Updated: Jul 12, 2019
"In a world were everyone is an Influencer...no one is an Influencer."
I've been thinking about the role social media Influencers and photographers lately and planned on writing some thoughts about it. Then, over the past few days I saw a string of news items pop up concerning this topic, so I thought... what better time than now.
If you are a photographer and have any sort of presence online, it's only a matter of time before you'll receive solicitations from "Influencers." At this point, the role of a social media Influencer is becoming a bit overplayed, and we'll get to more on that in a bit, but in case you've had your head buried in the sand the past few years I'll give a brief Reader's Digest condensed version of this recent phenomenon.
The social media universe has expanded exponentially over the past few years into this ever consuming entity which none of us could have imaged would have existed even a decade ago. People are consumed with their phones and other electronic devices and spend huge chunks of their day with eyeballs on a screen. The website Statista estimates nearly 80% of all Americans have a presence on social media. That's literally hundreds of millions of people in the United States, and expands out to nearly 2.34 billion people globally. That's a lot of people!
With all those eyeballs focused daily on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, it's an obvious target for monetization. Naturally, these billions of social media consumers have created a market for billions of dollars in marketing and advertising opportunities.
It's no wonder businesses are trying to leverage this sheer number of users for profit purposes. As social media has matured and grown, we saw the emergence of the social media Influencer. I, personally hate that term, but we'll roll with it for conversation purposes.
Influencer marketing is hardly a new concept. Companies have been using pro athletes, actors and other celebrities for years to promote products and services. What's new about this is the recent rise of social media and a new more modern version of an "Influencer." Companies realized that many of these home grown social media stars had a reach that even went beyond what a celebrity promoter may have--in a few different ways. Using a intimate platform such as Facebook or Instagram, it gave the sense these "Influencers" were somehow more in touch with their audiences than traditional Influencer marketing. Not only that-- there seemingly appeared to be more of a "trust" of social media Influencers, so a recommendation by one of these folks seemed to carry a lot more weight than a typical TV or radio advertisement. Because of this "trust" an Influencer has the ability to drive eyeballs to a companies website and increase exposure. That's what lead to companies trying to harness the power of the new breed of social media Influencers.
This, of course, sounds great for all parties involved, and the rush for companies to get in on the social media marketing bandwagon took off. On the consumer side, Every-day aspirational social media users would see (or what at least appeared to be) other social media users like themselves suddenly getting brand deals and promoting products. Soon, it seemed (almost) everyone was angling to position themselves as an "Influencer." This, of course, was all tempered by the dreams of earning large amounts of money, getting free sponsored product, and also one of the most sought after rewards-- the lure of social media fame. As opportunistic as people are, the scramble for hordes of people to become social media Influencers was on!
There are a select few social media users who really put in the hard work to gain the coveted Influencer label and succeeded. That hard work, along with a great personality and a savvy online presence have enabled some to build up huge followings and prosper in their new found roles. The sentiment in the social media universe was anyone could do it! We were all just all a few booty shots away from success. Free luxury vacations were just a few followers away! It seems to be all cookies and cream, but in any gold-rush type situation there are always possible dangers. As it turned out, fake social media Influencers were (and are) popping up everywhere. Companies were so eager to get a piece of this marketing pie that they'd throw ad dollars at these fake influencers, who aren't quite what they presented themselves to be.
Fake Influencers try to game the system by purchasing fake followers, fake likes, and they even post fake sponsored content to fool legitimate advertisers into thinking they are "Influencer worthy." They what? They fake brand deals. There are plenty of examples of wanna-be Influencers posting fake sponsored content using the old "fake it to you make it" method. Users would scroll through their feeds and see posts for products or local venues that for all purposes appear to be paid content... but aren't.
This appears to be extremely strange behavior on the surface, but it's wildly prevalent. Prevalent to the point where it can be difficult to tell a real sponsored post from a fake one... Why? Why would otherwise normal people do this? Well, part of it is people are desperate to succeed in the role, but there is also an aspect of this that is pure vanity and the need to appear more popular online to friends and followers than you really are. You've probably even seen it. That photo of the wanna be Influencer holding a coffee cup in a local coffee shop-- just so-- and the obligatory "OMG! --Love my @Rooks coffee..." with tags to official company profiles. The thinking on the wannabe is Gee, if I post a photo of myself sitting here looking like I'm getting paid to drink coffee I'll impress my friends and followers..
The Influencer Backlash
It all seems harmless... but these Influencers are on the offensive! What sparked my interest in this topic was reading an article roughly around last Christmas about a resort owner who was fed up with "Influencers" offering to pay with "exposure," and the resort owner took to social media himself to plead for these people to stop...and just bring cash. In actuality, there is a big backlash in the resort business where self proclaimed "Influencers" drive resorts crazy asking for, or even in some cases demanding free stays. A quick Google News search will reveal lots of these stories.
Last week I read a great story about an ice cream truck owner who was so sick of the same behavior-- people approaching his business and wanting free product because they were "Influencers" and were going to promote him on social media. The owner was so fed up with the antics he posted a sign in his vehicle that "Influencers Pay Double." What a great move!
This is also something that happens in the photography space, as well. Petapixel recently had an article about someone who identified themselves as a PR person contacting a wedding photographer and more or less demanded free coverage for a client "Influencer's" wedding. The full exchange between the targeted photographer and the agent of the influencer can be read on their blog post. The photographer didn't feel there much value in it for them, and politely tried to decline the "offer" and were pounced on by the Influencers PR person. "Team Influencer" didn't like the idea of the photographer questioning their offer, and threatened to social shame them. Not cool. This story did get some traction online, as well.
How To Handle Social Media Influencers.
So, what happens the day that email arrives in your inbox? What's the move? Is there an obligation? Are they going to social shame you for rebuffing their almighty offer? I've personally received occasional contacts from self proclaimed Influencers, but in the grand scheme of things not many. Boudoir photography isn't most likely the primary target of the Influencer masses. I'm guessing wedding photographers are the most targeted photography genre due to the significant (and well earned) cost of talented wedding pros.
For the most part, the one's I've personally received weren't exactly super thought out sales pitches. I know I've received requests to photograph weddings for free in exchange for promotion...and I don't even photography weddings. (Often just template messages probably sent to any photographer profile they dug up.) Other than that I think have received a handful of requests for free portrait or bridal boudoir sessions, none of which I really entertained because the social clout of the offeree just wasn't what I would consider weighty enough to warrant the trade.
Other than that, I receive emails about every six months to a year from two separate people stating they are personality "So-and-So from Season X of.... (fill in reality show here)." The email is filled with their social media stats and has text claiming how great of an opportunity it is for me to work with them. The email basically exclaimed the writer was so excited about how they are going to promote my photos to their (small, darn small) audience of online followers, and how awesome this will be for me, blah, blah, blah. (I never investigated the follower claims any further that what was in the email.) When I first started receiving these it didn't even dawn on me what they were. I straight up deleted them a few seconds after opening them. They were clearly just form emails sent to God-knows-how many photographers in my area fishing for a bite.
Upon receiving a request, I think the first thought that needs to go through your mind is "How do I benefit from this offer?" In this case a male reality TV actor from a season of a show a few years ago, well, it doesn't most likely lead to an audience of followers that is my target demographic. What is the upside for me here? Nothing. This situation warrants a quick scan of the email, then a delete.
The influencers goal is of course, to come out on top in some way, and having you invest your time and hard work for no money...for what? They want your product, creative talent and time in exchange for some type of brand mentions or posting of photos.
Are All Social Media Influencer Offers Bad?
No, not at all. The key here, like any other business deal, is to do your due diligence, and really plan it out. The first step is to learn how to spot fake influencers. This does take some work on your part. Lots of followers is a good thing, right?
Not always. Followers can be bought by the tens of thousands....for cheap. You've got to dig deeper than that. If you are planning on taking the plunge, it's time to do some homework. Shane Barker offers some excellent tips on how to identify fake influencers, which is a good place to start. Here are a few things to check for:
Verified Accounts. Is there a little blue check mark associated with the account? This is a good sign. The bad news is, however, Instagram typically only offers that to celebrities and big brands. Smaller and micro influencers may not have this.
Engagements Per Post - a big way to spot a fake is engagement rates (likes, comments, shares.) Thousands of followers with only a few likes may be a sign of follower manipulation.
Comments. Are the comments only simple one word, or emoji comments? That may be a bad sign. This is a sign of purchased comments. Conversational comments, tagging and personalization is good sign of authenticity.
Tagging Other Influencers. Popular influencers often know other influencers. Are they mentioning of interacting with other influencers?
Followers to Following Ratio - if someone has thousands of followers, but also follow thousands, it may be a sign of a follow-for-follow situation.
Followers. Do they look real. Are there lots of blank profiles, or profiles with no photos? This may be a sign of purchased followers.
It takes some work! If things look like they are on the up-and-up, then it comes down to the question of the offer. If you are a wedding photographer, and someone is demanding donated work in exchange for promotion on their Instagram page-- how do you know if there is value in this proposition?
For example, if your standard rate for such a package is $2500 for a days work, are you going to receive at least $2500 worth of value in some way from donating your services? Does the Influencers audience in any way intersect with your target market? A 22 year old fitness influencer whose feed is nothing but promotion of supplement discount codes with 90% of her content consisting of home-spun booty pics in a gym may be a bit fringy. There may be a following, but the audience for such an account is most likely not one that will see value in high quality wedding work. On the other hand, a local wedding blogger with a great engagement may end up getting you enough attention and inquiries to be worth it.
It's not always a simple call. One additional strategy may to be contact some of the others who sponsored content on that Influencers page and see how they made out with their collaboration.
Furthermore, if you do get contacted, is the message full of rhetoric about "how lucky you are" to be able to work with personality so-and-so? Is there text along the lines of "this message has gone out to five other photographers...so act fast!" It is just boiler-plate text sent to lots of people? These are definitely red flags in my book.
In my world, the tone and approach someone takes in their solicitation goes a long way. If you've done your work and vetted the prospect and everything seems on the up-and-up, it may be time to learn more. Simply send them a note looking for more info, or God forbid-- set a phone call.
Using the Reverse Influencer Approach To Work For You.
Influencing doesn't always have to be a one way street. Why can't you cultivate your own "gang" of Influencers and create your own network to get your work out there? As a photographer you can also offer your services to individuals in your area who would benefit from high quality photography to boost their personal online game... and get yourself some exposure at the same time. I've done this very thing!
My use of Instagram runs hot and cold, but when I'm on a spurt I like to check out lots of photos. A few years ago I started doing some hashtag searches for items such as #njblogger or #njinfluencer, etc., (substitute a locality near you) and either following the hashtags or scrolling through the feed looking for micro-influencers (people with maybe only a few hundred to a few thousand followers) who may need some good photos to promote their pages.
If I liked their style and the quality of their feeds (and it wasn't someone too far away) I'd send them a short note introducing myself, and include some text along the lines if they would be interesting in collaborating on some photos for their page. Keeping it real simple. One thing I learned was not to include any links in the DM (like to your website.) I get messages in my own Instagram account DMs from people I don't follow, and Instagram puts them in your "to be approved" inbox section as containing links. I know from my own experience I tend to delete those without even looking at them... so I tend not to put any links in my own messages.
Want to start doing some photos for Influencers? Start small. Start local. Follow my search tip above and start messaging. Now-now, don't start sending DMs to Instagram mega Influencers with hundreds of thousands, or millions of followers, because your message won't even be seen or read. Often people in that league have their accounts handled by marketing firms. If there is a local wedding blogger, or fashion blogger in your area with a couple thousand dedicated followers, that may be a great partnership. As they grow, you may get more work for them, and have an opportunity to expand the reach of your personal brand.
Don't be discouraged if you don't receive responses right away. One thing I know, is that certain Influencers, especially women Influencers, receive lots of DMs every single day. More messages than can often be read, and sadly most are deleted/ignored simply due to the volume. How can you get around this? Well, they call it "social" media for a reason. If you start following some local Influencers and interacting with their content over time, you have a greater chance of getting a response. (Well, at least I found this to be the case.) Leaving thoughtful, positive comments on posts may just be enough to garner a response or two.
I've build some great relationships doing this. Additionally, its a fun break for me because I get to shoot some fashion or lifestyle photos-- that I don't typically get to do, and there is no real physical cost. Working in this way is a bit different than the standard approach, because this isn't a situation where someone is out to take advantage of you. You have a bit more control, and I think it's just a bit more human.
We are in the midst of a social media boom. Social media can be a bit of a minefield to navigate, but the key is to just slow it down and do your due diligence. There are plenty of bad actors out there who represent themselves as legitimate Influencers, but aren't.
If you are on the receiving end of an offer from an Influencer, be sure to do your homework and investigate the person making the offer before taking any action. If the Influencer checks out, you need to ask yourself "What's in this for me?" Be sure there is a good value for your business involved in the exchange.
Don't feel obligated in any way to succumb to pressure, or feel there is any sort of obligation on your part-- you don't owe anything to the offeree. In some situations self proclaimed Influencers can assume a bit of entitlement and feel they are owed goods or services due to their self-appointed title. If you receive an offer that seems pushy, demanding, or puts some sort of time crunch on you... you may be better to leave it behind.
Alternatively, if you've been thinking about working with influencers, why not take the first step and create relationships with others to promote your work online. You can approach popular bloggers in your area and work with them to promote your brand.
Hopefully this article shed a bit of light on Influencers and photographers. Keeping track of the ever shifting sands of the social media universe can really turn out to be one more task to add to your busy workload... and as we know there's only so much time available in a day. Be smart. Be safe. --And happy "Influencing."