Wielding influence: the pros and pitfalls of paid content

'I wouldn’t say it’s hard work, it’s fun. But we were getting about an hour of sleep a night,' says Instagrammer Byron Langley

A trip to the desert was part of influencer Byron Langley’s paid-for itinerary in Dubai  
A trip to the desert was part of influencer Byron Langley’s paid-for itinerary in Dubai  

When social media star Byron Langley, 25, visited Dubai last year, he had an experience most millen­nials could only dream of. During the five-day trip, he stayed at Atlantis, The Palm; enjoyed sky­diving, jet-skiing and flew in a hot-air balloon; and ate in some of the finest restaurants the emirate has to offer.

While this itinerary would set most people back tens of thousands of dirhams, Langley didn’t pay a fil. In fact, tourism company Visit Dubai paid him to bring his partner, fashion photographer Emily Delphine, along on this holiday.

With almost 300,000 followers on Instagram and about 128,000 on YouTube, the South African model is one of a growing number of influencers making a living from paid advertising partnerships on their social media platforms

Making money from social media

For those with a large following, an advertising deal with a brand can be highly lucrative, with some influ­encers earning hundreds of thousands of dirhams for advertising anything from clothes and food to entire holidays. Kendall Jenner, model and “hero influencer” (the term used to describe someone with a social media following of more than one million people), is said to have been paid $250,000 (Dh918,000) for a single Instagram post announcing the launch of ticket sales for what turned out to be the bogus Fyre Festival.

The influencer advertising market is worth £2 billion (Dh9.5bn) worldwide says Ben Jeffries, 22, an entrepreneur who left university to set up the United Kingdom’s first influencer marketing agency. Jeffries’s company, Influ­encer, which he launched in 2014, connects brands to social media stars with large followings. His ­clients ­include Nokia, McDonald’s and Pretty Little Thing, while the content creators on Influencer’s books include British YouTuber Joe Sugg, Australian travel blogger Lauren Bullen and South African vlogger Caspar Lee, who also serves as Influencer’s chief innovation officer. Depending on the number of followers and engagement rate, ­Jeffries says a content creator can make anything from £100 to more than £100,000 through a paid partnership deal with a brand.

Becoming an 'influencer'

Langley – who is one of the content creators on Influencer’s books – says he became a social media star “by ­accident”, after he was sent to London from Durban in June 2017 to work as a model for three months. Within that time, his Instagram following of about 30,000 reached 200,000, thanks to the people he was mixing with. “There’s a lot more people on their phones here [in the UK],” he says. “My following began to grow when I was hanging around with Caspar [Lee] and Joe [Sugg], just from being tagged in their photos. It sort of happened organically. It was never my intention to decide that this is what I wanted to do now.”

Langley’s growing social media presence was quickly noticed by brands, who contacted him and offered to send him free products if he would take a picture of himself with them and post it on Instagram. His background in photography and video editing meant the content was more professional than an average social media user’s Instagram – he also includes quirky captions with his posts – and he was soon approached by brands willing to offer him money to advertise their products on social media. “The first brand I got paid by was Topman, for its Christmas campaign in 2017,” he says. “They said they would give me cash if I went into the store, picked some clothes and then posted three shots to Instagram saying they were running a Christmas campaign.”

As more and more brands began to approach him to make advertising deals, Langley realised this would be a more effective and lucrative way to earn a living as a model, than the traditional way of going to a casting and being chosen by a client. While he initially accepted most of the paid brand partnerships he was offered, he has since learnt to be more selective. “It got to the point where it was an embarrassing amount of brand deals that I was accepting. There was one stage where I had 32 recent posts and 30 of them were ads,” he explains.

“I had to think of a way in which ­people wouldn’t get irritated with me reading the back of a bottle of some product

If you’re being paid, you’re not on holiday

Langley’s trip to the UAE with Visit Dubai is one of his highest-paid partnerships to date. But he was aware that he was here for work and not on a holiday. A jam-packed itinerary of activities meant he left early in the morning and returned to the hotel at 10pm, only to begin editing pictures and videos for Instagram and YouTube. He says the reason he brought his partner along was mainly so that she could take professional photos, rather than for a relaxing couple’s trip away together. “I wouldn’t say it’s hard work, it’s fun. But we were getting about an hour of sleep a night,” he says.

While Langley always ensures his sponsored posts are marked clearly with either paid partnership or #ad, other social media influencers are not so transparent. In the UK, several celebrities, including reality TV star Louise Thompson and vlogger Zoella have been investigated over claims they broke consumer law by failing to declare that they had been paid to endorse a product or brand. Jenner is also facing potential legal action in the US after failing to declare that she had been paid for her now-deleted Fyre Festival post.

The future of Instagram advertising

Aside from the ethics of this new form of advertising, it is unclear how long the trend will last. Dr Rajesh Bhargave, assistant professor of marketing at Imperial College Business School in London, predicts that the current model – in which brands pay an influencer to advertise their product on their social media platforms – will change.

It got to the point where it was an embarrassing amount of brand deals that I was accepting. There was one stage where I had 32 recent posts and 30 of them were ads.

“It’s always been a bit of a cat-and-mouse game for advertisers,” says Bhargave. “They come up with new ways of reaching consumers digitally, but after a while that no longer works because people have either worn out of that kind of advertising or the tech­nology changes.”

Langley says that he is unsure about what is on the horizon, but he is preparing for the eventuality Bhargave spells out. As well as his background as a model, Langley is using his social media fame to promote his true passion: his music. “Maybe I’m pessimistic. But any day I could get a news notification on my phone that ads are banned. You have to have skill as a backup,” he says.

"A lot of our generation just want to be YouTubers or influencers. But that eventually will come down to a close and, if you ­haven’t developed a skill to help you in life, it’s going to be difficult.”

Updated: March 12, 2019 01:59 PM


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