The age of influencers

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Once upon a time, there was the internet. Then digital photography. Then user-generated content. Then high-turnover social media. Then the validation of one’s choices via social media kudos/likes/shares/comments/interactions. And then the snowball effect of the loudest person being heard and seen the most – and given instant credibility. And those without enough knowledge, conviction or confidence of their own heading into blind tailgating – enter the age of the influencer. Technically, an influencer is a person who is an opinion leader or tastemaker; ideally, their position is earned by the validity of their opinions through experience. Unfortunately, visibility or peer validation by other equally clueless people is now a frequent substitute for experience – and they’re really not the same thing. Historically, people whose opinions were heeded were valuable to brands because they could affect consumer buying behaviour. There is obviously commercial value in this, prompting more and more others to position themselves as ‘influencers’, too: but what happens when credibility is not only for sale, but appears to have more scale/ weight than legitimate experience? Enter my prediction for the next phase of social media: the death of the influencer.

Photography is probably more susceptible than this than a lot of other fields, simply because it is also the underpinning medium. All other industries must rely on photography to generate impactful and quickly digestible content: it’s all visual. On top of that, photographic influencers of late have gone from pushing cameras to pushing a hipster travel lifestyle that’s being exploited by everybody from fashion to mainstream watch brands (ugh). Worse still, most of the way photographers are portrayed in this kind of media is technically incorrect: cameras held wrong, incorrect viewfinder simulations etc – or heaven forbid, lifestyle videos to promote cameras that don’t even show any results. The photographers are actors and posers, not photographers.

Let me get one thing straight upfront: I do not consider myself an influencer, and never set out to be one. I can’t be, anyway – such a person makes a substantial portion (if not all) of their income from promoting the products or services of a third party to others; I’ve never done that with that intention, nor have I made any meaningful money off it. I might offer an opinion on things I’ve used and find veritable (or the opposite) because I’m so often asked to; and I’ve flat out turned down a lot of photographic goods companies for paid coverage or reviews because I refuse to write things that are deliberately omissive or downright untrue. And frankly: it doesn’t bother me in the slightest what anybody else uses, or what they think of what I use. I care about the results as pertains to my own work and nothing more.

Paradoxically, this kind of honesty/ integrity leads to more demand for your opinion by both readers and companies. The readers don’t understand there’s no value or time in testing something that isn’t going to be useful to you, and the companies don’t want negative reviews – paid or otherwise. Yet those ‘influencers’ who take the easy path of reviewing for money or advertising or sponsorship or other benefits in kind will soon find themselves in the sticky position of either having to endorse something they disagree with, or losing their audience entirely because nothing they say is meaningful.

This is true of all influencers: your opinion is only valuable if you don’t give it out willingly, or for a fee. But even if some understand this, it’s very much at odds with making a living from expressing one’s preferences. On top of this, there’s another, more obvious problem: if everybody is an influencer, who is the market? Those with a small, but quality audience eventually land up disappearing into obscurity because any time you want support, it’s based on your raw numbers: quantity, not quality. Large audiences are meaningless from a business standpoint if there’s no conversion, or worse, they’re bots. Moreover, if the huge number of new influencers truly had any impact on the photographic market, we wouldn’t be seeing the continual contractions that have been happening over the last two years – digital camera sales are down to barely over 10% of their peak from five years ago (a reduction from ~120m/units a year from 2005-2012 to not even 15m this year), and you can’t blame mobile photography since the volume there isn’t making up for it, either.

It’s a problem of noise: there’s so much sliced bread that nobody knows what to buy anymore. Instead, the cookie aisle is decidedly crowded.

I see the direct value of social media volume dropping very quickly. Both because there’s simply too much of it, and the conversions are stupidly low, but because it’s no longer a way to differentiate one’s offerings from the rest: you have to bombard every channel and every means possible, and then your marketing budget goes out of the window – or you have to blanket with people nobody has ever heard of. The ones who will continue to survive are not the companies using influencers, or the influencers relying on companies: it’ll be those entities that create both product and promotion. There is thus both a degree of control of the message, but also a degree of directness and transparency not possible if third parties are involved. Furthermore, it’s pretty useless as a consumer to contact an influencer to find out about or provide feedback on a product because the communication between influencer and principal is almost always one way only. But if you can hit the principal directly, that makes for a very different customer relationship.

I can confidently say this because I’ve now gone through this cycle twice: first as a photographer, and now as a brand principal. I don’t have a huge audience compared to some of the more popular lifestyle guys out there – barely a drop in the bucket – but I do know my audience quality (and thus conversion rates, and thus profitability etc) are much better. I don’t have to engage 1000 potentials to make one sale; 10:1 means you can spend a lot more time on each individual and in turn have a much better chance of closing. Quality over quantity, always – and I believe this is only going to become even more relevant to photography and social media in the coming year or two. What’s more immediately concerning is the individuals using the current state of global panic to spread at best misleading and at worst downright incorrect news – people will not just believe anything, but are willing to grasp at either straws of hope or sensations of despair. Please use common sense! MT

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Comments

  1. I always appreciate the articles. In addition the quality of commentary makes me better informed. One of the few places on the net in the photo world that is a worthwhile visit.

  2. This is a great article. Speaking for myself, I always viewed influencers/paid reviews with great skepticism due to the obvious conflict of interest. Other than a showcase of new features like an informercial.

    • And rightly so, but therein lies the conflict: most people don’t have the time to do it properly if it’s unpaid, or if they do, it isn’t a credible opinion.

  3. I believe it’s spelled efluencers. As in effluent: liquid waste that is sent out from factories or places where sewage is dealt with, usually flowing into rivers, lakes, or the sea:

  4. John Pangilinan says:

    Great article, I thought one of the dreams of the internet was to make information accessible and free, but it seems at the moment, all we’re doing is amplifying stupidity and noise.

    But I wonder if there’s a hidden demand for better content, true expertise. I think your blog and your followers are an example of that, though it may be niche at the moment. And I’m also wondering what the mechanism would be, would it be a second wave of the 2000s, where we had a lot of different useful sites come along in various niches?

    • Herein lies the sustainability paradox: niche quality content is expensive to produce because it requires expertise, time and access to source material/hardware/resources etc. Yet putting it behind a paywall only makes it even more inaccessible and obscure, which further reduces chances of sustainability. In the opposite direction lies populism and shallow trash – there is so little regard given to quality over quantity that I don’t think we’ll see the same proliferation of the early web again; it’s simply too much effort for not a lot of return (and sometimes the inverse: it can attract the wrong kind of audience that not only increases overhead but makes it emotionally unrewarding).

  5. Hi Ming, I basically agree with everything you say.
    There is a standard cliché for tradesmen such as painters that if they get a job in a street, then they will be still working on the same street six months later. People look at the state of their own paintwork and assess the tradesman’s workmanship, then request a quote.
    Real life still trumps screen life.

    I think that it is the “influencers” that are also the sheep. It is why marketing people think that they are relatable, trying to replicate a mass version of the house painter marketing cliché. It is also why they are cheap, though in the long could be of negative value as you outlined above. The problem with the general online maelstrom for marketing is not just managing the influencer, it is managing to present a message that still has cut through despite the anti-influencer, anti-anti-influencer as well as the clickbatious (if that is a real word) commentators’ you refer to; and that the message still rings true when someone encounters the product in the real world.

    Another thing is that if you do get a good influencer to provide information that is suitable for the target market (assuming that the product has value), the advertising displayed in the social media environment could see your product alongside the dodgiest products and services so typical of these platforms, you may end up being judged by the company you keep, so to speak.

    Regards Noel

  6. c.d.embrey says:

    As pithy as usual—a good red.
    Fred Picker said: “The best tests are made by yourself.”
    George Carlin said: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”

  7. I find the whole “influencer” culture rather pitiful. There’s a subtext there too: if there are “influencers”, then there must by definition be people who want to be “influenced”, i.e. perfectly willing to turn off their own thinking and be told what to buy, where to go, and what to do.

    If your prediction is correct, and the influencer phenomenon dies out or becomes irrelevant, then the really scary question comes up: what’s going to take its place?

    • Exactly! Except the ‘influenced’ are also known as sheep…following is easier than thinking. And much, much easier than having to defend your choices socially, especially if they’re different to the mainstream.

      I would like to think people might start making up their own minds outside influencers, but the reality is we do not operate in a vacuum. At least be influenced by the people around you rather than some random people online whose fake personality was created entirely to sucker you into idol worship. The reality is the masses are always looking for somebody to do the thinking for them – we had mass religion, we still have mass religion, now we have social media.

      • I do not disagree with your post or this reply, but I do find that we are beyond saturation of choices, and most folks just need a bit of trusted advice when making decisions. Markets and products, especially electronic goods, are changing so quickly that it is hard to keep up with what is a good buy, and what should be avoided. For example, who has the time to keep up with all of the new laptops or cell phones if you only buy one every 3-4 years? When we buy like normal consumers, and get off of the constant upgrade cycle, our knowledge base gets stale quickly. I think that a majority of consumers just want to avoid making a bad purchase, but newer models are not always better, and reviews are all over the place. Who to believe? And I suspect that is just how many manufacturers like it.

        –Ken

        • The uncertainty definitely lets a lot of crap product past. More so when there’s deliberate misinformation out out my manufacturers in the form of paid reviews – yet it works, because people are so afraid of admitting they made a wrong choice that they’ll defend their own stupidity. On the flip side, there isn’t anything exceptionally poor these days thanks to everybody copying everybody else – and the pace of advancement with a lot of things has started slowing (just look at cameras) due to market saturation or user ability limits…

      • John Pangilinan says:

        And just to add on, how much truly “original thought” is there these days? Even amongst many intelligent people, much of our knowledge base comes from wise people before us, and I would argue that even smart people today are influenced by the trend du jour.

        In other words, if original thought is rare, even amongst the intelligent people of our day, I wouldn’t expect originality from the masses because they’re more focused on other things, such as the latest fads, and keeping their head above water.

        • True; and even if intelligent you need something to provoke you into thinking about it in the first place, which brings us back to non-originality again.

  8. Pavel P. says:

    Great article!

  9. I’m disappointed Ming. After seeing all the happy photographers in all the drug ads they show here in the U.S., I was hoping you could tell me where to find a camera with the shutter button on the left side of the camera.

  10. Ross Waugh says:

    It is a good hypothesis Ming, and I am inclined to agree as it fits my own preferences for quality over quantity. I suspect though, that the current trend of ‘influencers’ and social media volume stakes will continue for some time yet.

  11. sylvaine schlageter says:

    You are totally Right 👌👍
    Best regards from Switzerland

  12. René François says:

    Influencers are a nuisance. One influencer couple on You Tube hired a professional film maker and made very nice pictures off …themselves… What a waste

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