How Influential Are Social Media Influencers?

A “social media influencer” is the most important job in the world.

It doesn’t take much to get paid to promote a product if you are well-connected online. If you become extremely well-connected — like, say, the Kardashian clan’s Kylie Jenner — you can command jaw-dropping fees. Jenner, the world’s top-rated social media influencer, is reported to receive $1 million for one Instagram post.

Jenner and other social media experts are a big draw for companies because they can be trusted to give credibility to their products.

Why? Because they are loved and appreciated by lots of people. It’s that simple.

You might be thinking, “Hey, my style is cool and I have lots online friends.” Although I may not be able to make Kylie Jenner rich, I am willing to start from the bottom and settle at $1,000 per post.

If so, be cautious.

First, it is more difficult than it seems to be a social media influencer. Kevin Roose wrote in The New York Times that “being an influencer can be exhausting, burnout-inducing work.” He also noted that those who do it well have spent years climbing the ladder.

Second, social media influencers might be seeing the bubble begin to burst. Some companies that paid influencers to promote their products are starting to withdraw. This is partly due to the “riddled by deception” online influencer market, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported. Suzanna Kapner reports in the WSJ that “influencers have strained ties to advertisers by inflating number of followers, sometimes purchasing fake ones by the hundreds,” Suzanna Kapner writes. “They have also damaged their credibility among real-life followers by promoting products that they don’t use.”

There have been many instances of influencers claiming they are more influential than they actually are. Cheq, a cybersecurity company, published a report in July claiming that advertisers waste $1.3 billion annually on influencers using fake followers, which can be purchased cheaply from “click farms” to boost their influence.

In addition, the “engagement rates” — which measure how users interact with content via likes, comments, shares, etc. — have been dropping significantly.

FTC Cracking down

It is not surprising that the Federal Trade Commission has increased its oversight of social media influencers. The FTC has made it clear it is ready to take action against advertisers and influencers alike if there is not a clear “material connection” between product and influencer. It appears to be increasing its enforcement efforts. Among its recent actions is a $2.5 million settlement of a lawsuit that was the agency’s first involving “the sale of fake indicators of social media influence.”

It’s not surprising that some companies are seeking alternatives. Gap and Banana Republic are offering customers $150 to give testimonials and to post photos with their favorite branded outfits on Instagram.

While some companies still rely on tradition, others are turning their attention to nonhuman influencers.

Computer Generated Imagery (or CGI) influencers are avatars that programmers create. They can appear incredibly lifelike in terms of both their personalities and visual appearance. Lil Miquela, creator of Brud (a Los Angeles computer software firm that specializes in robotics, AI applications for the business sector), is the top-ranked CGI influencer. Lil had 1.7million followers on Instagram at the last count. She was busy hawking products from top companies such as Balenciaga, Prada, and Balenciaga.

These companies are attracted to Lil Miquela’s large, growing following of mostly teenage girls and to the fact that virtual influencers offer other benefits: (1) They are less expensive. They are also easier to work alongside.

Sam Allcock, writing in The London Economic, writes that a brand must hire a marketer or agency to help them develop a strategy, find influencers, and then execute it. This is expensive because they pay both the marketer and the influencer. Brands working with CGI Influencers will only be working with one company as the CGI Influencers are usually owned and controlled by the agency. This reduces costs.

But they’re not human — and that’s what gave social media influencers their cache and their credibility in the first place.

Should Influencers Be Trusted?

CGI influencers might be a passing trend. The FTC is now stepping in and the fake influencers may find other scammy enterprises to pursue. However, those who rely on social influencers to guide their lives might want to consider these tips:

  • Take a look at engagement rates. A huge influencer who receives little response may not be the best.
  • You can also buy engagement responses. Generic responses and ones that aren’t relevant can indicate a fraudulent influencer.
  • Analyze the quality of the audience. Tools such as IG Audit allow you to estimate how many followers an influencer has and which percentage are bots.

Take what they have to say with a grain. They’re getting paid.

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Cyndy Lane

Cyndy is business journalist with a focus on entrepreneurship and small business. With over a decade of experience covering the startup and small business landscape, Cyndy has a reputation for being a knowledgeable, insightful and approachable journalist. She has a keen understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing small business owners and is able to explain them in a way that is relatable and actionable for her readers.