The demise of the influencer?

Monday, October 7th 2019
Share
||- Begin Content -||

There have been some signs recently that the era of the influencer has peaked. 

In a recent Business of Fashion article, brands and PR agencies talked about how expensive Instagram has become. “If Instagram launched today, we would be laughing at a platform that expects us to spend so much just to get in front of audiences,” commented one. 

And a friend that runs a very large fashion account on Instagram recently told me he’d sold it to Condé Nast - basically allowing the publishing conglomerate to sell his content for him. 

“I just don’t think there’s any future in that industry,” he said. “It’s overcrowded, it’s all paid for, and you have to be on top of every little algorithm change to succeed.”

It's also not hard to notice at Pitti how the number of posers and peacocks has slowly dropped off.

I don’t think this means that Instagram won’t continue to be hugely influential - indeed, the main social media for fashion inspiration, for sharing with a community, and for brand marketing. 

But perhaps the age when it was possible to just look good by strutting down the street, gain a following, and suddenly be paid large amounts of money to fly around the world, is coming to an end. 

Readers would probably expect me to think that’s a good thing. And in some ways I do. I’ve always disliked paid-for content and the lack of honesty or transparency it creates. 

But I also think it’s a shame. Because the original ideal of the influencer was an admirable one. It was democratic. It took power away from big brands, chiselled models and billboard advertising, and gave it to ordinary people that had developed a following, and therefore influence, through their style. 

It had the potential to show real clothes, and perhaps more everyday values of quality, fit and elegance. 

To a certain extent, it has done that. We all use it for inspiration, and see more people and ideas more easily than even in the days of Tumblr. It’s become very easy and efficient. 

But it feels like that original idea has been undermined by the dominant business model. 

Without the ability to have paid subscribers or display advertising - the two foundations of normal publishing revenue - influencers have to take money for their content. To be paid to promote certain things and say certain things. 

It is possible, sometimes, that the things you want to say are also the things people want to pay you to say. But in my experience that doesn’t last long. Even in my previous publishing career, there was always a tension with paid content. 

(For more on my experiences with PS on this, see our page here.)

I genuinely think this is a shame. Because if influencers were able to just write what they want, and sell advertising alongside it, things could be different. 

It would be possible to generate a decent income by running a popular Instagram account with real integrity and personality, paid for by advertising. 

You’d still have to keep advertising and content separate, of course, and avoid the two crossing over. But magazines have been fighting that line for decades. At least then you know where the money’s coming from. 

Perhaps it’s best to think of Instagram, and social media in general, as maturing. 

As with any mature market, the barriers to entry are higher and everything has a known price. It is efficient - and that makes it easier for big companies with more data to dominate. 

Some influencers have become big enough to survive - indeed thrive. They have become as powerful as old-style magazines. But they are the 0.1%. 

There are many brands still paying influencers with 50k followers or so to feature something or say something. But their number is decreasing. 

As Tom Stubbs and others commented at our Media Symposium last year, the trend is towards more genuine, interesting people with a small number of followers.

Artists, chefs, designers - people who are influential to a small but important group because of their taste. Not because they play the IG algorithm by commenting and liking everyone else. 

Another friend who runs a mid-size fashion company was talking to me last week about their approach on influencers. 

They've just started using them, through an influencer agency (another sign of a mature market - service companies). 

As a brand they can't afford magazine advertising, but they can afford to give product in return for promotion. They just want to give it to genuine people - perhaps defined as someone that won’t recommend a competing brand next month (because their business is sport or art, not hyping products for money).

I completely understand this approach to influencers. To a certain extent it's like old-fashioned sports endorsement - just at a smaller scale. 

Returning to the first friend, who sold his account, one thing that stuck with me was how much he talked about numbers. How everyone was numbers obsessed. That because there was no genuine connection to individuals any more, only followers and likes mattered. 

That might continue to be the case with mainstream fashion. When you’re selling cheap clothing to hundreds of thousands of people, you need a big funnel. 

But in a niche market like crafted menswear, I think it's less important. Selling handmade clothing, whose value only reveals itself after years of wear, requires much higher engagement. 

For a brand in our market to thrive, it doesn't need 100k followers. It doesn’t even need 10k - as long as they’re the right followers.

We're playing a quality game, not a quantity one. And I dearly hope that in the new age of peak Instagram, these quality accounts won’t be drowned out by big-publisher paid-for dross. 

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
40 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Matthew V

Very interesting article. The rise of influencers being paid to have a great time promoting products, hotels etc was certainly starting to annoy me, but Instagram is a great way on a small scale, interest based community level, to find out about interesting things and keep in contact.

Big Poppa

Hi Simon,
interesting opinion piece.
I am not in the crafted meanswear or social media/marketing industries but I do heavily use Instagram as a way to keep up with product releases and for inspiration from some of the people I think dress the way I would like to. I also think I am mature enough to distinguish what I think might be a flash in the pan #menswear #circlejerk post or product versus what is a legitimate piece of clothing the “influencer” enjoys wearing. I have noticed recently that a few of the people I follow have started to clearly state that a particular post is an #ad and I for one welcome our advertising overlords when it is clearly stated.
However there have been certain examples in recent months that make me raise an eyebrow, the likes of Rubato and Morjas shoes seem to have shot up on everyones radar when almost every IG influencer seemed to be wearing the latest releases as if it were a concerted advertising effort. I suppose these are the small brands you mention who can’t afford to advertise and so do so by giving away product to these influencers. My question i’m hoping you or your readers might be able to answer are if there are any hard and fast rules governing the way these particular posts should be classified? They receive no payment, but they receive free product with the intention to promote them. Should they not also state that they received them for free?
A similar example in another industry might be a food critic stating that their meal was fully paid for by the restaurant in question. They too are receiving free product, yet they all seem to be required to state that it was comped. different ethics perhaps? who knows.

Bob

If you get things for free or discounted, it makes you more positively disposed towards them, and it influences the review. You may delude yourself that it is not so, but readers know otherwise.

Robin

There’s a few guts I follow on Instagram who I’ve heard of thru PS …. Gus99 being most prominent .
But it’s mainly to learn about colour coordination.
As to everything else around tailoring I’ve learnt it from PS .

On the point of paid content , advertising etc , is this something that has concerned you more now that PS is your sole revenue . As opposed to before when it was more a side ‘hustle’.?

Stephen

Hi Simon. A very interesting article with well observed comment, presented in an objective manner.
Independent and interesting ideas on styling are always useful and takes us away from the picture perfect lifestyle / my perfect life, images of big brand advertising.
That said, I believe the influencer bubble has or will shortly burst. This is in part due to the attitude of expectation of many influencers and the damage (intentional or other wise) that can be caused, when they feel slighted. This combined with people now starting to view them as part of the ‘picture perfect’ world mentioned above and questioning why they should be paying for it – albeit indirectly – through adverting budgets and free samples which are not without cost within the supply chain.
This is especially the case with younger audiences, which we should credit with cottoning on to this approach. They are usually early adopters and deserters.
This is not to say I personally have anything against influencers , everyone is entitled to earn a living!
Not sure how HMRC views free stuff though, arguably benefit in kind , as with company employee benefits.
Thanks again Simon for another interesting piece.

Anon

Hi Simon

Interesting article, and I certainly hope we have seen the end (maybe wishful thinking!) of #spon content on Instagram. One of the things I appreciate most about PS is that you never “sold out”.

One small comment though, I find it strange that you use a picture of Shaq in an article about influencers. Maybe I am wrong, but a four time NBA champion and Olympic gold medalist who has become a successful businessman (he reportedly owns 155 Five Guys Burgers restaurants, 17 Auntie Annie’s Pretzels restaurants, 150 car washes, 40 24-hour fitness centers, a shopping center, a movie theater, and several Las Vegas nightclubs) and is worth $400m isn’t really an influencer. He has endorsement deals, but I htink that makes him a savvy athlete rather than an influencer. Maybe I am wrong, but I would differentiate him from someone with 50k followers who will endorse any old product or service for a few quid.

As always Simon, thanks for the great article.

pblzqlcn

hi simon. a very well thought and written article.

this weekend, while i was thinking on updating my instagram account, i realized that the “menswear instagram scene” i follow has become increasingly boring.

not that i am a great influencer or spectacular content creator at all (i keep it down to the bare minimum and you can check my account and criticize it freely), but my feed is now a continuous display of “i have really wanted a [color][fabric][garment] for a long time” posts with the picture of the immaculate new product and the subsequent insubstantial “nice” “perfect” “fire emoji” “it looks awesome” comments (followed up by the account owner’s “yes i know” “is the best” “yeah i love this brand” “thank you man” equally deep input).

every week there is a new wanted for so long jacket. ootd pictures rarely show old well worn clothes. almost no one is engaging in good conversation or making an effort to improve their photography skills. i really like accounts that build and work around a certain aesthetic, not showing just plain products and putting the tags in your face.

the put this on’s “’Can’t Wait To See How This Breaks In,’ Says Man Who Buys New Clothes Every Week” recent article was perfect.

there are of course accounts that are either informative or pleasant to the eye (or both!), including brand accounts, so i don’t want to be a total pessimist. i’m just a little put off at the moment with the whole instagram thing.

it feels like instagram has reached its own hybris

Anonymous

And yet, Instagram influencers are now pushing hard to inject personality and intimacy into their posts in an attempt to exploit audiences desires for so-called “authenticity”, even those these calculated attempts at exposure are anything but. This article in The New Yorker makes for very damning reading – https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-rise-of-the-getting-real-post-on-instagram

Dan

Great comment and I’m inclined to agree. I think we’re rapidly approaching ‘peak Instagram’, if we haven’t reached it already. It’s now over-commoditised to the point that it has lost a lot of what made it attractive as a platform in the first place. As Simon noted, the arrival of service companies suggests a thoroughly saturated/mature market.

We’re probably due another ‘next big thing’ in social media, before people begin turning away from Instagram though. Snapchat hasn’t quite done it and there doesn’t seem to be another contender waiting in the wings.

Anonymous

Interesting. Instagram, on a longer term view, is relatively new: Friends Reunited, Bebo, MySpace, Tumblr etc. all arrived, grew, were popular, reached a peak in their market place, were sold and declined (and in some cases ceased). You speak of influencers but unnecessarily conflate influencers with Instagram. They are of course two separate entities – YouTube influencers still hold sway whilst in the gaming world they are vital to the evolving commercial model.
There is of course another proposition: that menswear, generally, has become boring and derivative and thus it’s agents no longer hold the attraction they once did. Aesthetically the type, form and silhouette for menswear has not really changed in the last decade. Many reasons can be sought; decline in prosperity, the decline of variance in social identity (partly due to the globalisation and commoditisation of western culture) and an economy where fast and cheap fashion can see suits sold for a price less than a pair of mid range jeans. Social change and the move to the casualisation of workplace wardrobes further undermines the imperative to be well dressed in social situations.
A reflection of this is shown in the article below. The article includes many attached comments, reflecting a widespread group of contemporary views on menswear which are, regrettably, all rather negative.
https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2019/oct/05/has-the-suit-and-tie-had-its-day-maybe-says-ms

Jason

Happily I’ve never been seduced by this bunkum.
Frankly I find it hilarious that anybody could be remotely interested in recommendations from some n’er-do-well who spends his time taking photos of himself.
Equally risible are the poseurs who hang out at Pitti hoping to be noticed – heavens above, what a way to behave !
Time was when people earned their celebrity through their art and/or their work.
This is what makes the likes of Cary Grant, Steve McQueen and Bryan Ferry so interesting. They were/are style icons because it is innately who they are as they go about their work. They are from the school who think it’s easier to dress well than it is to dress badly.
For me, the reason I visit this hallowed cyber hall is because of Simon’s rigorous investigation of craft. It’s not for recommendations on how to dress. Happily I mastered the noble art of the flaneur some decades ago.

Kenny

Totally agree and would add Charlie Watts to your list. Most “celebrities”, however, dress appallingly and demonstrate that wealth can’t buy style. The red carpet at a typical awards ceremony is hilarious. The so-called “stars” think that they look great in their designer label tat. They would actually look much better if they bought their outfits from shopping malls. Then there are the clowns who think it’s cool to wear faded denim jeans with tuxedos…

Ian A

What like Ralph Lauren the most successful clothing designer commercially in the history of the world.

Ben

“Because the original ideal of the influencer was an admirable one. It was democratic…”

Ample are wistful eulogies for the “democratic potential of the internet.” No need to muddle things up further. The term “influencer” as contemporarily used began to take hold around 2015 as a platform-agnostic label for well-known people on the internet. Popularized in large part by PR departments, it’s been inextricable from the marketing and selling of goods from day one. In fact, the term’s always carried a repugnant whiff precisely because it connotes a sellout. The authentic voice, a critical contrast to the influencer, is not its immaculate conception.

Ben

The etymological authority of the menswear industry notwithstanding, the word likely found its way into the world otherwise. E.g. my OED quotes from an ecclesiastical discussion in Henry More’s 1664 A Modest Enquiry Into The Mystery of Iniquity. But I presumed we were talking about the contemporary popularization of the concept: https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&geo=US&q=influencer

John

Hi Simon,
Interesting that you introduce this subject right now. Over the past days, I’ve noticed that British brands and even individual instagram accounts now require a subscription of the viewer. I wonder why?
Why would I subscribe to have the right to browse through their pages? Frankly, I don’t think this bodes well.
J.M

Kenny

I closed down my anti-social media (as I now consider them) accounts just over 8 years ago. It was a relief to get fake friends, trolls, intrusive advertising, Big Brother corporate tracking and other assaults on privacy out of my life. It was one of the best decisions that I have ever made. I have never had an Instagram account and avoid Youtube as much as possible. I have never encountered those so-called “influencers” or their clients’ products. More good decisions!

I have also stopped reading most menswear blogs. They tend to be written by narcissistic and earnest young men, mainly from Europe, who think that know everything about luxury living. The reality is that they are insecure under-achievers who are desperate for attention and affirmation to give meaning to their empty lives. It’s time to get all of those poseurs, failures and parasites out of your life!

Jason

Bravo Kenny – well said !
The noble art of flaneuring needs neither the anti-social media or underachieving narcacists.
All we need is a good tailor, Simon’s forensic analysis, repeated viewings of ‘Phantom Thread’ and a mixologist !

I deleted all my social media including Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn in the beginning of 2018 so that I stop myself of spending too much unproductive time on the Internet.
Then 2019 I created a new Instagram account for my sock brand and I had the impression that everything has changed. Most likes and comments are from other businesses (robots) and not from real people.
Robots are adding you, hope that you will follow back and then stop following you after several days expecting that you will not track who unfollows you.
It is really doubtful if the ROI is high enough to justify the invested time in developing an account. And for sure it is not that fun anymore when you know that most interactions are not sincere but just a method of pushing the popularity of a business.

Stephen

Having read through the comments on this subject (including rereading my own!), I would suggest a hypothesis, that the actual influence of the influencers, may be in itself negligible. It’s the industry machine pumping money into this channel that’s driving the belief that they are influencing.
I’m reminded of something I once heard in a different context. The more you pay for a fake painting, the less likely you are to believe it’s a fake.
I’m not talking about what – for example – Simon does in the excellent Permanent Style and David in the similarly excellent Grey Fox, which to me are more akin to menswear style magazineS with an independent editorial stance.

Kenny

David Evans lives round the corner from me. His blog is good but, recently, there are too many sponsored posts and paid collaborations for my liking. He also sought freebies, e.g. for his holiday in Antartica. I had thought that he was better than that. Bloggers must not have such financial conflicts of interest which devalue their credibility as independent commentators and reviewers.

The worst offenders are the iGent comics, The Rake and The Jackal. The Rake is mainly boring advertorial (written by PR hacks?) and endless plugs for the shop’s merchandise. The Jackal often defies belief, e.g. the risible “Celebrate National Dumpling Day” and “M&S just opened the coolest shop in Soho”. Nobody with any intelligence or good taste would take such inane drivel seriously. Perhaps it’s a sign of decline in their product life cycle.

Richard T

Great article Simon – a very interesting read indeed. I own a Mens’ Fashion Accessories Company with my brother. Unfortunately, we were slightly late to the party with Instagram arriving after the algorithms changed so we haven’t got a huge following. I’d like to think our followers are people that are genuinely interested in us and what we are about. As we are also British manufacturers and have the overheads of running our factory and employing a team of local people we don’t have the budget for a PR agency – this means we really use social media to get our name and products out there. We have noticed in the last few months our posts have literally more than halved in the number of likes received – our images are without doubt not getting the reach/exposure they used to. Clearly Instagram are now trying to force our hand into spending on advertising/boosting posts. We used some influencers about 2 years ago with success, however, those we worked with last year/early this year certainly didn’t get the traction we hoped for. For small brands Instagram has become a tough platform.

Anonymous

Hi Simon,

Who do you recommend reading online? I really haven’t been able to find other bloggers who write as clearly and specifically as you do. The Rake and die Workwear! don’t really interest me…

Joseph

All well-put points, Simon. Such a treat to read over lunch.

After a reread of your policy on ads and content (which you linked to above), I began to wonder if you had any criteria for accommodating or turning down companies who want to advertise on PS. Do you consider if their values and practices are in line with what PS is all about?

Joseph

That makes sense, and to me seems like a very transparent and professional way to justify saying no to someone.

Due to the saturation potential of social media and online channels in general, I’m rather inclined to believe that very few salespersons remain who even bother to look into the suitability of a base they want to penetrate. A bit sad, really.

Richard T

All very interesting comments in response to this post. As mentioned in my previous comment we’ve certainly seen a significant reduction in the likes/traction our posts receive on Instagram. It does appear that Instagram is limiting the exposure of posts in order to force companies to spend on advertising. Many of the influencers have large followings, but do you think they will have also seen a reduction in the number of engagements their posts receive Simon? Or I wonder if they have seen no change as their profiles are personal so Instagram knows they aren’t potential advertising customers.

Richard T

Good points Simon. It’s a shame Instagram have made it tougher for brands/business profiles to get exposure and organic followers. I think for business users now to get good traction spending on post boosts/advertising seems to becoming more prevalent.

Tom Clark

I envy your relative optimism, some would perhaps rather call it naiveté, about social media. They have lastly always been part of the logic of capitalism and indeed a key player in the latest stage of the (self) commodification of bodies, minds, communication, friendship and emotions. With harrowing but expected psychological consequences especially for the younger generations totally immersed in digital culture – the epidemic spread of depression just to mention one major issue.

Pias Kabir

Great Post. What you think Influencer Marketing can change the marketing way?