In reading Isabelle Lane’s recent article on social media influencers in the tech industry, I was struck by how so many tech companies maintain viability through these select individuals who are positioned to represent their brand, even if through informal arrangements. Chronicling how Instagram micro-influencers are not always paid money but instead are given gifts of meals, trips, and technology, Lane focusses on how consumer tech utilizes social media influencers who, despite not being particularly famous, have enormous sway over the younger generation. As one example Lane discusses the social media-fueled Fyre Festival disaster pointing to how people want to be part of the wave of change—whatever that change represents to them and no matter how real or fraudulent (eg. Elizabeth Holmes) that change might be.
In today’s climate of hyper-competitive technologies, the ways that technology is sold often has much more to do with how a brand is perceived and the cultural relationships that this brand has to an imaginary field of power much more than how good a brand actually is. Where social influencers have far more sway with younger consumers than celebrity endorsements, how do they fit into the greater social fabric that necessitates that not only items are bought and sold, but which nurtures a cultural connection between the object and a deeper ethos that speaks to us as individuals? In essence, what makes the social influencer integral to new tech culture today and what are the indicators of their value or, according to some critics, that their time is up?
Make no mistake, the social media influencer is hardly a new role and has been around for centuries. Take actor, Fatty Arbuckle, who endorsed Murad cigarettes in 1905 and R.T. Davis Milling which hired a former slave, Nancy Green, to be the face of Aunt Jemima pancake mix in 1893. Even George Bryan “Beau” Brummell, a known arbiter of men’s fashion in London, was plummeted into brand association as well as included in various poems and songs of the earth 1800s. Long before celebrity became a cultural entity of the 20th century, brand influencers were ever the constant. There is something to be said for how we trust someone’s word on products over, say, a paid celebrity and the social media influencer fits perfectly into that niche position that allows products to be, on the surface, objectively represented while companies can claim this influencer is autonomous to their industry.
Alex Bolen, the Chief Executive Officer of Oscar De La Renta, told CBS News last year, “It would not be an exaggeration to say that our handbag business has taken off through our engagement with the influencer community. Our production has doubled.” Such anecdotes are not limited to the fashion sector and since the rise of social media, the social media influencer has also had a profound effect on the tech industry specifically. From 2015, social media influencer platforms have grown from 190 to 740 with a market size valued at $6.5 billion and new tech is particularly ripe for users to be converted to new brands and platforms.
While Instagram has had far more success than Twitter in this area, influencer marketing is considered the best form of delivery for content marketing today with more tech companies hiring outright these influencers in a formal capacity. Video tech company Shootsta has recently hired String Nguyen as its brand ambassador and UK reality TV star, Myleene Klass, has taken on similar roles in recent years. CEOs of major companies are also influencers in their own right and have set the stage for smaller startups. For instance, Jonathan Jadali, an American social media influencer and entrepreneur who deals in stocks and cryptocurrencies, has taken the plunge of plugging his brand through rather interesting, if not minimalist, Instagram photos. And Joe Binder straddles running his branding company while also wearing the hat of social media influencer. Clearly, from the well-known to the relatively new, social media influencers are having an impact on how we view technology and how these cultural interlopers frame technology for us.
There is something about the personal touch from a relatively unknown person that a glossy photo spread with a well-known celebrity can simply never achieve. Moreso, given that an estimated 84% of millennials do not trust traditional advertisements, micro-influencers are having enormous power over tech brands and have since around 2017. But it’s not only millennials—most of us feel more strongly about genuine contact that canned and mediated messages fail to transmit. Also, these micro-influencers actually interact with the public with a 60% higher engagement rate than more popular social media influencers. This translates to a higher rate of trust thrown towards specific brands and sub-cultures being created around new technology’s cultural reach.
What the social media influencer teaches us about technology is how younger people across the board use new tech to put a face to a brand in order to identify with it while creating a cultural buzz around certain types of tech, specific brands and messages. And while celebrity faces are often more aesthetically pleasing to look at, the reality is that we can’t interact with a celebrity to ask them how they enjoyed using a new product or if they ever shouted at Alexa. When companies want to use their marketing budgets widely today, it is far more common that companies will opt for 10 to 20 micro-influencers over big names that may tilt their budgets. More interesting is that recent studies have shown that the more followers someone has, the engagement rate actually declines. So we are looking at a new phenomenon where technology is creating micro-cultures all over the place which are often brand-specific.
What we are learning from this technology is that nothing sells like a local and seemingly objective voice where genuine familiarly breaks through the artificial spaces of older media and marketing techniques. Gone are the days of the blind taste tests like the “Pepsi Challenge” when people are stopped at their local supermarket to attest that they actually chose one brand over another. Today, the selling terms are not directed at the camera any longer nor are they overt publicity gimmicks. Instead, younger consumers rely upon on the micro-cultures within our societies attached to new technology that allows individual consumers to access ostensibly objective, individualized opinions online and to ask questions to these influencers through social media.
At the end of the day, when deciding what products to purchase, personal authenticity mediated through new technology matters far more than an unapproachable, pretty face. And this fact has indelibly changed our culture.