Don’t get it twisted: these individuals of social clout hold a fascinating perspective on eCommerce. Not only are influencers running the literal show, they are creating content behind the scenes that brands use on their own privacy turph.
This is the year of hard conversations.
Similar to a strained and dreaded talk with a loved one on a controversial topic, it’s time that we have this discussion with our Yaguara audience. As much as industry folk prefer to overlook this domain of the industry, talk down upon it, or condemn it to the bottom of the totem pole, influence and social media influencers are essential to the intersection of digital marketing and social culture of today. If your work coincides with eCommerce in some shape or form, or if you are a consumer and contributing member of society, you must address the glaring elephant in the room: you have been influenced, and it’s likely hiding on your explore feed.
Influencers are the modern way of understanding public figures; a well-known individual who holds a certain level of fame, authority, or following on one or more social platforms. They are different from social media managers, the subject of the last installment of this series, because instead of managing and creating content for a brand as a whole, they are branding themselves as both a personal narrative and as a means to promote product. Additionally, opposed to celebrity fame, influencers amass a following by creating and posting regular content, at first unpaid, in order to earn the following and respect of their said audience.
Amidst the eye-rollers, critics, and industry snobs, investigating the emergence of this position of economic gain is essential in providing a full-faceted narrative to the industry of content creation on social platforms. Don’t get it twisted: these individuals of social clout hold a fascinating perspective on eCommerce. Not only are influencers running the literal show, they are creating content behind the scenes that brands use on their own privacy turph.
This is Part 1 (Influence) of our third installment of Content Creator Chronicles, a series investigating the elusive definition of content creation. As our world shifts to digital, more and more avenues open up for creatives of all types to develop their craft. With the emergence of this career path, it is essential to distinguish between the types of creators, as the multitude of digital platforms will only grow. We’re interested in exploring this largely untold story of content creation today, and arguably, the most untapped objective narrative under this umbrella: influence and influencers.
The history of influencer-dom and influencer marketing is synonymous and co-linear with the history of the modern web and digital landscape. We live in an era of unprecedented connectivity, where an online user is able to follow people around the world that they may have never seen in person before. This concept is revolutionary and difficult to quantify.
In the late 90s to early 2000s, the Internet gained traction as a way for people to access information on a supposedly infinite level, and online chatrooms and forums emerged that treated these networks of information a lot more subjectively. According to a 2001 Rutgers study on “internet forums as influential sources of information,” internet users were more likely to trust product advice from strangers on forums than corporate ads directly. People trust people. This ushered in the abundant opportunity of anonymous influence, which later then, singular platform-oriented influence descended from.
A Wired article explores this event judiciously, “As users of all types joined virtual communities, marketers and brands began to understand their potential to shape public understanding.”
Marketing and the corporate world caught on: in the early 2000s, the media firm MindComent was one of the first groups to seek out influential board monitors or MySpace users to promote brands and products.
In 2004, Ted Murphy, the founder of MindComet—which today is named IZEA—started the BlogStar Network, likely the first influencer marketing network. It began as a private email database of influential bloggers interested in getting paid to post about his marketing firm’s clients, which included companies like Red Lobster, Turner, and Burger King. A similar network called PayPerPost was launched in 2006 by Murphy, which then led to inevitable expansion into other networks like GrapeVine and FameBit, which connected Youtubers to brands in order to match for the perfect advertisements.
Murphy is largely credited with creating the influencer marketing industry. Yet, he did not create the career path of influencers themselves, he is simply the observant entrepreneur that capitalized on an opportunity before others. Influencers were bound to emerge and be harnessed as human tools for marketing. But, Murphy created influence as we know it today: allowing influencers to economically capitalize and access a path of growth by creating a bountiful network to connect them with brands.
“Influencerdom” evolved in accordance with these platforms, shaping one another to the landscape of Instagram and YouTube and other social media that we experience today. Being influenced to make a purchase is intrinsic to our modern marketing, advertising, and business models. Perhaps this is where the bad rap originates, for that ability to influence sometimes conveys deceit but always creativity and creative ownership.
Wired writes, “True influencerdom presupposes a particular type of relationship between content creator and viewer, at scale, one that hinges on the willingness of the viewer to be influenced. Users consider influencers more akin to a close friend than an advertiser or paid endorser, as the stream of content they produce—and the more casual way in which it is shared with the public—imbues influencers with an air of authenticity that is rarely seen in semi commercial spaces.”
A major shift occurred from influencers accepting compensation for their content and promotions in free products to demanding higher compensation for their work. In the earlier days, brands would send very small commissions and free products, and then, the power balance flipped once influencers took control of pay rate into their own hands. Especially if an influencer has a higher amount of followers and engagement, (i.e. influence), they could leverage the quality and reach of their creative content to access higher pay. Again, Wired explains, “These [higher] prices are a function of the fact that, online, value is quantifiable. Or at least it’s supposed to be. The worth of an idea, person, movement, or meme is based on how many likes, views, clicks, and shares it has.”
Whether the mass monetization of posts on social media throws detriments or benefits to consumers, users, and influencers alike, the system of paid posts became highly quantifiable with engagement. And as one may predict with the power imbued into quantifiable numbers, that influence can be abused. But we’ll get to that later.
To piece together the whole narrative, it’s essential to zoom into the subject and provide perspective from arguably the most first-person point of view that can be found on the Internet: the story of the influencer themselves.
Haley Ivers is a 25 year old, University of Colorado Boulder graduate who now resides in the Bay Area of Northern California and makes her income through paid posts and brand deals on Instagram. Ivers is highly creative and diligent in expanding to new mediums, hence her Instagram feed moreso resembles a high resolution photography collection rather than outfit photos snapped on an iPhone.
“I feel like I’ve been some sort of content creator since middle school, because it all started on Tumblr and my blog blew up on there. That’s where I posted about my art. I have been an artist my whole life...and I was able to organically grow that blog…”
Tumblr launched in 2007, right around the time Facebook and Twitter came to fruition. However, Tumblr’s user interface and design aesthetic allowed users the unique ability to create micro-blogs; spaces of curated content (photography, writing, graphic design) with the ease of little to no coding required. Tumblr was a key player in the rise of personal blogging, and also a common denominator for many of the influencers we see today on more evolved platforms like Instagram.
As a young girl, Ivers struggled to make friendships or be engaged at school, and instead found friendships and a community of like-minded creatives online. It was her escape; the portrait of an adolescent coming of age in a newly digitized world where connection could be found online. Ivers continued to grow her interests to new platforms, a snowball effect that led her to creating content on her own website, Youtube, then Instagram, and now TikTok.
“My personal brand has always been about elevating the normal day-to-day to make it more interesting. I feel like I am always low-key depressed in some sort of way, so I go towards creativity to help. I zoom into small things to help keep me happy and keep me going...It’s for my own sake first to just maintain a level of happiness, I want to continue to get up every day and do what I do and grow as a human being and then turn that into something I can share with other who might be feeling like they’re in the same boat.”
This subjective narrative is often left out of the full picture; Ivers as a creative finds both community solace and a means to grow her brand and stream of income through an online avenue. This means to an end is perhaps not justified when viewing purely promoted posts, it’s rather a human adaptation that allows herself to still find creative growth in a digital space that is better suited towards her personality and work style.
Furthermore, Tumblr as a platform has allowed creatives of all types to grow their personal brands and expand an organic following – that is, a reliable, wide audience that pays attention to the user’s content not for paid posts, but for their own personal work.
Amber Mozo, a Hawaiian surf photographer, found a similar organic growth when she began posting her photography on a Tumblr blog at a young age. Her moving portraiture and surf photography in the idealistic landscape of the Hawaiian islands was highly repostable content for the romanticized nature of the platform, and since then, she has expanded her photography practices to an online shop, and amassed a following of over 100k on Instagram.
While some of today’s influencers may appear to grow their personal brand through strictly paid posts, the reality is that many grew a following through organic content, and isn’t that what every artist must do to make a living?
Influence by definition is the capacity to have an effect on someone or something, but its modern definition transcends that effect into a digitally permeating reaction. When applied to social media platforms, it can be quantified by interactions and engagement.
To examine the power of influence, take the viral trending Tik Tok video of the man riding a skateboard, drinking Ocean Spray cranberry juice, and listening to Dreams by Fleetwood Mac. The video went beyond viral: its effects increased Ocean Spray’s sales, and Dreams (a song that came out over 40 years ago) became the top streamed song on Spotify for over a week. Ocean Spray gifted Nathan Apodaca a brand new truck for his inadvertent and unintentional advertising campaign. It’s difficult to determine the formula for viral content on the Internet, yet this is the ability of influence to alter consumer behavior and social ongoings in general.
Apodaca’s overnight fame was in essence, wholly organic. His TikTok video was not created with the intention of winning a new truck or advertising his favorite juice, he simply posted something humorous from his day-to-day. Organic growth, then, most often leads to the most bountiful influence.
As covered above with Iver’s beginning of content creation and influencerdom with her organic growth on Tumblr, many influencers of today that hold entrepreneurial power grew their followings organically.
Indy Blue, cult favorite influencer that now runs a successful DTC streetwear brand Lonely Ghost made her start with posting her dreamy, idyllic travel videos on Twitter. The content existed before the viral effects, making her growth and engagement organic by nature.
Influence has the ability to alter consumer behavior and punctuate the landscape of social media and real-time culture. Most of the time, the effects outlast its momentary content, its five seconds of fame on a timeline. While the art of persuasion has been harnessed for centuries in literary, oral, and written form, persuasive content simply has a new bandwidth now in the digital world.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we dive into the influencer craft of content creation and how they harness the potential of their persuasion and influence.