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It’s 2020, a new decade, and so it’s natural to reflect on how much has changed in the past 10 years. It’s no surprise to read that social media has been one of the main engines driving that change, at least culturally. In January of 2010, Facebook and Twitter were still novel ways for people to connect with friends—and the world around them—while Instagram hadn’t even been launched yet. Ten years later, Facebook and Twitter feel more like social and political burdens, and Instagram is the number one marketing platform for brands.
Of course, Facebook and Twitter (along with Snapchat, TikTok, and all other platforms of the social web) can be—and are—used for brand marketing. But the story of how Instagram soared to popularity as a marketing channel is what’s important here because it’s directly tied to the rise of influencer marketing. Conversely, the rise of influencer marketing over the last decade directly correlates to Instagram’s growth. For those in the industry, the two seem so closely intertwined that it’s hard to remember a time when digital marketers weren’t talking about Instagram. And it’s even fuzzier to recall that influencer marketing pre-dates the channel.
In the Beginning…
Strange as it may seem to our now image-obsessed experience, the first influencers weren’t even on social channels. They were bloggers. The practice of blogging seems almost quaint by today’s standards—it existed in some form or another almost as soon the World Wide Web became a thing consumers could connect with, browse, and contribute to. It wasn’t until 2004 when blogging went mainstream, and the democratizing power of the internet really started to be felt. Everyday people were finding their voices—and their audiences—on any number of topics, from politics to music to movies to food to exercise to….well, you name it.
Of course, where there are audiences, marketers and brands can’t be far behind. And that’s what happened in the so-called blog-o-sphere: bloggers who’d built up sizable audiences by the sheer force of their dedication were suddenly courted by those brands and marketers. Banner ads were already old news—and pop-ups were considered the devil’s work—so sponsored blog posts were born. Bloggers became proto-influencers, which is to say they actually were influencers but the word hadn’t been invented yet, at least not in the context of marketing. Prior to the coining of the term, we’d just describe people as being influential, and those people would be paid for an endorsement.
But by 2006 the nexus of influence was shifting from celebrities to just about anyone with an internet connection and the ability to write engagingly. The appeal of the blogger was much the same as the appeal of today’s influencer: authenticity. Interestingly, a blogger’s utter lack of celebrity or status made them more influential. Bloggers were normal people, with independent voices unpolluted by corporate or politically corrupt forces. Until sponsored posts became a thing, that is.
2006 ushered in two new phenomena that seem commonplace today: the software marketplace aimed at connecting brands with influencers/bloggers, and righteous indignation over authentic voices having a value. First an advertising company called Mindcomet released software called PayPerPost—exactly what it sounds like—while the online publisher TechCrunch declared a coming blog-pocalypse of sorts. “PayPerPost.com offers to sell your soul,” the headline read.
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Meanwhile, on Social Media…
As blogs firmly took hold of the mainstream, social media was just finding its footing. This is where the evolution of influencer marketing really started to take shape. While Friendster and MySpace began their fade into obscurity, Facebook and Twitter were on the rise. While Facebook began as a platform available only to college students, the channel was opened up to anyone over the age of 13 in 2006, just a few months after Twitter’s public launch. Both platforms caught in a way that Friendster and MySpace could not.
And again, brands and marketers smelled gold in them thar hills—in a kind of wild west rush to set up their claims, businesses began creating their social media accounts in hopes of connecting with consumers directly. By 2008, Facebook began developing and launching monetization strategies revolving around how best to deploy paid advertising. Twitter was doing the same by 2010. Brands approached marketing on these channels as a two-pronged effort: they would be able to interact directly with their followers, while also populating the news feeds/walls/timelines of non-followers with ads that looked like content. This, they thought, was going to change everything.
Ultimately, an ad made to look like organic content just looks like an ad that’s been made to look like organic content. In other words: it’s still an ad. And media-savvy consumers, by and large, ignored them just like all the other marketing they’re subjected to on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, social media extended the reach of everyday voices in much the same way blogs had. On Twitter especially, it was hard not to notice certain voices becoming more influential. By 2010, studies like this one attempted to quantify and understand influence on Twitter. There are two interesting aspects of this study to note:
- Analysis of Twitter data showed that simply looking at someone’s follower count is insufficient to determine influence. In many cases, this study found, very high follower counts yielded diminishing returns. This is something influencer marketers today know all too well, but in 2010 it was a little-noticed phenomenon.
- The question of what the results of that study meant for businesses was charmingly naive. As Meeyoung Cha, the paper’s main author, concluded, “Businesses, rather than putting emphasis on the follower count, could try to improve audience responsiveness in their fields.” We now know this as engagement rate, and we understand it to be much more important than reach. But what’s really interesting here is that they never thought this knowledge could be used to pay smaller-scale, but more influential, users to post branded content.
Of course, it’s not surprising that researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems weren’t thinking more in-depth about possible marketing applications. But marketers were starting to come around.
And in a wonderfully ironic twist, the makers of PayPerPost—that software that TechCrunch saw as a corruption of the blogosphere’s integrity—created a similar product for social media influencers and brands to connect. The platform was a finalist at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2010.
And Then Came Instagram
Launched in October 2010, Instagram seemed a natural next step in social media and was pivotal in the evolution of influencer marketing. Facebook connected friends and family so they could share updates about their everyday lives. Twitter was a space for strangers to exchange ideas, information, and links. Instagram was a place where people could just get creative—with friends and strangers alike.
For brands, though, Instagram was a way to push ads directly to users. True, they could do that with Facebook, but Instagram was—intentionally or not—more suited to advertising. The original format of an IG post was limited to a single picture and a caption, not unlike the format that you’d find in a magazine, newspaper, or billboard. Instagram advertising found old-school advertisers well within their comfort zones, and the number of celebrities setting up profiles on the platform—in direct contact with their fans—created an atmosphere primed for a new kind of celebrity endorsement.
Still, we weren’t yet at the point of influencer marketing. Celebrity endorsements, whether on TV or on Instagram, are still celebrity endorsements. Consumers understand when a famous person publicly declares love for a product that money has changed hands to make it happen. The format of Instagram changed that somewhat, with the lines between personal and sponsored posts becoming increasingly blurred. But what really changed the game, what ushered in the era of influencers, were the Instagram profiles belonging to a group of sisters.
Putting Up with the Kardashians
At the risk of sounding reductive, the Kardashian/Jenner sisters demonstrated that one doesn’t necessarily need any discernible talents of accomplishments to command an audience numbering in the tens of millions. While they enjoyed a certain level of celebrity before Instagram, it was social media that really caused their stocks to rise. The behind-the-scenes glimpses into their lives provided less choreographed/more organic access to their existing fans, while the immediacy of social media allowed fans to feel more connected.
There’s no single moment we can point to and call the birth of influencer marketing. But that one-two punch of reach and authenticity probably lit a few light bulbs over the heads of marketers looking for more effective advertising solutions. If you compare a more traditional celebrity endorsement deal with the pay-per-post scenario of a Kardashian, you can see the immediate appeal. By way of comparison:
- Kim Kardashian (159 million Instagram followers) earns anywhere between $300K and $500K per post. Her most lucrative long-term deal was worth $6 million for a year.
- In 2013, just around the time influencer marketing was really starting to gain traction, Taylor Swift signed a long term deal with Coca-Cola to become a brand ambassador for Diet Coke. She’d appear in TV, print, and digital ads and earn $26 million to do so. Bear in mind that the $26 million is only what Coke paid to Taylor Swift; it doesn’t account for the cost of producing and then distributing ads for TV, print, and the web.
While Kim Kardashian could be considered an A-list celebrity at this point, her fame has nothing on Taylor Swift’s. But her Instagram reach is more readily quantifiable than, say, Swift’s TV ads, she doesn’t require a long term contract, and—even at $500K per post—she’s coming in at a fraction of the cost.
The risk/reward ratio here is compelling, and marketers began to think big about influencer marketing—and they did this by thinking smaller.
The Rise of the Micro-Influencer
As the idea of influencer marketing began to increase in popularity, brands and marketers were on the lookout for any and all social accounts with massive reach. This early focus on audience size made sense; getting your product out in front of millions, if not ten- or even a hundred million, was the no-brainer goal of advertising. Getting that message in front of audiences that were actually connected in some way to the person spreading that message added a layer of authenticity (perceived or real) that could help to achieve results beyond even the most popular Super Bowl TV ad.
By 2013, enough people were thinking about and using influencer marketing that even non-marketers were considering how to get in on it. Since this was as much a tech innovation as it was a marketing one, it came as no surprise when software platforms, designed to support marketers in their efforts, helped transform ad-hoc marketing campaigns into something much more sophisticated.
The best platforms provided a wealth of data, not only about the influencers themselves but about their audiences. Campaigns could be targeted to even more precise audiences, while results could be reliably measured and analyzed. It was in this analysis that the evolution of influencer marketing began to move the industry to where we are today because post-campaign analytics demonstrated a surprising truth: bigger isn’t better. There’s a tipping point to social celebrity, and a reach in the millions is actually an exercise in diminishing returns. After a certain number, that authentic/organic connection that marketers are looking to forge with audiences declines. Engagement drops off. Trust wanes.
Better to work with, say, 10 influencers—each with 10,000 followers—than to work with one influencer with an audience of 100,000. The cost is lower, and the results are better. This was the secret sauce that catapulted influencer marketing into the mainstream. By 2016, the practice had exploded within the marketing world.
It also almost blew itself up.
Influencer Marketing Catches Fyre
By the end of 2016, brands and marketers really started spending their money, variously and often—it had become a $1.7B industry. Though it had hit the mainstream, influencer marketing was still in a methodological nascency. Put more simply, people were still trying to figure out how to make it work best. Still, on the marketer’s side of the equation, there was a rush to participate. The word was out and, according to one website, influencer marketing became “digital marketing’s next big thing.” Marketers devoted more of their budgets to influencer campaigns, and a whole subsection of the online population suddenly realized their social feeds had value.
Increased scrutiny was placed on that blurred line between organic and sponsored content. The FTC had already been cracking down on companies for their lack of disclosure, and the wake of FyreFest led to the creation of new rules in its Endorsements Guide.
Further, marketers were beginning to express pangs of regret, sometimes shame, for their role in influencer marketing’s meteoric rise and questionable validity. “We threw too much many at them and did it too quickly,” confessed one social media executive.
If you were researching the topic in mid-2017, you’d have been inundated with a number of stories like the ones mentioned here. If you were researching at the end of 2017, however, you’d have learned that the industry had almost doubled in size to become a $3.07 billion business. The evolution of influencer marketing had turned it into a thriving industry.
Influencer Marketing Today
To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of influencer marketing’s death were greatly exaggerated. Early 2017 looked a lot like a bubble, and the FyreFest debacle seemed to be the catalyst behind the inevitable burst. But that isn’t what happened.
Instead, it seemed as if everyone took a collective breath, reflected on lessons learned, and continued to grow and mature the industry at an impressive rate. In 2019, the industry more than doubled its 2017 market size to $8B. That number is expected to rise to $15B by 2022.
This is a long, long way from the one-off payments a handful of companies were making to bloggers over 10 years ago. Influencer marketing is no longer digital marketing’s next big thing. It’s the big thing, with nothing else poised to take its place.