When Instagram switched to the algorithm format, the internet was abuzz with opinions and proclamations that yet another once-hip social network was dead at the hands of big money. While bloggers sunk their teeth into Silicon Valley conspiracy theories and regular Instagram users wondered if their selfies would get fewer likes, the power users who make up Instagram’s unique creative community had more legitimate reason for concern. It all got so bad that Instagram had to ask its users to chill.
Would the algorithm supplant their value as influencer marketers with more traditional Instagram marketing platforms that allow the brand to receive its piece of the ad money? Would the cream still rise to the top? Was the platform doomed to become congested with sponsored content like so many other news feeds that have struggled to integrate paid programming and user-created content organically? The Instagram feed was regarded as the last, best place for people to enjoy (relatively) ad-free social media, sans excessive gimmicks or commentary. A few months in, I caught up with some Instagram influencers to see if the hype was real or if it’s mostly business as usual.
Influencers have long been the preferred way for brands to conduct Instagram marketing (and plenty of other social media marketing campaigns, too). Influencers are individuals who serve the same function as lifestyle publications—they fit (or create) a niche and their followers aspire to the lifestyle and are (hopefully) inspired by the content. When brands want to reach that influencer’s niche audience, they can place their products directly in a feed that meets the demographic and aesthetic goals of their campaign. It’s a great way to generate native content with no asterisks, caveats, or interruptions to a user’s feed.
To maintain transparency, influencers typically write #spon or #sponsored to indicate that they didn’t take that epic picture of an SUV that’s not even out yet in the Pacific Northwest for free. But because influencers have an image and aesthetic to maintain, it’s understood that even with payment, the brand in question passes the muster.
I caught up with Travis Hallmark (@travishallmark on Instagram) to discuss his experience as an influencer and professional photographer. When asked about the assuming the role of influencer, he explains it’s a numbers game: “With the rising popularity of social media over the past three or four years, companies have found it more practical to pay users with big followerships to promote their products or services than to attempt to build their own accounts through paid or unpaid content.”
Of course, the exact numbers and aesthetics required to be an influencer vary widely by industry and the brand looking to gain a foothold in the Instagram marketing scene.
I asked Hallmark about the algorithm, and he immediately reacted negatively to the changes it’s caused to his personal and professional experience on the platform. “I have noticed that my average engagement has decreased and that I am not seeing certain people’s posts, which has forced me to set up annoying push notifications for some users.”
Reading between the lines of Instagram’s press release on the updates, it’s obvious that it is trying to make influencers less powerful in order to sell more advertising opportunities. The idea of users making money off of the platform without the brand seeing any benefit undoubtedly hastened the change. But brands continue to see the value in influencer marketing, as it will always be more native than sponsored content and a more organic way to target audiences than any computer-generated demographics.
Hallmark mentioned a recent influencer Instagram marketing campaign by watchmaker Daniel Wellington. “I recall seeing anywhere from five to seven different users in my feed promoting their watches. All of them have thirty to a hundred thousand followers, and even though there’s some overlap between them, that only heightens brand awareness.” Conservatively estimating the average number unique followers at 40,000 and number of influencers at six means that Daniel Wellington was able to reach 240,000 people who were exceptionally strong fits for their target audience without paying a cent to the platform or relying on interrupt advertisements.
As the algorithm makes its own decisions about which users should see what content at what time, brands will undoubtedly have to cast wider nets with more influencers to ensure that their sponsored content ends up in as many feeds as possible. But influencers have fiercely loyal followers, many of whom have enabled push notification subscriptions to ensure they never miss a post from their favorite content creators. In that way, the algorithm almost defeated itself. The initial pushback was so extreme that Instagram users doubled down on their favorite photographers by not only following them but subscribing to them, too.
Influencer marketing combines assumed trust and a level of casualness that removes the barrier that many people perceive when they see a traditional advertisement. This format can, of course, be brought to paid native content on any platform—and perhaps that’s the biggest lesson to learn from influencers. When asked which users he thinks have the most success as lifestyle photographers on the platform, Hallmark didn’t hesitate: “Some of my favorite people to follow are my friends who post their lives and what they love doing. It might be a dog, it might be an advertisement for a clothing company, but it’s their lives and what they love doing. It’s genuine, authentic, and real.”
And that’s the big takeaway from influencer marketing: customers don’t want brands to tell them to buy their products. They want to see the stories behind them, the way real people use them, and to be shown that brands understand who they are through creative storytelling. Whether you hire influencers or simply use an influencer marketing mindset, your brand will benefit from some casual creativity.