trajectory. They are, for instance, making it easier for creators to publicise and explain the detail of their partnerships – not least with simple devices such as the ability to tag brands in their posts, similar to location tags.
They are also offering new services such as creator networks, and training for their creators – unheard of in the Wild West early days of Twitter and Facebook. As so often, responsibility and good business converge: platforms now understand that they need to engage and nurture talent in order to stay competitive.
The digital era has led to a radical and exciting revolution in the way we consume, the effects of which are only beginning to manifest themselves. The 20th-century notion of selling a lifestyle – via glossy magazine ads or “celebrity influencers” – no longer cuts it. The age captured so brilliantly by Mad Men is finally, and definitively over.
So do not believe what you read about the death of the influencer. What is happening is something much more profound and dynamic: the emergence of a self-regulated mature marketplace, developing its own checks and balances and ethical ecosphere. If only the original free market influencer, Adam Smith, were here to see it.
Diane Banks is CEO of Northbank Talent Management and a non-executive director of Bright Blue
Photograph courtesy of Cristiano Ronaldo and Therabody