Opinion: changes in advertising strategies and the media market has led to growing commercial heft for many social media influencers 

By Fardus Sultan and Valerie Gannon, TU Dublin

Even before she was born, baby Halston Blake Fisher had an enviable social media following of over 112,000 Instagram subscribers. Now, at the tender age of five weeks, she has over 380,000 followers and is already working with commercial partners. Undeniably, her success is linked to that of her older twin sisters, two-year-olds Taytum and Oakley who have 2.6 million Instagram followers. While her parents' individual Instagram channels maintain a modest following, the family’s YouTube channel boasts in excess of three million subscribers, all of which translate into lucrative commercial deals.

Just a fluke? Unlikely. Back in 2017, Forbes identified Ryan of Ryan ToysReview, then aged six, as the youngest member of "the World’s Highest-Paid YouTube Stars for 2017", estimated to have made $11 million the year before. With ever-increasing popularity and a following exceeding 18 million subscribers by the end of 2018, his income has doubled. And his unique talent? Ryan is watched while unboxing and reviewing toys. Although he is entertaining his peers most of the time, Ryan is also engaging in influencer marketing, a marketing strategy connecting brands with social media influencers for advertising purposes.

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Eimear McManus from digital marketing agency Digital Works and blogger Rosemary MacCabe on the growing power of social media influencers

Presenting as regular people who have amassed a sizeable following by creating and posting content on social media, social media influencers have become online celebrities in their own right. So much so that YouTube stars are regarded as far more influential than traditional stars and an aspirational career choice for many teenagers and millennials

Why are influencers attracting commercial deals?

The rising popularity of online entertainment and interaction have hugely impacted the world of advertising. Not only have audiences' viewing patterns witnessed a decline and shift from traditional television viewership to online, mobile and on-demand streaming, but they have fragmented the selection of media channels. Millennials and teenagers raised in a digital environment are mostly behind these changes and, while being more media savvy, are less likely to respond to traditional advertising. On top of that, the growing use of ad-blocking software, which can bypass advertising content altogether, has seriously dented advertising revenue streams with figures for 2016 alone reportedly reaching $42 billion.

In order to respond to these changes, advertisers are resorting to more innovative, embedded and covert advertising strategies. Social media influencer marketing is one of them. In addition to being able to circumvent the ad blocking issue, it is also seen as a way of making advertising content a more appealing and effective part of an integrated marketing strategy, not only to influencers’ own followers but also to brands’ own audiences.

From RTÉ One's Claire Byrne Live, Rob Lipsett, James Kavanagh and Dr Eddie Murphy on how social media has influenced our lives

Corresponding to their commercial relevance, Forbes have identified the 12 most prominent influencer categories in 2017 with beauty, gaming, kids, parenting, entertainment, and food being the most popular. Likewise, influencer types have emerged based on the approximate subscribers size starting with Nano influencers (1,000-10,000 followers), Micro (10,000-50,000), Mid-tier (50,000-500,000), Macro (500,000-1 million) and Mega (1 million+ followers). While the subscriber numbers matter, the actual engagement with audiences is the key to their impact, with smaller influencers, such as nano up to macro, emerging to be more effective.

And if that is not enough to consider, the cost of working with influencers can be at a fraction of the cost of engaging traditional celebrities, but with an 11 times increased return on investment. Such marketing potential is reflected by the global influencer marketing ad spend for 2018 reportedly in excess of $1 billion. With the trend set to continue, estimates are that it will reach anything from $5 to $10 billion by 2020.

Are social influencers effective?

While engaging popular and famous people to promote a product or service has been a long-established marketing strategy, what makes social influencers so influential? Researchers have identified a number of issues that account for the rise in social influencers popularity of which engagement, relatability, trust and authenticity are seen as most significant.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Liam Geraghty on how influencers have helped reboot the popularity of Doc Martens

By creating and posting content on social media, influencers engage and interact with their audience, many who consider them their "friends". Seen from this perspective, it is unsurprising that they are considered more genuine and trusted sources of information. By presenting themselves via selfies, disclosing personal information and using a conversational style, influencers come across as authentic, which helps to build trust and create persuasive messaging.

More importantly, social influencers provide direct engagement and interaction which traditional celebrities lack. A 2016 study found that four in 10 millennials felt more understood by their favourite YouTubers than by their friends in real life. Based on a sense of similarity and a belief that they can relate to YouTubers, many view such connections as real and meaningful, so much so, that there is a sense of a community based on friendship instead of "fanship".

A significant concern for some is that the lines between organic and real content and advertising are increasingly getting blurred

When asked whose advice on buying they would follow, six in 10 study participants chose the influencer over the traditional celebrity. The industry figures seem to agree, with over 70% of millennials in the States having reported being swayed at some point to a purchasing decision by social influencers

Emerging concerns

A significant concern for some commentators is that the lines between organic and real content and advertising are increasingly getting blurred. A 2018 study found that advertising messages embedded in the influencers’ posts are rarely recognized in their true light and instead carry higher persuasive weight since they are considered genuine word-of-mouth messages. This is of particular concern for children and adolescents who might lack competencies to fully discern commercial content and are exposed to commercial messages in the course of spending time online and being entertained.

An example of this was highlighted in a recent study which suggested a direct link between influencer marketing and the immediate increase of unhealthy food intake in children, a particularly worrying link considering children’s and adolescents’ rates of obesity in Europe are on the increase. While offline promotion of high fat, high salt and and high sugar food, especially to children, is strictly regulated in most developed countries, regulation in the online environment is slow in coming and leaves much to be desired.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, John Carroll from the Public Relations Institute of Ireland on new guidelines on advertising online with social media influencers

The rate of introduction of regulation requiring advertising transparency and disclosure also varies from country to country. In Ireland, for instance, where a self-regulatory system applies to many aspects of advertising regulation, influencers should clearly include hashtag #ad, #sp, #spon#, #workwith, #paidpartnership or #brandambassador on their sponsored or paid content. However, the understanding of what constitutes an advertising communication is fairly generous one. Even if influencers are paid, directly or in kind, they are not forced to disclose it, unless the advertisers have exerted control or editing over curated content.

As audiences are becoming more aware of commercially promoted content in influencers' messages, they are looking for more honest and transparent relationships with these content creators. Consequently, issues of transparency and sponsorship disclosure are also of critical concerns to the influencers themselves, in ensuring their future success, not only from a commercial perspective but from an ethical one too.

Fardus Sultan is a PhD Candidate in the School of Marketing at TU Dublin. Dr Valerie Gannon is a Lecturer in Advertising in the School of Marketing at TU Dublin

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ