The new wave of influencers

From body positive campaigners to digital avatars and ecowarriors, we take a look at the new Instagram stars redefining what it means to be an influencer

Influencer marketing is now a billion dollar industry, with everyone from dental hygiene brands to luxury fashion labels paying thousands of pounds to land their products on the right feed. But as the market has grown, it seems we’ve all become a little tired of seeing #ad.

In October last year, 24-year-old blogger Scarlett Dixon published a paid-for post in partnership with Listerine mouthwash. Alongside the caption, “The best of days start with a smile and positive thoughts. And pancakes,” she posted an image of herself sipping a cup of tea in bed while surrounded by heart-shaped balloons – a photograph that allegedly offered a glimpse into her morning routine.

The post was marked as an ad, but this didn’t stop Dixon receiving online abuse for what was clearly a staged photoshoot. In a tweet that received more than 100,000 likes, one Twitter user from Cardiff shared it along with the message: “Fuck off is this anybody’s normal morning.”

As well as exposing the nasty side of social media (Dixon says she received hundreds of death threats), the post – and the reaction to it – highlighted everything that has gone wrong with influencer marketing. Influencers used to be seen as authentic – and we expected their posts to reflect real life. Now, our feeds have become flooded with aspirational images from wellness bloggers and fitness coaches and sun-kissed travellers promoting products and brands in exchange for cash. The lines between what’s real and what’s not, what’s paid for and what isn’t, have become increasingly blurred, and it seems consumers are no longer buying it. According to a study of 4,000 consumers by marketing company Bazaarvoice, more than half of us believe influencers take advantage of impressionable audiences and misrepresent real life.

“I think the birthplace of the influencer came from a period of time when we were extremely sceptical of what anyone in power was telling us,” says Sarah Johnson, co-founder of London-based research and trend consultancy The Akin.

That coincided with [the growth of] social media and created this convergence of desire from consumers wanting more authenticity and more democratic access to information. Initially, that’s what influencers were offering: this kind of unbiased, very personal, almost peer-to-peer approach to recommendation, which people tend to prefer [over other forms of advertising],” adds Johnson. “But the more the money flowed into that market, and the more that influencers became aware of the types of commercial decisions they could make, it created the same problem as the previous model. We all turned to influencers for this desire for authenticity, and actually it’s become in itself a kind of parody of how inauthentic you can be on social media.”

The brands that are most ahead of the curve are looking for very different types of talent to work with

Add to this calls for greater transparency around paid-for posts, growing concerns over influencer fraud (US marketing specialist Captiv8 claims that more than 11% of engagement on influencer posts in 2017 was generated from fraudulent accounts), and it’s little wonder we’re seeing a backlash against posts like Dixon’s. Brands have also been calling for greater transparency and action to remove bots and fake followers: speaking at Cannes Lions last year, Unilever’s then-CMO, Keith Weed, called for urgent action to rebuild trust in influencers “before it’s gone forever”.

“The more the laws [around transparency] come into play, and the more people are having to be open and honest about what’s paid-for, what’s real … the more push back there will be from consumers,” says Johnson. “I think the other problem as well is that brands have reached a tipping point, where they realise they have absolutely no way of tracking the success rate of any of  this stuff. They’re spending a lot of money on these posts and still nobody has created a tool that can really track the return on investment on any of this content.”

Johnson doesn’t believe that brands will stop working with influencers any time soon – AdWeek predicted the market will be worth $10bn by next year and influencers continue to command huge engagement – but she does think we’ll see a major change in the way brands work with influencers and the kind of influencers they choose to invest in.

“We know from our work with brands at The Akin [whose clients include Adidas, Sonos and Pernod Ricard] that they’re definitely rethinking their strategy – the brands that are most ahead of the curve are looking for very different types of talent to work with, and we’ve definitely seen them exploring other digital marketing avenues than just paid-for influence.”

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NANO INFLUENCERS

Over the past few years, brands have been moving away from working with big-name talent and instead turning to micro or ‘nano-influencers’ – people with a small but engaged following (think 1,000 to 10,000 instead of one million). A recent article in The Times claimed that retailers like M&S and Boden, which had invested in nano-influencers, had seen higher levels of engagement for a fraction of the cost of working with top-name talent. We Are Social and adidas have also been engaging with local footballers and content creators through adidas’ Tango Squad campaign, assembling a squad from micro-influencers (a project documented in a popular 12-part series on YouTube) and engaging with local football teams through Facebook Messenger, giving them advance notice of product drops and access to exclusive events.

Like the influencers of old, nano-influencers feel accessible – more like your office style crush or the friend posting lol-worthy memes than a celeb whose lifestyle is completely out of reach. A report by CR’s sister brand, Influencer Intelligence, found that influencers with fewer than 100,000 followers are the group in the highest demand from brands, with 61% of consumers saying micro-influencers, or niche influencers, produce more relatable content.

As Sarah Evans, Head of  Digital at Bottle PR, notes in the report, nano-influencers might have less reach than A-list Instagrammers, but they can still drive impact, and can deliver more value for brands. “With celebrity or top-tier talent collaborations, you’re renting their audience for a single post, but for the same price, you could take the time to co-create something of meaning with multiple micro-influencers where the content is more likely to resonate.”

INFLUENCER ACTIVISTS

Alongside this, a new wave of influencers are using their platforms to drive awareness of social and environmental causes. Glacier Girl (Elizabeth Farrell) is a photographer-artist using Instagram to raise awareness of environmental issues, posting stark images that highlight the potential impact of climate change and handmade merch with activist slogans. As well as being featured in Dazed and Ace & Tate’s online journal, she has launched clothing collabs with Vivienne Westwood and Lazy Oaf, and has brought environmental campaigning to a whole new audience. Speaking to feminist culture magazine Polyester, she said: “I’m trying to create work that entertains discussion on climate issues in a way that we as a generation can relate to. For me, it’s important to use imagery, as the majority of us are visual thinkers so it only seems logical.”

Chessie King and Harnaam Kaur have also been using their platforms to promote body confidence. King, who has more than 400,000 followers, uses her feed to expose the artifice behind Insta-perfect selfies, showing how filters and carefully selected poses can dramatically change the look of an image. Last year, she worked with adam&eveDDB and anti-bullying charity Cybersmile to raise awareness of body-shaming, calling out trolls who had criticised her appearance on social media by sharing their comments on Instagram Stories.

Harnaam Kaur, a motivational speaker and anti-bullying campaigner, has empowered others through sharing her story of learning to wear her facial hair with pride (she has polycystic ovary syndrome and has had a beard since the age of 16). At school, Kaur was so badly bullied she considered suicide. Now, she’s an Instagram star with 130,000 followers, who has appeared in fashion shows and worked with brands ranging from Lush to Deezer. Her posts receive several thousand likes – a similar level of engagement to influencers with a much larger following.

King, Kaur and Farrell have shown – in different ways – how Instagram can be a powerful tool for driving social change and empowering others. And with brands continuing to invest in purpose-driven advertising, Johnson thinks we’ll see more tie-ups between brands and influencer-activists.

“There’s definitely interest in looking for a kind of activist change-making group of people, and brands realising they can use [influencer partnerships] as a kind of social purpose tool – not just to sell a product but to raise awareness of their own social impact agendas or not-for-profit schemes,” says Johnson. “It’s working with people who are influencers in the sense of making a change, rather than convincing you to buy something.”

“You only have to look at Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign and how Nike’s sales increased by a ridiculous amount of money as a result of tapping into that message,” adds Johnson. “There are arguments over whether it is ethically correct to do that, but it certainly shows this type of messaging is becoming more relevant than ‘here’s a beautiful person who’s been paid to promote our product’.”

DIGITAL AVATARS

Johnson also believes we’ll see a wave of digital influencers – CG creations – which behave just like a real person on social media. Lil Miquela now has over 1.5 million followers on Instagram (and has just launched a new digital member’s club and range of merch), while ‘digital supermodel’ Shudu has worked with Balmain and EE. Brands have even begun creating their own avatars, with London streetwear brand Waviboy promoting its products through an account fronted by digital character Lil Wavi.

“That’s another really interesting area to watch, and it raises the question: ‘Do you even need to be a person anymore [to be an influencer]?’ If you’re a person or a brand looking to get into this space, do you need a human, or can you create something totally separate?” she says.

As Johnson points out, digital influencers have captured our imagination with their satirical take on online personas, prompting us to consider what’s real and what’s fake in a whole new light. We know these avatars aren’t real – yet there’s something refreshingly honest about a digital creation selling you a new outfit or makeup look instead of a real person who is selling a filtered version of real life. “It’s interesting, because it becomes more of an art form or a creative project – you respect the graphic and the level of creation rather than the actual message itself,” she says. “Obviously, it’s not a real human, so how can it be authentic? Yet it almost has more authenticity being this kind of creative project than putting a filter on [an image of] your face and pretending that you wake up in the morning looking like that.”

Lil Miquela might be a digital creation, but she has built a devoted fanbase with her witty comments and bold fashion choices. And if her success is anything to go by, perhaps the influencers of the future won’t be human at all but models and activists and personalities created by brands to further hype their latest product drop.

BRANDS – THE NEW INFLUENCERS

As influencer marketing evolves – and consumers become more wary of sponsored content – Johnson thinks we will also see a return to brands using their own channels to drive influence and engagement. Nike’s Kaepernick ad was one of the most talked about cultural moments of 2018 and Patagonia has been using its Instagram feed to drive support for environmental campaigns, calling on its supporters to donate money to save national parklands in the US and get involved in local activism projects through its online platform, Action Works.

Brands such as Nike and Patagonia have a huge reach, and the Kaepernick campaign is proof of the power that a single tweet or an Instagram post can have. “There’s definitely a huge shift bubbling and I think, ironically, it will come back to brands being the influencers. It’s like we’ve come full circle and brands have realised that just handing over products [to influencers] removes the context and the original narrative they were trying to create. We’re also seeing [brands] become more aware of their power,” says Johnson.

“I think it’s also really interesting that National Geographic – a photography-based brand known for its beautiful images and travel-related content – has become the most followed brand on Instagram, a platform which became less about photography and more about social currency. Maybe it’s a sign that we’re shifting backwards again to the original use of the platform.”

Some brands have also been teaming up with other brands instead of individuals to reach new audiences, with everyone from Ikea to SMEG and Diesel forming unlikely partnerships and collaborations to drive hype on social media (something we covered in our feature, The dos and don’ts of collabs, back in 2018).

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Photo by @dguttenfelder | Japan’s obsession with all things kawaii (which can mean “cute,” “cuddly,” or “lovable”) is on display at Ueno Park, as owners line up their pets for a portrait shoot. The kawaii aesthetic of cute culture has been one of Japan’s most successful exports, driving pop culture trends in fashion, technology, video games, and cartoons. For National Geographic’s cities-themed issue, I walked the streets of Tokyo, home to more than 37 million people, to photograph one of the most dynamic, safest, and most innovative cities on earth. For more Tokyo photos and video, please take a look at our story “Walking Tokyo: A Journey Through The Rich Textures of Japan’s Vibrant, Reinvented Megacity. Link in bio @dguttenfelder.

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Landing a partnership with the right influencer can still have huge benefits. But Johnson believes it’s time brands focused more on using a wide range of media to drive engagement in exciting new ways (from TikTok and Twitch to dark social and even live shopping platforms), than landing a paid-for post on a popular feed.

“I think the question now is, what is an influencer? What do we mean by that? What is the goal? And what is the influence you’re trying to create? That’s what we’re asking our clients: what are you trying to influence with your media and marketing mix and the tools you have, and how can you choose the right tools based on that, rather than simply going down this well-trodden and seemingly not that effective path?”

GROUP GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Bedford, Bedfordshire