As traditional advertising methods fade, a new generation of young social media mavens — ‘influencers’ — are offering businesses their endorsements in exchange for money or free stuff. But is it worth it?
If your company sells anything at all to the public, you’ve heard about Instagram influencers — the hottest topic in advertising since, well, advertisements. As social media has begun supplanting TV, newspapers and magazines as a primary entertainment source, companies have been forced to seek new ways of getting their products in front of the eyeballs of the coveted youth demographic. Businesses can, of course, just buy ads that Instagram slips into the streams of its users’ photo feeds. But younger consumers are alarmingly adept at ignoring those.
The ideal solution would be to infiltrate those streams not with ads but with the familiar, trusted voices of friends — who are also, as it happens, pushing the exact message you, the entrepreneur, want pushed.
So, naturally, there has become such a thing as an Instagram influencer. A person, usually young and attractive, who creates a rich social media fantasy life, into which they will happily slip a glowing reference to your product in exchange for free stuff or a small fee. This allows you, as a business owner, to create an ad without hiring models or photographers. It also allows your potential customers to see your product not in the harsh light of some studio but in situ, in the glamorous life of an actual person.
Except: Unlike advertising agencies or legacy media outlets, influencers often have no bona fides beyond an attractive online persona and a large number of followers. There are few established norms for interacting with influencers, and little scaffolding set up to prevent, say, someone from sending you an invoice for services rendered after you’ve already sent them free candles.
“I would say we get about five or six requests a week,” says Natalie Markoff, founder of the Markoff Group, a PR agency that represents about a dozen small, luxury retailers. Most of the publicity requests Markoff receives start off easygoing, she says. “They will say, you know, ‘I have an Instagram account. I’m an influencer. I love your product; could you send me some?’ And then about three or four emails in, after I’ve already sent them product, they’ll send me a rate card.”
Shamelessness isn’t the only pitfall. Outright fraud is also fairly common: ads so bogus that the FTC recently threatened to slap folks with lawsuits; fake followers; fake lighting; ludicrous requests for money and products and stuff, stuff, stuff. “Anytime you have that kind of money flowing into a platform this quickly, it’s a gold rush,” says Evan Asano, CEO and founder of Mediakix, a social media marketing agency. And like any gold rush, it tempts both decent folks and derelicts.
That’s not to say you should write off this burgeoning corner of the ad economy as a scam, however. Instagram, for all its faults, is enormously influential. As of September 2017, the site had 800 million users, 80 percent of whom follow a business, and more than 60 percent of whom say they discover new products on Instagram. As for the influencer market, according to a recent estimate by Mediakix, it was worth $1 billion in 2017 and could double over the next several years. That’s billions of dollars companies will likely be spending on entrepreneurial one-man-band social media “stars” in the hopes that it will benefit their bottom line.
But does paying influencers result in actual sales? And if a photogenic, doe-eyed 22-year-old approaches you and asks to represent your handbags/coats/sweaters/hotel/restaurant on Instagram, will you wind up getting ripped off? To get answers to these questions, I decided to go undercover and infiltrate the Instagram economy. I called some successful influencers, created a fake design-guru persona, bought a bunch of fake followers, solicited some free product and, well, started influencing. Here’s what I learned.
Michelle Williams is one of the good influencers. A former public relations executive, she runs the blog-Instagram complex Coffee and Champagne, which has 116,000 followers. It’s clear why she has been successful at this. Pleasant and forthcoming, she posts compelling snapshots of oozy, melty sandwiches, ice cream cones as frilly as antebellum dresses and her own tan, dark-haired visage looking pensively out the windows of various cafés. A full-time freelancer, Williams makes about half her money from her blog and the other half from Instagram, much of it by partnering with food companies to create and shoot new recipes. She’s what you’d get if a magician turned Saveur magazine into a person.
When I told Williams I intended to fake my way into the Instagram economy, she told me it’s much more difficult to break in than it was in the good old days of 2014. Back then, you could just take pretty photos of food and add them to a photo gallery. Today, with so many people trying to quit their day jobs and turn influencer, you have to have a good schtick to stand out.
“I tell people to come up with their own visual technique,” she says. There are accounts that post only pink photos, for example, or post clothing always shown against a one-color background. One influencer Williams likes got popular by taking photos of food from a bird’s-eye perspective, so followers can see both the plate and the account owner’s shoes. In the parlance of the Instagram economy, your schtick is your “aesthetic,” and as a business owner, the idea is to work with influencers whose aesthetic matches your idea of your brand.
“If you look at the creatives that are getting a lot of ‘gigs,’ as we call them, some of our highest-performing ones are professional photographers,” says Aana Wherry, director of marketing, communications and creator experience for Popular Pays, a site that acts as a sort of matchmaking service for brands and influencers. “We have tags with which we filter our creators, whether it’s men’s fashion or food or different categories of content or audience.”
You can think of influencers as mini magazines; you want to place your ads only in those whose look fits your brand and appeals to your demo.
For my aesthetic, I decided on an interior design feed that would consist mostly of candles. Why? Because it’s specific, it’s an underserved niche and I like free candles. To start, I bought a few chichi candles, arranging them around my one-bedroom apartment to create desirable vignettes. My plan was to create a barely believable feed of luxe candles displayed in the various rooms of a fictitious house on the beach. I would ask small businesses to send me free candles to place in future photos. And then I would just see what happened.
This strategy proved unsustainable. I ran out of content very, very quickly. One thing they never tell you about being an Instagram influencer is you need a ton of content. Williams posts one or two photos a day, plus material for Stories, the live A/V feed of an influencer’s daily grind that was added to Instagram in 2016 to mimic Snapchat.
So, this being the internet, I stole. I started out just reblogging other people’s candle photos, with attribution, but before long, I started cropping out the original posters’ identifying details and uploading their photos as my own. I added layers and layers of hashtags to everything (#zenlife, #beachstyle, #instadecor) to try to get like-minded accounts to repost my photos. None of it had the desired effect. My most popular post got 26 likes.
Growing an audience quickly became a monstrous…