is gen z killing the influencer?
Rome is on the brink of falling and the barbarians -- aka people who make TikToks -- are at the gates.
Screenshot from YouTube.
Every boom must have a bust. This is the plight faced by Instagram influencers now. Only two years ago, these digital marketers and content creators seemed unassailable. But times, and algorithms, change. Fast forward to 2019 and a constant stream of headlines are reporting Rome is on the brink of falling and the barbarians -- aka people who make TikToks -- are at the gates.
First came the media backlash. From late 2017 onwards, readers gleefully consumed a slew of exposés that revealed an apparent rotten core at the heart of an industry that made its money from aspirational polish and perfection. Luxury hotels complained about an influx of influencers demanding free stays while content whistleblowers laid bare the widespread practice of buying fake followers. Well-publicised crackdowns by advertising standards agencies on undisclosed sponsorships that followed did little to dispel the general miasma of unethical behaviour that began to trail the term ‘influencer’.
Then influencer dramas started to go viral. In January, an influencer named Caroline Calloway found herself courting internet fame as an early contender for ‘Scammer of the Year’ after a furore surrounding some pricey tickets for her phenomenally ill-organised tour unfolded via Instagram Stories. (She’s now announced another tour titled ‘The Scam’ which… well you have to admire the sheer lack of shame). More recently, influencer Marissa Fuchs attracted the ridicule of the web when it transpired that her ‘surprise’ engagement treasure hunt was anything but -- the stunt had been shopped to brands as a potential opportunity for sponsorship, weeks in advance. Fuchs got both the romantic and online engagement she’d been hoping for (she’s now married), but at the cost of becoming a poster girl for the greedy consumerism associated with the mainstream understanding of what an influencer is.
Numbers back up the end of the Influencer era too. Research published by firm Mobile Marketer in July 2019 show engagement rates on sponsored Instagram posts have dropped, on average, by 2% since early 2016. For sponsored travel posts, once regarded as one of the most lucrative influencer niches to weasel into, that decline has doubled. And it's the biggest Instagram "celebrities" who are flailing the most. While smaller Instagram accounts (those with around 5k followers) can expect engagement levels of 8.8%, this falls to around 6.3% once you surpass the 5k mark and sinks to around 3.6% if an influencer commands a platform of more than 10k. In comparison, new social media spaces like Tik Tok (which exploded after it merged with Musical.ly in 2017 and has now been downloaded over 800 million times worldwide) are growing on an unprecedented scale.
But are Gen Z killing the Instagram influencer off in favour of pastures new and more pleasingly deranged? Or are we simply in the midst of an age-old cycle of boom and bust? Are influencers dying? Or are they just being redefined?
“Instagram influencers are absolutely not going away,” says Taylor Lorenz, The Atlantic’s technology writer and an expert on influencer culture. She broke the Fuchs fake engagement story; she was there for the fall of Logan Paul. Lorenz, from the eyes of a jaded millennial, has seen it all. “For Gen Z, influence is so important. It defines their entire culture. But they understand the power of influence in a way that millennial influencers didn’t and they are making a whole swathe of influencers irrelevant. Yes, broad engagement rates are dropping in some sectors -- but they’re rising in others."
While lifestyle, mommy and travel influencers who personify the millennial pink, avocado brunch, beach girl Instagram aesthetic are dying off (figuratively speaking), a new wave of younger teen influencers are emerging. "The whole idea of the influencer is solidified in Gen Z," says Taylor. "Teens are so good at commanding attention.”
She's right. The influencer marketing industry is only growing -- by 2022 it’s predicted to be worth around $15 billion. Hardly indicative of a sickly constitution. What is changing is where that money is directed -- and what an "influencer" looks like in 2019.
Our classic conception of an Instagram "influencer" is one who created "aspirational", luxurious content, filling feeds with colour-corrected pictures of lattes and laughing women in sundresses. Traditional influencers usually went for quantity over quality -- they wanted to accrue large followings with bland, inoffensive content that was soothing to scroll. Those days are over. Now it’s niche and specialised content creators who command smaller, yet more loyal audiences that are seeing the most success. And that's probably because they care less about success.
“Gen Z don't care about engagement," says Mike Hondorp, Chief Marketing Officer at Whalar, an influencer marketing agency. "TikToks are around six seconds, they’re just what they did in the last hour -- who cares about engagement when it’ll be gone soon? This idea of ephemerality is mirrored in the growth of Instagram stories, the fastest growing product in Instagram’s entire history. It's gained more than the entire global population of Snapchat users in under a year."
Partly, the change is a natural rebellion against the hyper-curated style that’s gone before. The millennial pink aesthetic of the first wave of Instagram influencers is at least four years old now. In internet terms, that’s a lifetime. At least long enough to get sick and tired of it. “Instagram got so saturated with perfect imagery,” observes Taylor Lorenz. “But last year, burnout became a huge talking point -- it was a massive trend on YouTube and Instagram; influencers started becoming more open about mental health. I think this sparked a reaction where people were like ‘ok, this curated life stuff is fake, so we’re going to rebel against that and engage with people that seem more ‘real.’”
That rebellion is taking the form of "micro influencers". People are flocking to hyper specific influencers that really resonate with them and feel almost like a personal "discovery". And the best examples are those who present themselves with apparent nonchalance and a disregard for the rules that have governed the influencers who’ve gone before. See Emma Chamberlain, whose lo-fi vlogs -- often filmed on her phone, with little prep --, coupled with her decision to forgo make-up and styling have earned her the title of ‘the most talked-about teen influencer in the world.’ Plus, the new guard understand "influence" in active terms; whether that’s Greta Thunberg campaigning to save the planet or Lil Nas X using TikTok to urm, snag the longest running number one track in US history.
So what comes next? Sadly, we’re not likely to see an end to consumerism on Instagram. If anything, brands are going to be even more eager to work with this new type of influencer. But this does spell trouble for the old guard of millennial influencer who’ll find pivoting from perfect, permanent pictures to spur-of-the-moment stories a difficult pill for their audiences to swallow. “You’re going to see the same thing that happens to YouTubers where they become really big and their audience atrophies,” Taylor explains. “On social media you don’t unfollow -- you just forget about them and don’t see them in your feed anymore. YouTube is a good proxy for this; so many generations of influencers have come and gone through there.”
Classic influencers won’t disappear overnight though; their audiences will simply stagnate and for growth they’ll either have to collab with younger creators or find a niche to bed down in that will help them retain a core fanbase. The influencer is still alive and kicking; they’ve just got a brand new look.
Your feed isn’t going to be devoid of avocado pictures just yet though.