Written evidence submitted by Gleam Futures
Sent on behalf of Gleam Futures, a digital-first talent management company founded in 2010 with offices in London and LA. We have been operating in this space for over ten years now and have witnessed the evolution including the professionalisation of the industry and the increasing interest from the press and official bodies.
How would you define ‘influencers’ and ‘influencer culture’? Is this a new phenomenon?
- Influencer culture isn’t new, however it has grown exponentially with the rise of social media platforms.
- A person with influence is an individual who has the power to affect the actions and habits of others and in fact, such people have existed since the beginning of “celebrity” culture hundreds of years ago.
- The use of people with influence to drive marketing objectives also spans centuries. From market-stall traders using well-respected people in cities and towns to spread the word of their presence to skincare brand Pond’s using socialites to endorse their products in newspapers in the 1920s, influencer marketing has always existed.
- During the noughties, many celebrities partnered with brands. By endorsing products or licensing their image and name, they used their fame to sell everything from perfume (Paris Hilton and her eponymous collection launched in 2004) to mobile phones (David Beckham’s partnership with Motorola Razr in 2006).
- During the last decade, a new generation of celebrity have found their voice and a loyal audience on digital platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and TikTok – these individuals are talented content creators who share their passions, knowledge and creativity through social media and digital platforms to a hyper engaged audience and community online. These are “digital-first talent”.
- At the same time, technology has led consumers and brands to enter an increasingly connected world – a world in which digital-first talent could efficiently deliver content that would inform, inspire, entertain and educate engaged audiences in real time.
- As social media has grown and evolved, so too has the proliferation of content creators in this space; whereas a decade ago there were thousands, now there are millions across the globe. This means that today just about anyone can call themselves an ‘influencer’.
- However, this term doesn’t distinguish between generic content creators and the ‘talent’ – creators who have an expertise to share, produce high-quality content, have a purpose in what they do, and maintain a deep connection and dialogue with their trusting community.
- This is how it should be distinguished:
- Content creator: anyone can be a creator, this is any individual who creates and uploads content online but it does not mean they are automatically an “influencer”
- Digital-first talent (or talent): content creators who have an expertise to share, produce high-quality content, have a purpose in what they do, and maintain a deep connection and dialogue with their online community
- Influencer: content creators who have become influential because of the talent they bring
- That being said, the lines between celebrities and digital-first talent are blurring as talent become platform, channel and tech agnostic. Therefore, anyone who is well-known with a significant public profile could be considered an ‘influencer’ – no matter whether they began their careers as content creators on social media or as a reality TV star or as a footballer or as a film star. They all have an audience and a following who may be ‘influenced’ by their actions or endorsements.
- What we need to move away from is the misconception portrayed in the media that “influencers” are vacuous, rule-breaking, un-talented individuals when in reality, this is only a very small portion of a much larger pool of talented individuals.
Is it right that influencers are predominantly associated with advertising and consumerism, and if not, what other roles to influencers fulfil online?
- In the same way that an entertainment show or documentary on a commercial TV channel doesn’t exist solely so that brands can advertise to the audience watching, a digital-first talent or influencer’s purpose is not to purely advertise brands and products; this is a huge misconception which has been perpetuated by negative coverage in traditional media.
- Digital-first talent, first and foremost, create and share high quality content in order to entertain, inform, educate and inspire the audience who follow them – they are using a new form of media which enables anyone to have a voice and share their knowledge, credibility or skill, without traditional media gatekeepers holding them back. Here are some examples of digital-first talent who break the ‘influencer’ stereotype:
- You only have to look at the role that digital-first talent played as the Covid-19 pandemic hit and as the Black Lives Matter movement amplified in 2020. During times of uncertainty, people rely on those in authority, those with credibility and those they know and trust to guide them through – many people turned to the digital-first talent they follow for this.
- Throughout the pandemic, an attitude of ‘we are all in this together’ has radiated throughout the online community, with digital-first talent reporting that their audiences have been keen to have light relief from the unnerving situation and the prolonged period of isolation so they created content which did just this, without any commercial agenda. Here’s some examples:
- Joe Wicks aka The Body Coach is a digital-first talent who got the nation up and moving each morning throughout the first lockdown via live workouts hosted on his YouTube channel – the purpose of this was not commercially driven, it was to unite an isolated nation around one moment each day.
- Munya Chawawa became the country’s favourite comedian throughout lockdown as his comedy skits on Instagram and TikTok united us in the realities of our shared experiences. He provided light-relief around moments that felt relevant to us all, and made us all feel that we weren’t in it alone.
- We also saw digital-first talent creating online book clubs, sharing tips on how to maintain wellbeing and health, ways to keep yourself entertained, host live music sessions, share recipe recreations and fake-aways from closed restaurants and so much more. During a period where traditional forms of media such as TV had to pause, digital-first talent and online content thrived, and it wasn’t driven by advertising and consumerism.
- 2020 was the year which began platforming the incredibly diverse world of digital-first talent, highlighted the power of community on social media and elevated the deep, purpose-led side which is gradually being brought to the surface and redefining what it means to be an ‘influencer’. People have shifted their time and attention towards those driving real change, as such we are seeing a huge rise in digital-first talent and influencers who are values-led. This kind of talent wield strong social, political and cultural values, they dismantle fake news, false realities and facades. They are dedicated to driving impactful change in their industries, communities and the world, and positively shift the thoughts and behaviours of their audience. These ‘influencers’ are the changemakers, activists, campaigners, authors and educators we are inspired by to do good in the world. Whilst they may commercially partner with brands, this isn’t their focus – they instead prioritising educating and inspiring in order to drive impactful change. Here are some examples:
- Model and activist @munroebergdorf advocates for equality in matters of inclusion, feminism and the transgender community across and was appointed UN Women UK Changemaker. An incredible person whose unwavering voice has helped drive huge change when it comes to representation.
- Changemaker @GinaMartin used her social media to raise awareness of upskirting and make it illegal in the UK, resulting in the Voyuerism Act. And since then, continues to fight for change. For example, when model Nyome Nicholas Williams shared photos of herself sitting on a chair wearing shorts and covering her breasts with her arms, Instagram removed the post for violating the platform’s semi nudity guidelines – as a black plus sized model, a campaign ensued to protest the racial bias of the platform. Gina took to her platforms and amplified the campaign further, getting everyone to post the image of Nyome, to encourage Instagram to change their semi-nudity policy, particularly for black plus size bodies.
- Grace Victory is a voice on plus size, black representation in the media, advocates for the normalisation of bodies of all sizes and talks openly about taboo subjects and mental health. Grace balances her values led content with fashion, beauty and soon to be motherhood lifestyle content too. This ability to do both is important and something I’ll come on to later.
- During the Black Lives Matter movement, a significant number of black voices such as Aja Barber were shared and amplified online. Aja’s expertise is in race, intersectional feminism and sustainable fashion. Aja’s approach is particularly interesting in that she doesn’t make her work commercial, she doesn’t do paid partnerships but uses Patreon to help fund her work so she can continue sharing resources for free.
- Ultimately, social media is just another media channel whereby celebrities, digital-first talent and as such ‘influencers’ fulfil a variety of different roles which always come down to educating, informing, inspiring and entertaining their audience who are highly engaged online. It’s about building and maintaining an important human connection which is relatable and relevant – sometimes this is commercialised through brand advertisements and brand building but the majority of time it isn’t.
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?
- Experienced, credible digital-first talent will disclaim paid-for branded content according to the ASA and CAP guidelines as they want to be fully transparent with their audience about when they are being paid to talk about a brand, their products or a campaign as they are professionals in the space – often those represented by digital-first talent agencies and those receiving legal advice will be in keeping with the guidance.
- However, there are a number of talent who are represented by agents who may not have the right digital experience to advise or may not be represented at all and will be unaware of the importance of disclaiming their paid-for branded content – this is not just ‘influencers’ in the stereotypical sense of the word but celebrities, experts in a certain field, reality TV stars, content creators, activists and others.
- Since the industry is still in its relative infancy, it is the responsibility of everyone within the influencer ecosystem – talent, brands, platforms, advertisers and policy makers – to play their part in helping audiences to understand when a piece of content is an ad. That might be platforms providing tools for creators to use when posting paid-for branded content such as Instagram’s paid partnership tool or organisations such as the ASA working directly with all talent agencies, not just digital-first, to ensure they are informed of the guidelines and can implement with their talent. Ultimately, the buck stops with talent and brands but they need to be informed and have the tools in place to make the process clear and seamless.
- What isn’t helpful is a blame culture. Ultimately, the industry is still in its relative infancy, everyone is learning but all must be open to adapting to change and putting the interests of the online audience first – the ASA do an excellent job of conducting thorough investigations and helping to educate those in the industry, the rest of the industry needs to keep up and continue to adapt.
Has ‘influencing’ impacted popular culture? If so, how has society and/or culture changed because of this side of social media?
- Influencers have always been part of popular culture, pre-dating social media, we only have to look at the royal family throughout the ages to see the effect of a haircut or an outfit.
- Consumers have historically looked to more traditional, mainstream influencers to guide their lifestyle choices. This can be in the form of a celebrity (the effect Paris Hilton and the Kardashians have had on the retail and beauty industry is incomparable), the fashion houses and print publications and their cover stars. Social media is simply another form of media; a home for influence to exist.
- All of the above have the same primary goal; to provide content that entertains or educates, and there happens to be a by-product of influence.
- The on-demand nature of social media allows consumers to be updated real time and houses an incomparable amount of content. Rather than changing or replacing the entertainment narrative, it plays a vital role in communication strategies. Instead of speaking at people, marketeers now have a dialogue that encourages conversation on a more intimate level.
How are tech companies encouraging or disrupting the activities of influencing?
- The big tech companies are absolutely encouraging the commercial work of ‘influencing’. Both Snap and Instagram in the last ten days have announced more advanced creator marketplaces, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube all have built-in ‘paid partnership’ tools and, from our experience, all of the big social platforms understand, and are keen to nurture, the commercial nature of many creators’ businesses.
- There is more that could be done – if the ASA / CAP and the platforms collaborated more effectively then, for example, the ‘paid partnership’ tool on Instagram would include #ad which is what the ASA want to see on branded content. It feels like we’re almost there but not quite.