Written evidence submitted by Influencer
Call for evidence
Nik Speller, Director of Strategy & Partnerships
How would you define ‘influencers’ and ‘influencer culture’? Is this a new phenomenon?
Influencers are not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, there have always been influential people who others look to for inspiration, advice, admiration, guidance, entertainment, and more. These influential people include - but, aren’t limited to - sportstars, royalty, artists, musicians, and actors.
The difference with ‘influencers’, as they are known today, is that these people - in general - have gained their influence by broadcasting their own, proprietary content through digital media channels - principally, social networks; networks which have reduced the costs of content creation and (most importantly) content distribution to almost nil.
Anyone with access to these networks has the ability to reach many people, gain an audience through the content they create, and - in doing so - gain influence. As a consequence, the number of influencers in the world has ballooned in number and influence is no longer the preserve of a relatively small elite, who have made their names through achievements or notoriety in non-digital spaces.
This modern-day, digitally-led influence is a new phenomenon that has grown inline with the rise of freely available, easy to use digital media channels. Interestingly, as this phenomenon continues, more ‘traditional’ influencers of the type mentioned above are now looking to increase their presence on social networks and take advantage of this opportunity to reach new audiences or the same audiences, in a new way. Examples of the latter occurring include actor Will Smith building a social media presence on TikTok and YouTube, footballer Neymar building a presence on Twitch, and William and Kate Windor starting a YouTube account.
While there are a vast number of large range of influencers, ‘influencer culture’ typically refers to a group of people who have built an online audience and work to maintain and grow that online audience for the express purpose of gaining kudos, complimentary life experiences (such as travel), and to earn money. This portrayal of influencers reflects only a small number of influencers and - in the main - relies on a misinformed and increasingly stereotyped view of what ‘influencer culture’ actually is.
Has ‘influencing’ impacted popular culture? If so, how has society and/or culture changed because of this side of social media?
Influencers have had a huge impact on popular culture. The word ‘influencer’ can often be synonymous with a perceived ‘shallow’ lifestyle that seems to value kudos, online popularity, complimentary life experiences, and the pursuit of money - mostly, as a result of commercial ‘collaborations’ with brands - at the expense of almost everything else. This perception has made its way into the wider media and appears in the form of negative portrayals of influencers and their lifestyle in press coverage, movies, TV shows, and beyond.
However, in truth, the impact of influencers is much broader and far more positive that this common, stereotyped media portrayal. The rise of influencers through digital media channels, particularly social networks, has demonstrated to a large - and predominantly young - audience that opportunities exist to harness, develop, and promote a range of different skills in a way that has the potential to generate both an income and career for them.
Increasingly, the positive aspect of influencers is being recognised more widely and, for example, is being used by the UK government, where they have appointed Dr Alex George as a representative for the promotion of issues concerning mental health.
Becoming an influencer is less about chasing a lifestyle and much more about supporting oneself, independently, through the creation of unique content and the distribution of this content to a like-minded audience. The fact that a relatively small group of influencers occasionally ‘live up’ to the negative portrayal shouldn’t devalue the benefits that influencers bring to their audience, to themselves, and to the wider world.
Is it right that influencers are predominantly associated with advertising and consumerism, and if not, what other roles to influencers fulfil online?
A common perception, widely portrayed in the mainstream media, is that influencers are solely obsessed with generating an income by promoting brands, products, and services on behalf of commercial entities.
This is merely the tip of a larger iceberg. While it’s true that the income influencers can generate has increased markedly over the past 5 years - led, for the most part, by a realisation amongst companies that influencers can be an effective marketing channel - revenue from advertising and the promotion of consumerism forms only a small fraction of the wider impact influencers have on their audience.
Principally, influencers - from the largest to the smallest - provide a value to their audience, in many different forms: from lifestyle inspiration to relationship advice, guidance on product purchases to political beliefs, dietary and fitness advice to comedic entertainment, and much more besides. This value is in some ways similar to more ‘traditional’ types of media (e.g. television, radio, magazines, etc), in that it delivers value of the same type; however, where influencers differ from ‘traditional’ media is that they provide a much more personable, real, and relatable form of content, which can often allow the audience to interact directly with the ‘star’, putting influencers in a different, more accessible realm than the ‘traditional’ media influencers.
Overall, it’s this value that audiences follow, engage, and continue to follow these influencers for; with advertising coming a distant second. In fact, it’s a conscious act by many influencers to purposefully limit the amount of advertising they undertake, for fear that they’ll lose followers who find this advertising a distraction from the content they actually want to engage with.
Increasingly, influencers are also using their platform to encourage action amongst their audience with regards to political and charitable causes - and to raise awareness of social, economic, and environmental issues. Influencers often use their platform to support marginalised groups and encourage those from underprivileged backgrounds to take up the various opportunities that social networks and a career as an influencer can offer - particularly if the influencer has a strong connection with these groups.
How are tech companies encouraging or disrupting the activities of influencing?
Social networks are the principal tech companies involved in the encouragement of influencer activities. Surprisingly, at first, many of the larger social networks didn’t regnoised the value influencers brought to their network. However, most social networks now recognise that influencers deliver a disproportionately large amount of the most viewed and engaged with content on their networks. This makes them hugely valuable to these networks, as this content - and the influencers who create it - provide a significant incentive for users to log-on and use their network.
Consequently, many social networks are now engaged in activity to encourage influencers to spend more time on their networks, create more content, and engage more with their audience. In general, this takes the form of supporting influencers with training in content creation best practice, early access to tools, assistance in the case of any technical difficulties, and - in some cases - direct access to companies who want to advertise their products and services through these influencers.
A range of other tech companies exist to assist influencers with their content creation (in the form of tools and services to edit or enhance their audio and visual content), grow their audience (in the form of tools which automate publication and engagement), manage their communications, and help them reach companies and / or help companies reach them with regards to advertising opportunities.
How aware are users of the arrangements between influencers and advertisers? Should policymakers, tech companies and influencers and advertisers themselves do more to ensure these arrangements are transparent?
Regulations exist - and are increasingly enforced - that obligate influencers to disclose those instances in which they have a commercial relationship with the company whose brand, product, or service they are featuring in their content. However, these regulations - by the regulators own admission - are not widely adhered to by influencers and enforcement, although increasing, is still lacking.
The issue the regulators face is that the number of influencers and the volume of content where a declaration should exist is very large - and is growing all of the time. Also, certain content types which disappear relatively quickly (e.g. Instagram Stories) are hard to monitor. To some extent the social networks are helping, by providing a range of tools for influencers to use to disclose adverts; however, these tools aren’t often created in conjunction with the regulators and their use is often suggested by the networks and not enforced.
In general, it is very difficult for the regulators to effectively police influencer marketing; not least because it’s often very difficult to distinguish between content which may be an advert and content which is genuinely the ‘organic’ and objective promotion of a brand, service, or product. Furthermore, influencers are very reluctant to declare a commercial interest if no money has changed hands, frequently referring to payment in kind as a ‘gift’. While the regulations state that all commercial relationships - whether paid for ‘in kind’ or with money - should be declared; frequently, these are ignored by influencers.
All-in-all, this creates a potentially very complex and somewhat confusing picture for consumers as to what is an advert and what is not, when it comes to influencer content. While the regulations are fit for purpose, their enforcement is not. More responsibility should be placed on companies that employ influencers to advertise their brands, services, and products to ensure that the rules are adhered to; responsibility should also be shared by the social networks, who provide the platform for this content; while those influencers who frequently flout the rules should be punished in a meaningful way, that deters further rule breaking.