If brand trust is everything to today’s consumers, so is the trust you put into the influencers you follow.
We’re back with Part 2 of Content Creator Chronicles, our two-part series on Influence and Influencers. In the last installment, we explored the potential of influence to persuade and alter consumer behavior, and its historical context in accordance with influencer marketing networks. In this installment, we’ll be investigating how "influencerdom" merges business and creative content creation, as well as how engagement rates, authenticity, and sustainability blur the stigma around influencers and shape them into authentic product experts, or deceitful public figures.
This series aims to analyze the application of creativity and design to business. While one can follow one of thousands of content creators on Instagram that generally look the same as every other feed, and one can admire the material items they have, it’s not that they admire their career path or their character, or as much that can be conveyed through an app. This brings up a theory of entrepreneurial content creation: why do you follow a certain influencer, and if it’s more than inspirational content, their content likely has legs.
Forbes annual 30 under 30 was released last month and founders of the photography editing app Tezza, Tessa Barton and Cole Hermann were listed under the Art & Style category. This is no ordinary nominee however, as Tessa and her husband made their entrepreneurial start on the platform of Instagram, and grew to launching a successful sunglasses company, their app now has over 10 million downloads, and launched an Amazon bestseller book.
Haley Ivers, a young Instagram creative and photographer, comments that she looks up to Tessa and her work because, “she’s not only a content creator who makes pretty photos, she’s an entrepreneur. She has all of these businesses and she’s always on to the next business idea. Her creative brain doesn’t stop.”
Barton and her husband’s nomination represents a large sector of digital marketing and content creation that has been largely unrecognized for it’s stigma around being superficial, low-grade advertising, etc. But Barton’s empire and unique creative talent has proven that it’s not the platform that makes the creator, the creator is shaping the platform itself.
As influencer marketing and content creation on social media skyrocketed over the past decade, the power shifted to the creator’s hands, rather than the company or brand itself. Ivers narrates her own shift to demanding more compensation for her branded photography as a realization of time, effort, and talent put into the content creation process.
“I was invited to be a part of these influencer platforms where they would pair us with a brand and then we would get compensation...So that started with $50 a post. I was like, ‘Is this right? Is this worth $50?’ They have all the rights to my photos, they’re using them in whatever way they want worldwide for paid promotion. I started asking my friends who had a lot more followers than me…If you have genuine online friendships, they’re going to be there to help you. And I’m lucky to have a lot of people that have been able to guide me in that way.”
Enter: influencers on strike. But instead of rigid employment by an established company or institution, Ivers represents this side of the industry that is intrinsically freelance: they have the ability to unhinge their reliability on a brand and utilize their talent wherever they see fit, and most importantly, demand higher compensation for their work.
Ivers also noticed a tremendous shift in her relationships with brands after doing her own research. During college in photography courses, her art program placed an emphasis on gallery, conceptual photography.
“I’m interested in commercial photography. Our class is teaching us how to get into museums and I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the business of photography. I felt like we were not being taught that. So I did my own research and I learned about usage rights and prop fees….which led me to know that I need to charge more. You’re not taking advantage of me. I’ve taken it upon myself to realize that I have talent and people value my photographs and they’re using them to make money for their brand.”
As wages rise for influencers creating content for brands, likewise, the product prices increase. This creates a wage-price spiral, where raising prices, vice versa, raises the demand for content creation and demand for higher compensation. The overall effect is inflation, and stretching this macroeconomic theory to a real-world example of influencer marketing, the compensation and wages for influencers promoting brands and products will continue to rise with an increase in product price points. As DTC brands expend more quality, time, and intentional creation into their products, so do influencers with their own craft.
Social influencers receive backlash from other professionals around the industry, and the root of this distrust is the problem with being over-influenced on the consumer side, and non-transparent engagement. As wages and compensation increase for this career path, an important distinction should be made around authentic and transparent engagement.
But first, let’s break down how engagement works. Engagement consists of any interaction a user has with content from a social media influencer. Engagement rate refers to the average amount of interactions (comments, likes, retweets, etc.) divided by the number of followers. As engagement rate increases, the influencer can leverage more compensation for their sponsored content.
Engagement can be tricky for influencers. Ivers touches on the mental impact that this can have as an influencer, “It’s always this thing I am battling...people are always saying don’t put your worth in numbers. But at the end of the day, it’s still a measurement of how brands pay us.”
A common misconception is that engagement rates are rigid and tactile. Aside from their frequent fluctuations (that Ivers attributes to societal impacts like the pandemic), the reality is that interactions can easily be monetized and bought. While this is most easily seen as distasteful, inauthentic, and deceiving for users and consumers that follow an influencer, the real theft is deceiving sponsored content.
“I understand that influencers need to make money, and I understand that you really only have freedom to create more organic content if you’re also making enough money to do so. If your only income stream is sponsorships on Instagram, then it’s natural for an influencer to throw a lot of sponsored content at you….Because of that too, I also see a lot of influencers not fully disclosing they’re being paid for their work.”
The reason, as Ivers supports, that there is more value in transparency as opposed to influencers not disclosing their sponsored content is that purchasing behavior can be wrongly influenced by people with platforms because of deceiving sponsored content. This is the problem with being over-influenced: a user puts trust in an influencer they follow, and will therefore buy a product from a paid promotion that the influencer doesn’t actually support. This system of consumption and consumer behavior leads to corrupt systems of capital and marketing. The more a brand can pay influencers to preach their products, the more they will make, and furthermore, the greater they distance themselves from quality, transparency, and brand accountability.
“It grinds my gears when influencers don’t disclose that they’re being paid….Sponsorships aren’t always honest. It’s not because they actually love the product. It’s just because they’re making their income for the month. It’s not ethical to use your influence and make money off of your influence if you’re not doing it for a good reason. That’s just dishonest.” - Ivers
Here at Yaguara, we work with brands that are paying minute attention to their transparency, authenticity, and sustainability, because that’s what consumers are buying, and conscious consumerism can further battle the detriments of climate change. Choosing brands that are making some sort of ethical, sustainable impact on the world is essential, and deceitful marketing only feeds into a vicious cycle of inauthentic, dishonest sales. If brand trust is everything to today’s consumers, so is the trust you put into the influencers you follow.
Ivers relays the message that, “[Consumers] need to know how their purchasing decision is influenced. There’s a lot of trust that’s broken when influencers don’t disclose. A lot of people think that influencers can’t be trusted in the first place, so I really want to promote this message that some of us are trustworthy.”
At the end of the day, every influencer makes a choice. They have to pick keeping their engagement rate high, or maintaining a level of respectable trust with their audience. While there is a way to do both, some choose a path of deceitful promotion to profit off the bonuses of high engagement. Furthermore, quantifying engagement may not always exist, as we saw with Instagram considering removing the “like” counting feature last year. The platforms will continue to evolve and we might see major changes to how engagement is quantified, if at all. Yet, trust has always been unquantifiable. Trust is qualitative, you either trust the person you follow or you don’t, and when that trust is breached, the unfollow button is hit which is the ultimate loss for an individual in this type of work. It’s attune to the sleazy car salesman model: they sell you a lemon, trust is lost. Dishonest influencers urge you to buy a product, and it makes your face break out.
Wired writes, “A return to a less quantifiable era of influence may seem like a loss, but if anything it’s the opposite. Trust, ultimately, is unquantifiable. And perhaps in the absence of futile attempts to assess it, gooey amorphous authenticity will reign once more.”
The third pillar to accompany authenticity and transparency within brand trust is sustainability, as we’ve covered in recent articles. Influence and influencerdom is additionally tied up into this bag of worms, as being an influencer is essentially promoting people to consume. However, there is something to be said about making your own individual consumerism more and more conscious and less passive.
Ivers identifies her biggest shift in her influencer path as a higher attention to sustainability and her personal and social impact.
“I had no idea how destructive the fashion industry was. I started branding myself as a sustainable influencer until I realized that is very hard to do. I felt very conflicted because as an influencer, part of my job is to promote products and that in itself is not sustainable.”
Ivers strayed away from branding herself as a sustainable influencer and instead took a step back to reflect on the brands she would actually like to work with contingent on her belief in their ethics, sustainable practices and impact, and the quality or value of their products. She claims, “I choose brands that enhance the person I want to become.”
Ivers' own ethical battle with engagement, trust, and sustainability applies a reflective lens to investigating where our morals and ethics land within the eCommerce space. The deceitful and distasteful stigma around influencers and influencer marketing is highly misunderstood for a reflection upon the career path as a whole. Perhaps the problem is influence in itself rather than the influencer, which then, is more of reflection upon the system of rapid cyclical consumerism. As we move into an era of conscious consumerism, influencers, brands, and eComm companies alike should consider: as we push people to make a sale on a product, do we truly believe our product can provide value to them?
If brand trust is everything to today’s consumers, so is the trust you put into the influencers you follow.