In the first episode of the most recent season of "Black Mirror," an excellent Netflix series that explores the potential dark side of technology, Bryce Dallas Howard falls victim to a world in which everyone's lives revolve around their online personas and Uber-like number ratings of one another; those with higher ratings are rewarded with discounts, freebies and even better homes and cars. It's particularly disturbing because it feels so close to reality, especially given the current ubiquity of digital influencers.
When I consider there being no end in sight for influencer marketing, the growing demand for influencers with smaller followings, and the inherent appeal of getting paid just to post something on Instagram, [Carrie Bradshaw voice] I can't help but wonder: Are we all going to be influencers?
The proliferation of influencer marketing platforms — websites that make it easier than ever for brands to connect with content creators of any and all follower sizes — makes this feel like an especially real possibility.
Not all influencer marketing platforms are created equal. One of the first to focus on fashion and beauty was Style Coalition, which started as a blogging network. As the influencer marketing landscape evolved, so did the company. "The market opened up, and it was less about having those niche networks. You also saw agents coming into the space, so they took that responsibility from the networks to represent talent because suddenly [bloggers] really needed someone who could manage their careers and sift through so many deals," explains founder Yuli Ziv. "The blogging networks evolved to be more platforms where there was a pool of talent, and brands were connecting to that talent. Obviously, technology really enabled a lot of efficiencies in this space."
Most significantly, technology enabled these platforms to collect valuable data, from influencers' follower and engagement stats to the ROI of their brands' campaigns with them. In the early days of influencer marketing, Ziv explains, "brands were asking for measurements and there was nothing — no third-party tool — that you could just subscribe to, so we built it on our own."
Another influencer platform, Fohr Card, is similarly technology-focused and provides a number of tools that members — anyone can join for free — and brands can use. The site's most recent launch was its Influencer Follower Health Scores, which help both influencers and brands determine what percentage of followers are bots. "I'm excited for where the market is going because I think there's going to be a lot of pressure on influencers and agencies and brands and platforms to make sure this stuff is really working," says Co-Founder James Nord. "I think the foundation of an effective campaign is transparency into what that influencer's following is made up of and if that influencer is the right match for your brand."
For brands, other advantages to using a platform are the ability to easily narrow down and identify influencers by criteria like location, age, follower size and area of interest/expertise, and the ability to efficiently launch a campaign with multiple microinfluencers at once — a model that's becoming increasingly common as microinfluencers are believed to have more authentic engagement with their followers.
"If a brand wants to work with an individual influencer, they can reach out to them on their own; there's really little value to a company or a platform to facilitate that relationship," says Ziv. "But if you're talking about, let's say, 10 influencers creating content over the next six months on five different platforms, and each of them has a separate content calendar, and it all has to be part of one cohesive creative strategy that all of them follow, then you definitely need someone who can direct them." Many of these platforms will manage all these logistics, monitor the sponsored posts as they go up and ensure proper disclosures are used.
Still, Fohr Card and Style Coalition are selective about the influencers they work with on brand campaigns. The latter doesn't typically accept applicants with less than 50,000 followers across their platforms and while anyone can join Fohr Card, the platform focuses on top-tier influencers when it comes to servicing brands.
Both Ziv and Nord use the word "professional" to categorize people who see being an influencer as a full-time career. "If we think about influencers as publishers and advertisers and creative directors and photographers and models all in one, they need to bring that level of professionalism," says Nord. "For fashion or beauty, I don't think 1,000 followers is someone seen as an expert so I would challenge my client and say, 'This person isn't seen as an expert so why would we work with them?'"
While Nord and Ziv may specialize in working with bigger influencers, there are several other influencer platforms that aren't so picky. Obvious.ly launched two and a half years ago; it works with influencers with as few as 2,000 followers and specializes in brand campaigns that employ very large quantities of influencers, sometimes in the thousands. "People should be rewarded for recommending brands to other people even if they don't have 30,000 followers," argues Founder and CEO Mae Karwowski. Obvious.ly's team of just 14 people focus on fostering and maintaining good human relationships with brands and influencers, while technology takes care of the rest: identification, logistics, selection and fulfillment of gifted product and, in some cases, payment.
"[Influencers] have a home page where they get to see every collaboration opportunity that's available to them currently; they get to see the creative brief and they also can enter in whatever information that they want to provide in order to apply," explains Karwowski. "So if we're working with Tarte Cosmetics, they can just say, 'Okay, of these three palettes I would like this one, this is my second choice this is my third choice.'" They can accept an offer with the click of a button and brands can then choose from the influencers that have accepted. Karwowski gives the recent example of a Sephora campaign where 50 influencers with varying backgrounds and aesthetics were chosen from a pool of 100 and given cream lip stains in exchange for two photos: one of them wearing their favorite shade and a "lifestyle shot."
Influenster, which has been around for seven years and specializes in having microinfluencers try out products and review them — on its own site and on various retailers' websites — has a similarly democratic model.
The newest platform in this realm is called The 8 App. Literally anyone with any following can join and get the opportunity to accept offers from brands right on their phone. Founder Sue Fennessy says she wanted to see more of brands' digital advertising dollars going to people rather than to companies like Google and Facebook. While The 8 does work with some larger influencers, from Usher to Kristina Bazan, it's focused on bridging the gap between brands and microinfluencers, and even what Fennessy calls "nanoinfluencers" or, basically, consumers. "Our influence is valuable. Just being human is valuable," argues Fennessy. "If I'm just someone with 200 followers, I can still get offers directly from brands, and that's the part that we haven't seen at all yet."
The 8 App's strategy is essentially the opposite of Fohr Card's and Style Coalition's and is based on Fennessy's belief in a "Black Mirror"-esque future in which we really can all be influencers. "The idea that a woman has a job and on her way to work she can just earn another $20, $30, get offers, share them out with her friends, really empower herself, I think, is an exciting thing," she says.
As much as brands, professional influencers and, in some cases, regular people might stand to benefit from using these platforms, they're controversial. Whenever you have a third party liaising between paying clients and talent, you risk both of those parties getting taken advantage of or having misaligned expectations. A brand might end up paying an influencer whose followers are fake or an influencer may not actually see as much of a brand's money as he or she probably should, with more of it being pocketed by the platform than anyone is aware.
This happened to Bryce Gruber of The Luxury Spot, who signed with one of the OG platforms a few years ago. "They were routinely sending me $1,500 to $4,000 contracts, and some much bigger. I know that sounds good — and it is — but I started hearing from the PR companies who hired the influencer agencies that they were upset they weren't getting 'more for their money' from the influencers," explains Gruber. She got lunch with one of said publicists and asked what she expected for the $1,500 fee. "She looked at me blankly and basically spit out her drink when I mentioned the price I was paid for her most recent campaign. It turned out that the brand was paying the influencer agency $10,000 for just for me, I was only receiving $1,500 of it. For $10,000, brands expect the world; for $1,500, influencers aren't devoting whole months of their lives to a shampoo."
When a platform is managing thousands of influencers at once, there's even more potential for this kind of obscurity. "Long story short, I think most influencer agencies are hustling everyone," says Gruber.
When it comes to pricing and payment and transparency around those things, platforms operate differently. Some microinfluencers don't get paid at all. At Obvious.ly, 90 percent of influencers are compensated in product only, even if a brand might be paying the platform thousands of dollars to get the product into the influencers' hands. Karwowski emphasizes that what sets Obvious.ly apart is that influencers are able to develop relationships with brands which could lead to more opportunities (of course, there's no guarantee).
"They're really incentivized to do great work and keep working with the same brand over a long period of time," she says. "We find that influencers are way more likely to want to create great content for a product if they know there's the potential for a long-term relationship with that brand." As for what Obvious.ly charges brands for these campaigns, Karwowski says she compares the cost of working with X number of influencers to a traditional media buy that would reach the same number of people. Brands pay a fraction of what the traditional buy would cost.
Influenster also incentivizes its roster of unpaid microinfluencers with the possibility of more freebies and work. Aside from reviewing products online (and perhaps before they even get such opportunities) members are asked to connect all of their social accounts and answer an array of survey questions about their interests and brand preferences, so they're already providing valuable data. Then, a small portion of its over three million members might be rewarded with VoxBoxes, mailers filled with products to test, post about and review that brands have paid Influenster to seed out. The more active a user is, the more likely he or she is to receive a VoxBox (though the qualifications are still vague). "It's more than being paid," explains a rep for Influenster. "It's that quality of feeling special and being able to be that insider, having that exclusive information."
But does this model also take advantage of aspiring influencers who are desperate to make careers out of working with brands? Perhaps. But at the same time, how is that different from interning?
Empowerment-focused The 8 App, on the other hand, pays everyone that participates in a deal, according to Fennessy — even the nanoinfluencers — and takes 20 percent from each deal. It also has a built-in social responsibility feature: Users can choose to donate all or a percentage of their earnings to a charity right from the app. Influencers with over 5,000 followers are also able to negotiate and either ask for more money or, for the more charitable influencers, to ask a brand to match their fee with a charitable donation of the same amount.
Whichever way you slice it, these platforms make becoming an influencer as easy as signing up for a social media platform. It feels safe to assume that as time goes on, it will only become easier for anyone to join in on the influencer economy. And depending on your perspective, that's either an exciting and empowering, or very scary, prospect. Or both.