Do you follow @influencersinthewild on Instagram?
If you don’t, you should. Fairly or unfairly, it crudely (and cruelly) dives right into the dark heart of what we’ve always known about influencer culture.
It’s obsessed with short-termism, reactive rather than reflective and for marketers… convenient. It’s a shortcut to getting PR, impressive impressions and engagements on social channels, while the long-term link to uplift in sales or brand awareness is often less convincing.
In the last decade influencer marketing became such an irresistible alchemy that we perhaps forgot about the harder truth of the real impact it was delivering.
We have all, in some capacity, had to engage in it. It’s now an essential part of the 21st century marketing rule book (albeit a modification of the use of celebrity in advertising for the last 250 years).
But in its current form, even influencer marketing has evolved from those innocent days of the early 2010s. We’ve gone from using straight up influencers to micro-influencers, activist influencers – hell, even virtual influencers.
Brands found a way to utilise the numbers that digital “celebrities” were racking up – first on Facebook, then on Instagram and now on TikTok.
Far from household names, a large proportion of these influencers were people whom most had never heard of but some lived their lives by.
As brands scrambled to use the clogged influencer industry, they also became influencers themselves. So did agencies, and inevitably many of us soon came to see ourselves as mini industry influencers on LinkedIn and Clubhouse.
There’s no need to look at me like that… I’m just as guilty as you are.
We are all part of this strange and undefined ecosystem.
But when everyone is an influencer, does the empire of influence begin to crumble in on itself?
And in 2021, after all the bullshit of Covid, are audiences finally questioning the foundation on which the influencer economy is built?
If the brilliant HBO documentary Fake Famous is anything to go by, perhaps we are finally starting to question the emperor’s new clothes with a little more depth.
The film is essentially a social experiment, taking random people and trying to make them “fake famous” – with incredible results. By buying followers and engagements for budding “influencers”, the filmmakers were able to attract real brand interest with one protagonist, Dominique Druckman – who had 357,000 followers at the time of writing – promoting mattress brand Awara and fitness class booking app ClassPass, among others.
Beyond the exposé on the hollow core of the brand-influencer axis, Fake Famous.
also tries to understand where the influencer road might lead in the long term – for those influencing and those profiting from it.
In both cases, it looks like the end of that road may be fast approaching. Especially if we all ask ourselves some harder questions.
The age of influencer has got all kinds of weird in the last few years, to the point of it beginning to eat itself.
Especially when influencing has collided with activism. Communal causes combined with dogged individualism doesn’t really seem like it can fit together, does it?
Yes it does sound like a Victorian bare knuckle fight, but it’s a long-winded and excruciating dull story, best explained here.
In short, Eggerue helped spark a boom in pop-activism literature with her book What a Time to Be Alone in 2018. White influencer/illustrator/author (and I’m sure a lot of other things), Florence Given released a best-selling book two years later called Women Don’t Owe You Pretty.
Both authors in part got their book deals due to their sizable and highly engaged followings on social, and were signed to the same publishing group.
Yet when Eggerue saw similarities to her book in Given’s, all hell broke loose. She mobilized her army of fans by posting “receipts” on her Insta stories as proof of plagiarism. It was relentless.
Whether Given had plagiarised Eggerue’s work began to completely overshadow the causes and issues on which both authors had built their audiences.
Confused? Bored? Me too.
These influencers became so wrapped up in their own soap opera that they forgot what made them influential in the first place.
All over the internet, this story is repeated in different forms and across different niches.
In the trenches influencers are battling for survival. It's gory, gruesome and boring us all to death in the process.
Meanwhile, the real people of influence are doing something else entirely.
Those with real global clout, the handful of “generational icons” who have shaped and reshaped culture, are starting to look past “influence” and embrace “legacy”.
From Drake to Rihanna to Beyoncé to Lebron, and even “newcomers” like Marcus Rashford, Stormzy and Michaela Coel, pop culture icons are trying to cement their reputation for posterity beyond their original sphere of influence.
No longer just athletes, musicians or actors, these people are beginning to replace brands and agencies themselves.
In a brilliant article for Forbes, Abram Brown detailed how rapper Travis Scott has become “corporate America’s brand whisperer” by stopping being just a “celebrity” and taking on the role the best agencies usually do for brands: connecting them to a new generation and selling to them.
This is by no means an isolated incident. The smartest and most influential are actually transcending influence and taking power and control – dictating the rules of the game.
In other words, the smartest influencers are now running influencer marketing, and perhaps redefining marketing itself.
Others are looking beyond corporate influence and trying to cement their legacy in the societal sense, whether that is Lebron James, Marcus Rashford or Selena Gomez.
Some brands are starting to take radical measures reacting to this new landscape.
Luxury fashion brand Bottega Veneta recently deleted its Instagram account altogether, effectively saying bye to four million followers in the process.
Whether this is a call to go back to basics and use its core product to market to its “buying” clientele or something grander remains to be seen. But it does mean influencer marketing is mutating in the post-Covid era.
For my two cents, this is the perfect moment to reflect on why we pump so much time, energy and ultimately money into short-term gains when it comes to influencers.
Do they really gain the business results we are after? According to Athletic Interest, even Nike is beginning to streamline its approach to athletes. After decades of spread betting, the brand is dropping stars like Neymar and Lewandowski in favour of next-gen talent like Mbappe and Haaland.
There is a clear exhaustion of influencer culture among many audiences, but in turn, a warm embrace of a new generation of creative and influential people doing things differently.
The rules are being re-written in favour of a new chapter in how truly influential people want to engage with brands and the world as a whole.
It probably makes sense to write a new kind of chapter for ourselves too, and really look hard at what it is we’re after when it comes to being influential.
Celebrity endorsements will probably remain for the next 250 years, but how we innovate with them will be the marker of success in the rest of our lifetimes.
Well at least that’s the take of the un-influential try-hard author of this article who needs to stick to his day job.
Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock is co-founder of Soursop