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Instagram, influencers and commodifying authenticity

  • 5 min to read
CHALK influencers

Tiffany O’Conner’s March Instagram feed looks like this: a white bikini snapshot in the pool, a photo of her sunbathing in the sand on Anna Maria Island, Florida, and an almost birds-eye shot of her posing poolside in Siesta Key. The University senior from New York makes a habit of sharing her many vacation destinations with her 15,000 followers.

She uses her large following to her advantage by partnering with companies to promote their products on her page in exchange for money. O’Conner works with brands that sell a wide variety of products, like weight loss supplements, watches, and teeth whitening powder.

About half of O’Conner’s posts are product promotions containing discount codes in the captions. The companies reach out to her through direct messages and often give her word-for-word captions to post with pictures.

O’Conner feels like she can’t be particular about who she partners with because most of the time she doesn’t get the chance to try the product before signing a contract.

“That’s what sometimes stresses me out, because if I think the product sucks then I have to lie about it,” she says. 

As a rule of thumb, she tries to stick to partnering with brands that she knows are legitimate, judging from either celebrity endorsements or official verifications on Instagram — so, O'Connor says, she doesn’t encourage people to buy “junk.”

Influencers like O’Conner are becoming increasingly big business. Millennials are turning to people with a lot of followers to tell them what to buy, what to wear, and what to think. According to an article published last year by Adweek, “92 percent of consumers trust influencers over traditional methods of marketing.”

Last year, Mediakix, a marketing company, predicted that the "Instagram influencer market will reach $1.7 billion by the end of 2019, and $2.3 billion by 2020." Marketing firms spend disproportionately more advertising money on Instagram than any other social media platform. 

This explains, in part, why every other post on your feed seems like an advertisement.

Influencer marketing is getting so popular that there's now a growing need for more authenticity and transparency on the feeds of influencers — or at least the appearance of it. Influencers who want to make it can no longer just partner with any company that offers them a deal. No — now they have to strategically choose brands based on what resonates with them and aligns with their values and brand.

The infamous Fyre Festival scandal proved just how much power influencers have. Back in 2017, celebrity influencers like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner promoted the luxury music festival on their Instagram profiles. Thousands of festival-goers flew into the Bahamas for the exclusive event, only to find they had been part of one of the biggest scams of the decade. The extravagant food and accommodations that were promised turned out to be wet tents and cheese sandwiches. This left the influencer’s followers questioning their integrity.

An article published in Marie Claire says that Kendall Jenner makes up to $400,000 (or £285,000) for a single post on Instagram. In January, she was criticized yet again when she partnered with acne treatment company, Proactive. A week prior to the partnership announcement, momager extraordinaire Kris Jenner hyped the news up on Twitter. She said her daughter's forthcoming announcement would be the most vulnerable and brave thing she has ever shared.

When followers found out the news was that the model had cleared up her acne, they went off. Kendall Jenner found herself being accused of adding to the stigma around acne, and the partnership backfired on both ends.

As influencer marketing becomes the norm, both content creators and consumers need to be more careful. You don’t want to find yourself wasting thousands of dollars just because Bella Hadid told you that you can’t miss out on the next something she gets paid to pose with.

But we're starting to trust celebrity influencers less and less. Tracy Leigh Hazzard, INC columnist and Feed Your Brand podcast host, talks about this phenomenon.

“We see people at the Kardashian level of influence, and this level is problematic because they’re always selling and pushing something," Hazzard says. "When they’re always selling and pushing something, the value of that thing seems not as special anymore. Everything they do is bought.”

This is why we're seeing brands beginning to partner with influencers who have smaller followings. According to the Influencer Marketing Hub, the number one trend for 2019 is an increase in micro and nano influencers. Micro-influencers are people who has a following ranging from 1,000 to 100,000 people. Nano-influencers have a following of fewer than 1,000.

These micro or nano influencers may have a smaller reach, but they have higher engagement. This means less people see their posts, but the people who do see their posts are more likely to act on them, or in other words, buy something thw product being promoted.

Carly Bergman is a micro-influencer who figured out the importance of authenticity while growing her following of over 30,000. She quadrupled her Instagram followers over the past three years. The 21 year-old Florida resident went from posting daily pictures on the beach to preaching her passion for sustainability. Now, she uses her platform to share her minimalistic, vegan lifestyle. Bergman started to shift her content when she realized she could turn her account into a business.

Paid partnerships with companies, events, and brands are how she earns the bulk of her income. “Companies love paying Instagram influencers for their message because they understand that’s how it is in the 21st century with advertising,” Bergman says.

NuLeaf CBD is just one of the many brands that pay her to post about their products. They provide her with a 20 percent-off discount code to share with her followers. Everyday, companies reach out to her through direct message asking to partner. The first question she asks is if the company is cruelty and plastic free.

“Even though a lot of people offer to pay anywhere from $600 to $1,000 per post, whatever it is, I probably turn down 90 percent of them,” Bergman says. “I know that is a shit ton of money for a silly Instagram post, and that’s great that they are selling t-shirts that say ‘save the ocean,’ but they’re getting their shit from China and they’re printing it with slave labor.”

Bergman wasn’t always this critical. She says when she was first starting out, she would partner with any brand that claimed to be vegan. Now she is so selective she says her partnerships have turned into friendships. Last year she visited Colorado to see where NuLeaf grows and produces their CBD.

“You can see when other Instagram influencers are paid to post an ad, but don’t really care about the product,” Bergman says.

She's built a high level of trust with her Instagram community. Sometimes followers reach out to Bergman seeking medical advice. 

“People literally think I am a doctor because of the amount of followers I have, which is pretty scary," she says. "I am glad that they trust my opinion, but I have to remind them that I am not a doctor.”

Hazzard says in order to keep consumer trust, you have to be transparent. “Overall we’re in a world where we want more transparency, we want more trust, and we want more authenticity. When it feels like you’ve seen it, viewed it, heard it before, that is an indictor for the consumer.”

University of Kansas alumna Alexis Schweitzer, who graduated last year, says being an authentic Influencer is her number one priority. Her health and fitness account has accumulated more than 5,000 followers in the past year, and she gets paid by It Works Global and Dang Energy to promote their products on her page.

“I want to represent a product that I know I would use. I am very passionate about all of the products that I post,” Schweitzer says.

At first, Schweitzer thought it was cool that she was getting paid for something she was already doing. But her side hustle has now morphed into something bigger. With the money she made partnering with companies, she is earning a nutrition certification and starting a fitness blog with her sister. She says she plans to turn her platform into a potential career, but the trick is staying candid.

“You have to remind yourself why you started this business, and what’s important to you.” Schweitzer says, “To me, it’s all about being honest with people, and putting fitness and health first. Your health is more important than me selling a product to you. I’m not just going to shove this product down someone’s throat.”