The demise of the influencer?

Monday, October 7th 2019
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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.