#Instagate - Fake influencers, advertising & obsessing over numbers

I've finally started watching Black Mirror (late to the party, I know) and I just want to bring S3E1 'Nosedive' to your attention. In the episode, a perky office worker lives in a status-obsessed world where everyone has a rating out of 5 that you can visibly see every time you stare at their face. She finds out that in order to join a company's 'influencer' program, she needs a rating of 4.5 or more, and so she agrees to speak at an old friend's wedding where there will be many people above this threshold. She hopes that these people will rate her and boost her numbers accordingly.

Sound familiar?

I'm talking about Instagram, that social media platform we all seem to be glued to 24/7. 

#instagate

The term 'influencer' is the latest buzz word in the social media world. How great does it sound though? You get paid to promote products you already use, or at least, products that fit your aesthetic. In some cases, you even get paid to travel to exotic locations around the world! I'd be lying if I hadn't thought about the latter as a dream job, too! 

From a business perspective, utilizing influencers and their audience taps into a wildly new and exciting market that can have a huge return on investment.

The way in which businesses and influencers use Instagram has turned it into a toxic numbers game, where fortune favours those who have the money to advertise their accounts or cheat the system.

A few articles have been written about this recently, most notably by food blogger Nicki Sunderland (@eatlivetraveldrink) who has since removed her post (you can read a wrap up of it here). However, over the last few days I've noticed more and more Instagram accounts on my radar post similar content. This article by @saramelotti_ is one of my favourites, in which she transparently uncovers all the sneaky ways people use Instagram to gain followers and engagement.

So I guess this is somewhat of a response to what Sunderland dubbed, #instagate - but one that looks at the greater problems at work on the social media platform, not just those who trick the system and play dirty. 

Businesses

If more followers = more trust and credibility, it's obviously imperative that most businesses who have an online presence want to be seen with a healthy social media following. It just makes sense. If you have lots of followers, you must be getting a lot of work, or moving a lot of product, right? Or at least, this is what businesses want you to think when you visit their profile.

Once a business has established a reputation, they'll start looking for influencers to collaborate with. As a business, you look for influencers that have a following not too much bigger than the one your account possesses, (any bigger and the chance that they will decline will be much higher) someone who fits your brand personality, and someone who appears to have good engagement. 

After that, generally you send them some product to keep for X amount of posts over a certain time period, or you pay them a certain amount to feature your product. This boosts the business' product or service to a wider audience that they wouldn't normally reach. Depending on the account, the business will also repost the influencer's image.

Influencers

Influencers are people with a large and engaged market share, that businesses are willing to pay in order to tap into. I sometimes like to refer to influencers as living billboards. Most influencers have 1-3 different areas they talk about online. From travel to food, fitness and fashion, nothing is off limits. As an influencer, there is an expected engagement rate depending on the amount of followers you have. If you're sitting under 100K, anything over 10% is where you want to be sitting. The amount of $$ an influencer can charge per post increases as their following increases with 100K, 500K and 1M being huge milestones. 

How it works: an influencer will post a photo with some sponsored content (#spon) and you, as a follower, will think to yourself, 'Oh that looks cute/sexy/i'd really like to go there,' and click on the business' page to find out more information and maybe even make a purchase. Not only do influencers get paid to do this, but they also get to look cool in the latest threads whilst traveling to the next big overseas destination and staying in luxury hotels. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

It works for us as consumers too. A lot of the time, we may not be aware of a totally awesome product until we see our favourite Youtuber on Instagram sporting it in their latest post. They get the cool stuff in exchange for content, we get to know about the cool stuff, the businesses get the $$ in exchange for all of this. 

That's essentially how the transaction works from both sides.

The Problem(s)

Now, of course, this doesn't sound too bad. The businesses do their thing to make more money, and influencers do their thing to enhance their street cred and swag. This is nothing new, in fact, it's pretty much marketing 101 - it's just that we are using a different medium.

However, there are 3 problems at work here.

1. People cheating the system in order to seem like they have greater influence than they actually have.

From buying followers, paying for automation and features on other accounts, utilizing comment pods and heaven forbid, the Instagram mafia, people are finding new ways to up their following and boost their engagement rate in a desperate bid to seem more credible and steal market share.

Take an online fast-fashion clothing store for instance. They're new and have just started to bid for market share against their competitors who all boast followings of 50K+. How are they going quickly establish trust when they have a small following? They purchase followers, so that when a potential customer reaches their profile, he/she feels more inclined to trust and make a purchase because they have 23.5K followers and a pretty looking feed. 

Influencers with genuinely large followings are pissed at those who are using some of these tactics to boost their numbers, and in turn, businesses are pissed because they're paying top dollar for content that doesn't have the reach they expected because they didn't do their homework.

This echoes back to my good old Myspace days when people were calling out the posers and the fakes on their bulletin boards for purchasing large amounts of friends. 

Which brings me to problem numero duo:

2. People are getting too caught up in the numbers game

In the last day, I've seen post after post from a few of my favourite accounts on Instagram all sending the same message to their followers: you are worth more than the number of people following you.

It's easy, as a general person to roll your eyes and sigh, 'yeah right,' when this person has followings in the hundreds of thousands and gets paid to endorse brands. Of course, it's easy to say that when people are going to like whatever shit you post, regardless.

However, recently I've met and discussed this obsession with numbers with a few people in my circle. From models who are telling me they won't even get looked at by an agency unless they have over 10K followers, to a photographer who said that he was about to abandon a project he loved doing because, 'no one seemed to like it.' 

Your art and you as a person, are worth more than some pixels on a screen. If you're creating something because you want people to like it, or you want it to go viral, I hate to say it, but you're doing it for the wrong reasons. You should create something because it fills you with joy and passion. You should travel because you want to see and learn more about the world we live in, not so that you can visit that place you saw in someone's Instagram post that one time. The numbers shouldn't matter to you - and they won't if you get it into your head that the world doesn't have to like something you create for it to be validated and special. 

3. The wonder of using Instagram is being lost

People initially started using Instagram because it was a fun, quick way to show what was happening during your day. Of course, as a photographer, it became a great way for me to showcase my #iphoneography. Shortly after it became easier to import photographs taken using a DSLR, the main focus of Instagram was about achieving a certain aesthetic, a kind of perfection really. And of course, after that came the marketers with their bold ideas that they could tap into audiences and sell us more crap that we don't really need. 

Cue the circle of life playing faintly somewhere in the distance

It's not fun to upload to Instagram anymore. I don't know anyone who actually enjoys the task. Even as a social media manager, I get more out of analysing people's behaviour on social media rather than actually uploading noise myself. 

More and more people are coming out saying they feel uninspired. We say, 'Do it for the gram,' ironically, but deep down, we know it's so that we can fulfill some sort of bullshit validation that we need from complete strangers in a virtual world through our computer and phone screens.

If you snap a semi-blurry photo of your lunch and pop it up, even as a regular joe, people aren't going to like it. We've become accustomed to this aesthetically pleasing, VSCO-filter coloured world where if we don't take a photo of something, it never really happened.

A legitimate photo I took on the beach in Hawaii last night. Four girls posing on the beach while their friend takes photos for Instagram.

A legitimate photo I took on the beach in Hawaii last night. Four girls posing on the beach while their friend takes photos for Instagram.

What all of this means

If you feel like this problem has just escalated beyond belief, you aren't alone.

As a social media manager, all of this creates tension about my job. What do I agree with? What do I believe is the right way to run an Instagram account? How do I approach situations when my client comes to me wanting more followers - despite having fantastic and positive engagement rates already? 

Is it my job to say, 'no, this shouldn't be a priority of yours,' or is it my job to lay all the cards on the table, for them to pick the option they want, and for me to implement it regardless? Of course, creating original content that is genuine and interesting in its approach and communicating transparently should always be the most important things when it comes to running an account online, but it's getting increasingly hard to cut through the noise. If you're late to the insta party for your industry, it's hard to get your voice heard.

These are questions I'm still trying to figure out.

Recently, a fellow photographer messaged me asking what I did for a living and I replied, 'I own my own professional photography and PR business, amongst other things,' and he was so surprised. Why? Because I only have about 2.1K followers - absolutely nothing to boast about compared to his 23K.

We shouldn't live in a world where someone's creative merit is justified by their follower count. If you can build a great business of the back of social media, that's awesome. I started mine by posting on my Facebook business page and it grew from there. But never put all of your money and faith into a social media platform that doesn't give a shit about your amazing new artwork or your big idea.

Engaging with people irl is more valuable than any amount of likes on social media. And I'm talking about genuine connection, not meeting up with other people because they have large followings and can boost your numbers with a shoutout, and choosing to turn a blind eye towards anyone who doesn't. That isn't community minded.

Work hard at what you love, be kind to others and always give back to the community and in time, you'll reach your goals. Just make sure they aren't goals orientated towards social media.

For further reading, I would recommend this article from The Luxury Spot which details more info about 'imposter influencers' and this article from Harpers Bazaar which talks more about how much influencers get paid.

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social mediaCarolyn West