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Trends Analysis: The Evolution of the Instagram Influencer

What do you see when you open Instagram? If you’re like most users, nestled alongside your friends’ latest holiday snaps and the semi-famous animal accounts you follow, you’ll see an influencer promoting a must-have product.

Actually, if you’re like most people, your Instagram feed will be full of them. 

It wasn’t always that way, and it might not be that way for long. Instagram influencers have been evolving since they first burst onto the platform. 

If eCommerce brands want to continue to be successful with influencer marketing, they must evolve alongside those same influencers. 

From ‘Who?’ to ‘Who Next?’: How Influencers Began to Make Big Money 

It took just a few years for influencers to take over and transform Instagram, says content marketer Lesley Vos. “In 2012, there were 40 million users on Instagram. In 2018, there were a billion of them.” 

They are so influential, continues Vos, that a professional Instagrammer in the US with 100,000 followers could earn $5,000 per post. 

It’s not hard to see why influencers became so popular. Instagram influencers provide brands with a way to advertise their products authentically, notes Hopper’s Nicola Cronin. At first, brands were able to send products to influencers as gifts, knowing that free exposure would soon follow. This has changed, however, Cronin says. Once they understood the value of their audiences, influencers started charging for sponsored posts. 

An Instagram influencer allows brands to leverage something that many of them don’t have: a large, engaged audience, says copywriter Raghav Haran. Not only does this help get products in front of thousands of users instantly, but it can also help brands build their own audiences as a result of the affiliation.  

Influencer marketing has become hugely popular and for good reason, writes AcquireConvert founder Giles Thomas. Marketers have seen returns from influencer marketing that can be upwards of 11 times higher than other digital strategies. 

The fact is influencer marketing works. A survey of more than 1,800 Americans by CivicScience found that almost one in five had bought something as a result of an influencer recommendation. In comparison, only one in 10 bought a product recommended by a celebrity. “Influencers, and to a lesser extent, celebrities, have an undeniable impact when it comes to pushing products and services to those who are on social media,” says CivicScience’s Kaitlin Augustine.

Instagram Influencer

Even Small-Time Influencers Are a Big Deal

Bigger audiences aren’t necessarily better. More and more brands are turning to Instagram accounts with followers numbering in the four-digit range. 

“It might seem counterintuitive for a company wanting to boost sales and increase brand awareness to choose to work with influencers with small followings, but there’s actually a whole host of reasons to do so,” says Business Insider UK’s Rachel Hosie. Chief among those reasons is the greater trust and authenticity that comes from smaller influencers. 

Micro-influencers also come with lower costs and lower competition, writer Kat Boogaard points out. “If you aim for those influencers with massive followings, you’ll be up against a number of big brands—and, your own sponsored post will likely get buried amongst a mix of others.” Work with a micro-influencer, however, and your content could really stand out on someone’s feed. 

Apu Gupta, CEO and Co-Founder of Curalate, notes that one of the benefits of working with micro-influencers is their “outsized impact” getting products in front of consumers. “26% percent of consumers said a micro-influencer helped them discover a product in the past three months, compared to 20% for celebrities and 22% for friends.”

The team at Markerly found something similar. When they analyzed more than 800,000 Instagram users with at least 1,000 followers, they found that engagement decreases as follower count rises. 

“Those with less than 1,000 followers generally received likes on their posts 8% of the time. Users with 10 million+ followers only received likes 1.6% of the time. There is a clear downward correlation between follower sizes and post likes.”

But the Feed Might Not Be Paved With Gold for Much Longer

Instagram Influencer marketing isn’t without its issues. In fact, the Instagram influencer bubble could be ready to burst. 

There are some problems inherent with using influencers to promote your products, says Chase Clymer, host of the Honest eCommerce podcast. Influencers don’t just promote one product. They promote dozens all at once. They might not be careful or too picky with what they promote, either. If they promote a scam or face a backlash over their own actions, it could reflect poorly on your brand, too. 

The Instagram influencer universe is becoming a very crowded place, notes KIJO’s Kirk Thompson. For one, there’s just too much sponsored content. Influencers gained their followings because audiences believed they were genuine. Thompson says this trust will quickly erode if influencers start to post more and more sponsored content. 

Instagram’s design doesn’t help, either, says Fast Company’s Mark Wilson. The only thing to do on Instagram is to search and scroll. This significantly limits the amount of content that users can see at once. When more and more of that space is devoted to sponsored content posted by influencers, users will be quick to tune it out. 

Born Social’s Callum McCahon believes that even more issues arise as regulation increases. Findings from Born Social’s Social Survey show that more than three-quarters (77%) of Instagram users don’t understand that #sp stands for “sponsored post,” and just less than half (48%) don’t know that #ad signifies an advertisement. 

This shows a huge disconnect between the industry and the general public, McCahon says. Even if users did know what the hashtags meant, he continues, most wouldn’t take notice of them. That’s because we’ve been trained to ignore the stream of hashtags attached to every post. 

If that weren’t bad enough, the study also found that 49% of users would trust an influencer less if they found out that influencer were being paid to promote something. 

The result is engagement rates that are at an all-time low, too. That’s according to a study from InfluencerDB, which found that sponsored post engagement rates were just 2.4% at the start of 2019. Three years earlier, they were as high as 4%. Even non-sponsored post engagement is down to 1.9% from 4.5% three years ago. 

Instagram Influencer

Will Instagram’s Changes Keep Influencers Afloat or Cut Them Adrift?

As influencer engagement wanes, Instagram is introducing a raft of changes to the platform. One of those changes has some influencers on the rocks. In July, Instagram began running tests in seven countries — Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand — to remove likes from Instagram posts. Recently the platform has been experimenting with private likes, with counts only shown to the liked user.

These tests have made many influencers nervous about the future of their business, reports Business Insider’s Paige Leskin. “Affected influencers have already noticed their posts are getting fewer likes and less engagement, pushing their posts farther down in Instagram’s algorithmic feed. Some have expressed concerns it’ll affect their reach and ability to grow on the platform.”

Evan Asano, CEO of MediaKix, believes influencers have nothing to fear, however. Eventually removing likes may actually improve influencer output in his eyes, as influencers would be forced to create better and more diverse content. It could even lead to better engagement between influencers and their followers through the platform’s caption and comment sections. 

In March, Instagram began testing in-app checkouts for brands and content creators, reports Business Insider’s Daniel Keyes. Previously, brands had to go through a convoluted process if they wanted to buy something promoted in the app. Now, items can be ordered without leaving the app. 

Keyes believes this will have a significant impact on the brand-influencer relationship. Brands will be able to take advantage of an influencer’s audience more directly, and they will be able to track how effective particular influencers are at promoting products. 

In a third update, Instagram is letting advertisers pay to increase the reach of influencer posts. Previously, a brand’s reach was limited to the size of the influencer’s following, says The Drum’s Rebecca Stewart. Now, however, brands will be able to pay to promote their sponsored content to as large an audience as they wish. 

Instagram Influencing is far from dead, but it’s changing quickly. Understanding who to work with, what to promote and how to promote it is key for brands looking to make the most of Instagram marketing. 

Images by: Houcine Ncib, Maddi Bazzocco, Hans Vivek