December is the last month in the tumultuous 2010s, a decade that saw the rise of new political heroes and villains, a changing of the guard in different sectors of society, the growing concern for climate change taking a more desperate turn, and an unending cacophony of opinionated people screaming into the Facebook void. In "The Last 10 Years," a series of pieces scattered over these last 30 days, we look back at what happened to try to figure out what comes next.
Influencer: a word invented in the last decade to describe a new breed of people who wield so much power and yet seem to have no credibility whatsoever. What do they actually do? Why are they influential? And why are they paid so much money to share photos of products that look just like the photos of those same products by other influencers?
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But first, let me introduce myself. I’m Frances—a writer, a parenting blogger, and an influencer. So, no, this won’t be a hate piece. I’m here to explore with you what exactly this term “influencer” means because I never thought of myself as one until brands started calling me as such. I still don’t like the term since it inspires so much contempt from most everyone with a 9-to-5 job. But considering its definition, I can’t deny that I fit the description and so I can talk about it intimately.
I also asked another expert, from the side of agencies and brands this time, to help me explain this perplexing new career. Trixie Esguerra, a 10-year veteran of the digital marketing industry and owner of a boutique PR agency, says, that, well, technically, “to be an influencer you have to influence someone.” That term then applies to everyone since we all have a circle of influence—our family, our friends, our church and whatever community we move in.
“What everybody knows is an influencer posts [photos on Instagram] for a certain brand because they have a lot of following on social media,” Esguerra elaborates. “An influencer should be able to sway their audience to purchase a product they’re promoting or to support their advocacy.”
So an influencer is a marketing tool who makes people aware of products or brand campaigns. Not exactly a new invention given that there have been endorsers for as long as there have been big brands and celebrities, specifically the early 1900s. The beef people have with influencers is they’re not exactly celebrities. They’re just regular people who happen to be beautiful or live in beautiful homes or travel to beautiful places. What exactly makes them so influential?
Let’s take a look back on the brief history of this new profession. “Before there were influencers, there were bloggers. This was in 2008, 2009. It was 2010 and 2011 when the boom of the first wave of bloggers [happened],” Esguerra explains. “There was you, Anton Diaz of Our Awesome Planet, Cecile Van Straten of Chuvaness, Noemi Dado of Touched by an Angel. They were writing because they really wanted to write, they were paying for everything they were writing about. They were writing about stuff that was personal, from the heart, and they weren’t really getting any notice from the brands.”
The way Esguerra describes it makes me nostalgic for that time when we bloggers just blogged for the love of sharing. Until she added this: “That was the time when the media looked down on bloggers. Whenever there was an event, bloggers and media can’t be together.” As you can see, I have been dealing with contempt for what I do since 2010! But thankfully, I had a career that saved me from hatred.
At that time, I was both a print journalist and a blogger. Even though I had a glamorous job as a magazine editor, I was dipping my toes deeper and deeper into the digital world because my gut told me that the future was online. I didn’t have to wait long. Just two years later, in 2012, my magazine was killed off and I had no choice but to jump off the deep end and quickly started earning more as a mommy blogger than I ever did in my career in print. I wasn’t alone in my success in this new social media world.
“In 2012 to 2013, that was the second wave, when the fashion bloggers came into the scene. David Guison, Laureen Uy, Camille Co, Kryz Uy, Lissa Kahayon. They were super young then and they had Lookbook,” Trixie says. These fashion bloggers quickly shifted to a new platform, however. “2014 was the start of Instagram. Everyone went on Instagram when the iPhone 4 came out.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, was exactly when the influencer was born.
The first kind of influencer wasn’t so derided, however. The reason simply was the first influencers had a job. Trixie says, “Around 2015-2016, there was still a fine line. Influencers have to have some sort of celebrity status. They tap you as an influencer if you have a following on Instagram and you’re a blogger. And you’re a radio DJ. So you have to have another platform to justify why people follow you. ‘Oh, you have followers because you’re a DJ. You have a real career.’”
But the Instagram influencer as we now know it was on the rise. “Pretty people started making IG accounts and will just post selfies and they will rack up thousands of likes and thousands of followers. They ended up having more following than even some celebrities,” Trixie says. Brands started noticing these new non-celebrities but with a strong following and decided that their being nobodies added authenticity to their brand. Trixie says, “They get paid by brands and they don’t even have to write or even make videos. They just need to post pictures. That’s how influencers evolved.”
I conclude from that whole history that it was brands that invented the influencer. They saw people and a platform and decided to use them as a marketing tool. These people then saw an opportunity to earn from literal photos of their faces or outfits—which is an insane way to make money—and ran away with it.
How long this crazy career can last, who knows? I created my blog in 2006 and it started earning around PHP 12,000 a month two years later. In 2013, I became a full-time blogger and earned enough so that my husband and I could stay home and be hands-on parents to our little boys. But just three years later, with the dominance of the Instagram influencer and the rising breed of vloggers, my blog is on the wane. All bloggers know this. It’s time to evolve but to where and how? Here are seven tips I got from Esguerra:
1. Be really authentic.
How real can someone paid to endorse a brand be? Esguerra says, “Most influencers, since this is their bread and butter, they say yes to everything. Some people say, ‘No, that’s not aligned with my branding.’ I actually salute those who are really strict with their branding.” Your followers will see through you and if you come across as money-hungry and fake, you lose your credibility. You lose your followers.
2. Encourage real engagement.
Likes just aren’t enough anymore since brands can’t tell if the like is for your #selfie or their product. Comments, specifically the quality of comments, are a better indicator. Esguerra says, “When people comment, ‘I want to try that,’ that informs the brand even if there’s no sale. But if the comments are ‘nice hair, so pretty,’ even if you get 500 comments but none of those are related to the brand, then you’re not worth the money they paid you.”
3. Nurture your niche community.
It doesn’t matter if you have a small following. If you can brand yourself as an expert of something—home-cooked Pinoy food, for example—and create an enthusiastic community, you’re called a micro- even a nano-influencer and that’s pretty powerful, too. Esguerra explains, “There are micro-influencers who have 1,000 followers while a [macro-influencer] has 500K. They can receive the same PR package, post the same thing, but if the micro-influencer can get 500 followers to say, ‘Where did you get that,’ that’s a real show of interest as compared to someone who has 500K then only 25 comments showed interest in the product. So the micro-influencer is actually more value for money but usually they just post for free!”
4. Be worth the money.
Brands here are still dazzled by the number of followers macro-influencers have but they’ll soon catch up on using relevant and effective influencers no matter the number of followers. “Some brands understand that they need to educate themselves on what kind of influencer strategy to use because they’re paying so much money to influencers,” Esguerra says. “Brands need to look for those who really want to work with their brand, not just the ones who they think are popular. Yes, you’re tapping someone who has reach and following but if this person isn’t really trying to find how to put the brand into their lifestyle, that’s a waste of money.”
5. Make another platform.
With less than 10,000 followers on Instagram, I’m a nano-influencer. But I can charge more because I offer my blog as another place their brand can appear in. Esguerra agrees, “Influencers who have another platform can earn more. It’s ‘Hey, I can make a video and post about your brand’ versus ‘I can post about your brand.’ You can easily charge up to PHP 100,000 for a video versus just one post. You can charge more for a video because you’re producing material that takes a lot of effort to make.”
6. Become a vlogger.
Instagram may be earning you a lot now but, hey, my blog used to earn me more than a million pesos a year, too. Now, it’s my Instagram that earns but I know that won’t last forever. I need to shift to a new digital platform. Esguerra advises vlogging. “I think vlogging will be big. YouTube is really super targeted to the masa. It’s more animated, easier to explain. What takes you so many words to blog about a product you can just show in a video. Filipinos are more visual. They’re not readers.”
7. Get a real job.
Before you get riled up and insist that influencing is a real job, well, for how long? With the backlash against influencers, a job gives you credibility and authority. Food influencer Erwan Heussaff is a chef. Motoring influencer James Deakin is an automotive journalist. “You think it’s permanent because it’s been there for years. But it’s only been a decade,” Esguerra says. “The whole industry was built in this decade but what about the next decade? What if World War III breaks out?”
That sums it up succinctly. Is being an influencer a real career? In the last 10 years alone, I can attest that the industry changes so fast and you have to evolve just as quickly to survive. My career, in the space of just this decade is this: writer for web, blogger, magazine writer, e-commerce editor, Instagram influencer, PR manager, beauty writer. The influencer career waxes and wanes but my writing career is steady throughout. My blog saved me when my print job died, but as my digital stint evolves yet again, it’s my writing that keeps me relevant and it will see me through. Look for that professional stability and you will find a strong foundation for your influence to grow and be more powerful in 2020 and maybe even the next decade.
Frances Sales blogs at TopazHorizon.com.