The rise of the influencer: Who are they and why are brands so focused on them?
Over the course of the last year or so, the term ‘influencer’, or more specifically ‘social media influencer’ appears to have become a ubiquity.
As the social media landscape rapidly changes and each social platform becomes a veritable oligopoly with its own handful of social media superstars. Love them or loathe them, their presence – and influence – is indelibly felt.
So what exactly does it mean to be an influencer? What do they actually do and whom are they influencing? Fiona Reid Murphy, founder of the Irish Bloggers’ Conference, defines an influencer as “someone who has built up a following across social media platforms and the title of influencer may be because of the number of followers they have or quite simply, the excellence or nuance of their postings.
"These people are considered important for brands because they have a captive audience who listen to and value their opinions.” She adds that brands carefully select what influencers they want to work with because “not only can they help to introduce or endorse a brand, but influencers can increase engagements, traffic and ultimately sales.”
Undoubtedly, we have the Kardashians et al to indirectly thank for the increasing attention brands are willing to pay to a certain echelon of social media users as they become more and more attuned to the power and potential profitability that stems from having their product featured on an influencer’s page.
For years, Kim and co. have been making hundreds of thousands of dollars by advertising everything from waist trainers to phone cases on their social media pages. Their extortionate fees are seen as necessary short-term expenses for companies who envision the long-term gain a shout-out or a selfie with their products will have on brand awareness and sales. It’s expected that their legions of adoring fans will flock to the checkouts to follow their idol’s suit.
Unsurprisingly, more often than not, the products sell out within minutes - it certainly seems like a bleak comment on capitalism.
Recently, Kim Kardashian was ridiculed for promoting an app called JetSmarter, where she posted a video to her Instagram page telling fans, “If you’re a mom, you’ll know how crazy it is to travel with two kids” and credited the app for making it totally hassle-free to locate a private plane “for you and your family.”
Kardashian was berated for, what we in Ireland like to call ‘notions’, and it appears that Kim forgot the golden rule of being a social media influencer: Know your audience!
Similarly, a couple of weeks ago, Naomi Campbell found herself in hot water when she posted a sponsored Instagram image of her new Adidas trainers, complete with a caption that contained all of the brand’s meticulous instructions on what to say and when to say it. It’s clear that for these mega-rich stars, being an influencer is just a lucrative by-product of their celebrity and it’s about little more than the pay cheque.
In Ireland, the culture is notably different and as Reid Murphy points out.
"The most successful influencers will have longevity because they choose the businesses and brands that they want to work with very carefully and they recognise that honesty is an integral part of the relationship that influencers have with their followers and clients," she says. Blogging guidelines and ethics are ever-changing but when it comes to sponsored content, the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland has recently stated that users must clearly state when they have been paid to promote something. In the spirit of transparency and authenticity, it seems only fair.
Readers or viewers want to know that what they’re getting is an honest review of a particular product and perhaps knowing that someone has been paid to write about something will ultimately swing their decision either way when it comes to purchasing. However, having spoken to many Irish influencers before, the majority have insisted that while a monetary remittance is certainly welcomed, this would not in any way effect or diminish their honesty.
When it comes to money and blogging, it’s certainly a touchy subject. There is an ostensible misconception in Ireland that the social media elite float from one champagne-fuelled event to the next, leaving with reams of goodie bags and are often either paid to be there or write about it. This may be the case for a very select few, but more often than not - unless you’re part of the community - what you won’t hear about is the endless times brands will contact influencers, asking them to work for free in return for that seemingly much sought after ‘exposure.’
Of course, to many, this will sound like a trivial #FirstWorldProblem, but come rent day try giving your landlord a wad of ‘exposure’ or a transcript of your Google Analytics.
Many Irish influencers who get paid to work with brands do so as a supplement to their full-time jobs or in their spare time when they’ve put the kids to bed and I don’t think anyone should begrudge them for that.
Those who have made the transition to full-time influencers, per se – the likes of Ciara O’Doherty (ciaraodoherty.com) and Erika Fox (retroflame.com) have done so after years of carefully building up their own personal brands and websites.
Up until relatively recently, blogging was the most prominent social media influencing tool, but now Snapchat is the undisputed platform du jour and former PR executive James Kavanagh is its golden boy. However, he is dubious about the term ‘influencer’ and is cautious about having the title bestowed upon him, insisting that it’s “cringey.”
He may be right, but with thousands of loyal and obsessed followers on the micro-vlogging app, he is undeniably one of Ireland’s most influential Snapchat users. Having worked on the other side of the fence in some of country’s top PR firms, Kavanagh says that his Snapchat fame was totally “unplanned”, but says that because of it, he has been able to leave his job and focus on working with different brands thanks to his newfound following.
“It absolutely gave me the confidence to leave my PR job and since then I’ve been working on different brand campaigns, starring in videos for Sprite and Samsung and obviously these are paid gigs, so it’s mad to think I’m able to float along because of Snapchat.”
Many people have questioned the longevity of the current proliferation of influencers in a world where social media is constantly evolving and one platform seemingly becomes out-dated upon the arrival of the next. James appears as the canny young entrepreneur when he says that because he can “float” along thanks to Snapchat, it gives him time to grow his food business Currabinny with his boyfriend William.
James says not having a regular 9-5 job means he can focus his efforts on the promotion and creation of his food brand.
He tells me that his mum recently joined Snapchat and documents her “many holidays” and has been inundated with messages from people asking her about restaurant recommendations or places to visit. This is because, in truth, everyone with a social media account is, to an extent, a social media influencer.
The most successful ones just know exactly how to speak to and engage with their audience. It’s just a pity Kim Kardashian didn’t think of this before waxing lyrical about her life-saving jet plan app, eh?