The Age of Influence – Are you a Player?

Could the age of influence be drawing to a close? Or does it now reflect the changing attitudes to advertising and promotion in the social media environment?

Cristiano Ronaldo (186 million followers), Ariana Grande (165 million) and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (159 million) have gathered some of the largest audiences on Instagram. But a celebrity status and a huge following doesn’t necessarily lead to great influence. The Digital Marketing Institute has shown that there is a greater level of trust placed in an influencer versus a celebrity.  

But as an “experiencer”, you may have the most engagement of all! 

In the first article of this series I established the context for how the nature of influence is changing the digital age. As people’s consumption of media and social media changes, so does how we perceive people to be ‘influential’ in our lives. Individuals from all walks of life now have a platform to share their thoughts, experiences and daily lives. 

However, the paradox in some ways of this situation is that the younger generation have been able to build larger followings, and greater influence, despite having theoretically less to offer and share. While this is not at the expense of the older generations doing the same, Gen X and Baby Boomers are certainly lagging behind in the circles of “must know” social media influencers. 

There is still an opportunity for these generations to build their own influence on social media, but potentially against a backdrop of the waning powers of influencers as a whole. Cynicism, controversy, commercialisation and over-saturation have all played a part in the erosion of influencers’ status. Far from being an end, however, this may represent the next evolution of the digital age. 

To understand this further, we need to revisit the categorisation of influencers and view this through the lens of a shifting balance of power. 

Waning Influence and Diminishing Returns? 

Micro influencers (those with an audience of 10,000 people or fewer) are likely to be able to command an audience in their niche, irrespective of the changing environment. Many of this group are seen as ‘Experiencers’, the go-to group for recommendations about products, services and experiences.  

It’s in the grouping of the macro influencers, commanding audiences of over 250,000 people and generally found in the world of celebrity, where changes in influence may be felt most keenly. These influencers have traditionally had their seat of power on sites such as Instagram, rather than YouTube or Snapchat. 

As I mentioned in my introduction, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ariana Grande and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson have gathered the three largest audiences on Instagram. There isn’t an out-and-out digital celebrity in the site’s top 10 accounts and certainly no politicians or other, more traditional, influencers. 

Research has shown that the influence of social media posts differs depending on whether they were posted by an influencer or a celebrity. This is largely down to the question of engagement versus impact. Celebrities may have huge audiences, but products they promote may only be applicable to a small percentage of them (engagement). And while they can reach this audience, they are unlikely to be able to change consumer behaviours (impact). 

Celebrities frequently have their own brands and products to promote, as well as those offered by marketers. All these posts may also be treated with a level of cynicism from the wider audience, part of which can be attributed to the truly eye-watering sums of money being earned for sponsored posts. 

Money = Influence? Or Influence = Money? 

Sponsored posts, adverts, product promotions. If you have a big enough audience on social media and a big enough personal profile, then you might be approached by a brand to help market their products. This can be quite a lucrative opportunity – even if you aren’t as high profile as Kim Kardashian, who reportedly charges over $250,000 for an Instagram photo.  

The greater the audience, the higher the payment (on average): 

  • Instagram: $1,000 per 100,000 followers 
  • Snapchat: starts at $500 per campaign in 24 hours 
  • YouTube: Roughly $2,000 per 100,000 followers (this could go as high as an average of nearly $4,000 with 500k+ followers) 

And these sums are still rising – and at a rate of approximately 50 per cent per year since 2017 according to the Wall Street Journal. Which somewhat flies in the face of the question of declining influence and impact. It may also go some way to explain why 75 per cent of children dream of becoming YouTubers and why many people are aiming for a hyphenated job title including the word ‘influencer’, rather than a more traditional career as experienced by previous generations.  

This is where we can loop back to our original point of why social media influencers are largely from Gen X. They are the ones who appear on reality TV, who are the new generation of footballers who already have a social media following, who understand how best to leverage their own brand and use social media to their advantage. 

Real World Influence 

A brief interlude to discuss influence in the real world. This is not to say that Dwayne Johnson and Ariana Grande don’t operate in the real world, but their influence largely comes through on social media. However, as influence doesn’t necessarily need to be linked to selling of products or promotion of brands. It can be linked to real-world events and the increasing stature of an individual. 

One such recent example can be seen in New York Democratic Governor, Andrew Cuomo. Before March 2020, Cuomo was little known outside of his state and certainly didn’t have a strong influence outside of the USA. However, Cuomo’s leadership in response to the coronavirus outbreak and how hard New York had been hit by it.  

Between January and March 2020, Cuomo’s Twitter following went up by 31 per cent, his Instagram followers by 64 per cent. Not only has his audience increased, but his reception and perception to his message, which has been described as “frank” and “honest”, with his briefings drawing praise from all corners of the political and media spectrum.  

Positive comparisons have been made with the response of other world leaders, including President Trump. Not only has this exponentially increased Cuomo’s influence across the real and digital worlds, but it has raised his profile to an extent that he is being talked about as a future Presidential candidate.  

It just goes to show how digital influence could potentially have a huge real-world impact.  

Ads and Controversy 

It could be argued that many influencers are not sufficiently attuned to the risks associated with their influence, as recent controversies have shown. Fake news, advertising poor or harmful products, not marking posts as ads and marketing goods or services to vulnerable or impressionable audiences (i.e. children) are just some of these. 

There are site-specific guidelines or requirements to do with the posting of sponsored content, but even with this content can be misleading. Any sponsored content on Instagram, for example, is required to have ‘#Ad’ at the top of the post, but it is frequently either buried in a flood of hashtags on the post or missing entirely. 

There are reports that companies actively dissuade influencers from mentioning that a post is an ad, while many also fail to disclose their paid partnerships with influencers. On the other side, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has pushed a number of celebrities, including Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora and Alexa Chung, to commit to disclosing payments for sponsored posts on social media. 

This is not to tar all influencers with the same brush. Many follow the regulations as they cannot afford the reputational damage, or to pay back monies earned, when being an influencer is their sole source of income. However, from the outside, these influencers would seem to be the exception rather than the norm which further undermines their credibility and impact. 

Changing the Game 

Could greater regulation assist in this? And could many influencers who already follow the existing regulations benefit from stricter rules? There is always going to be a minority at the very least who seek to circumvent regulations, but these influencers could find themselves squeezed out through a loss of audience and influence for failing to play by the rule. 

This could be the next, much needed, evolution in the social media age. It could arrest any decline in influence and potentially remove the idea that being an influencer is not a “real career”. And by doing so, this would open the opportunity for others to become influencers and bridge the generational gap that appears to exist in the current environment. 

For procurement, it could mean having a market and audience to increase influence, both as individuals and as a profession. How procurement could leverage this changing environment will be the subject of the third and final article in this series, coming soon on Procurious. 

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