Five years ago, the career option of becoming an "influencer" didn't exist. Today, however, it's the ambition of countless teenagers: create your own online brand and become the envy of thousands of people who covet your possessions, your friends and your money. Is it really possible to bank $250,000 (Dh918,125) for one Instagram post? Can you really earn cash by hanging out with beautiful people in beautiful places wearing beautiful things? For a select few, this has become possible.
But a new study published last week by analytics firm InfluencerDB indicates that the glory days of the influencer may be waning. Across specialities such as travel, beauty, fashion and food, the figures indicate that engagement with influencers has fallen by an average of 37 per cent over the last year – or, in other words, we're becoming less interested in what they do and what they have to say.
But why? Has the market become too crowded? Are influencers failing to live up to their own hype? Or are consumers just wising up to the latest commercial ruse?
From sharing platform to advertising platform
The global economy depends on us being persuaded to buy things. The industry devoted to those techniques of persuasion – marketing – has traditionally needed to make complex assessments of people’s wealth, social position, personality and their tolerance of marketing itself. Influencers, however, seemed to cut through all that. Having built a trusted relationship with audiences on Facebook, Instagram or YouTube, any product they recommended would fly off the shelves – and, moreover, the audience didn’t feel suckered. From a marketing perspective, it seemed too good to be true.
"Social media gave people a platform to create a following," says Elvira Bolat, a marketing academic and consultant, who works at Bournemouth University. "But marketeers have jumped on the bandwagon and technology companies have capitalised upon that. And it's led to all sorts of issues."
The most visible of those issues is the huge growth in so-called "sponsored content". A report released in April by analytics firm Socialbakers revealed that the number of sponsored posts by influencers on Instagram had risen by 150 per cent over the preceding year, as companies poured in money and influencers rushed to grab it, assisted by middlemen.
"In the beginning you would only see a sponsored post [on Instagram] every so often, but now influencers post about 10 or 15 products in one day," says Liselot Hudders at Ghent University's Centre for Persuasive Communication. "It was once a platform with nice pictures of your friends, but it's become an advertising platform."
As the influencer community expands to incorporate micro- or nano-influencers with a relatively small following, the sales pitches have become even more frantic. "I call this continuous stream of promotion the 'diarrhoea of content'," says Bolat. "You now tend to skip through [Instagram] Stories because you realise it's all marketing."
The problem with sponsored posts
This boom in sponsored posts has been blighted by fraud and fakery, taking advantage of firms' eagerness to score promotional opportunities. Last year, one marketing agency illustrated the problem by creating a fake account ("Wandering Girl"), buying her some fake followers and watching companies queue up to offer freebies. The inflation of numbers through purchasing fake likes and followers is rife; according to Like-Wise, an influencer fraud detection tool, 25 per cent of influencers have scammed the system at some point.
In addition, this unregulated space with comparatively few formal procedures has seen influencers’ passwords stolen, their accounts taken over and rebranded, all in the pursuit of cash. But even established influencers have found their impact weakening, and Hudders speculates whether their promotional activity has sacrificed some of the honesty and integrity that won them an audience in the first place.
“If you’re starting as an influencer, you have to accept every deal you’re offered,” she says, “because that allows you to build your profile.”
This inevitably leads to the promotion of products that audiences may not be interested in. The marketing industry has spent years learning subtle ways to influence consumer behaviour, but influencers’ efforts can sometimes lack sophistication. Last month, it was revealed that influencer Marissa Fuchs, who painstakingly documented an extravagant “surprise” marriage proposal from her boyfriend, had planned it months in advance and sent detailed itineraries to brands in the search for sponsorship.
"Consumers are not stupid, and social media influencers are being pushed by firms into creating content that's not great. As a result, people are losing trust and moving on," says Bolat. Influencers have complained publicly about their careers being devalued by scammers, unhelpful algorithms and a marketplace akin to the Wild West. "I'm beginning to feel humiliated," wrote influencer Victoria Magrath back in October. "Bloggers across the industry are exhausted of feeling disappointed with the reception to content they are working so hard to create."
Influencing isn't as easy as everyone thinks
Not everyone would sympathise with their plight; there's a widespread perception of influencers as opportunists who seek to get something for nothing. But this is no easy ride, according to Hudders; the constant creation and distribution of new content, coupled with anxiety surrounding the audience's reaction, is a relentless and precarious job. "You can become an influencer in one day," she says, "but the next day that success can already be over."
Maybe influencers are almost set up to fail. Bolat identifies an inherent clash between the values of the individual – wanting to gain an audience's approval for being who they are – and values of brands, who seek to persuade and sell. The two make for an uneasy partnership, but according to Hudders, even the pursuit of bigger audiences is damaging to influencers' prospects. "The bond with followers is important, but of course the more followers you get, the more difficult it is to maintain that bond. Your followers start to feel anonymous, and the engagement rate will decrease," she says.
The influencer market is said to reach $10 billion by next year, so it's not going away. But the days of big rewards for those who want to be influencers are numbered, says Bolat. "I genuinely believe that at some point it will fade away and become part of our everyday fabric, our personal and professional activities – but it won't be seen as marketing."
In other words, the future may see all of us become influencers, and marketing will have pulled off its greatest trick of subliminal persuasion.