A new lucrative and booming industry has thus been created – the industry of influence with more than 7 million social media influencers around the world, says futurist and technology strategist, Professor Louis Fourie. Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images Europe
A new lucrative and booming industry has thus been created – the industry of influence with more than 7 million social media influencers around the world, says futurist and technology strategist, Professor Louis Fourie. Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images Europe

Tech News: The weird world of social media influencers

By Louis Fourie Time of article published Jun 26, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - In the last decade or so, sponsored content (popularly known as “sponcon”), or the business of getting paid to promote a certain company or brand amongst a person’s social media followers, has spread like a pandemic and resulted in the new profession of “influencer” .

The concept of “social media influencer” is a relatively new one and refers to a person who has established credibility in a specific industry as an expert or celebrity, has access to a large social media audience and can persuade others to act on their recommendations. 

Social media influencers make regular posts about a specific topic, product or brand on their preferred social media channels and generate large followings of enthusiastic, engaged people who pay close attention to their views. 

They have the power to affect a following (often in a distinct niche), and in particular the purchasing decisions of people because of their authority, knowledge, expertise, position, status, or relationship with their audience. 

In the world of influence marketing the types of influencers are usually divided into six categories, namely mega, macro, micro, advocates, referrers and loyalists.

In South Africa these social influencers can easily make between R500 and R10 000 per posting depending on their standing. 

Internationally the highest paid influencer, Kylie Jenner, the 22-year-old media personality, makes more than $1 million (R17.4m) per Instagram post. She is followed by the professional footballer Christiano Ronaldo (35) who makes $975 000, and the media personality Kim Kardashian-West (39) who makes $910 000 for each Instagram post.

 A new lucrative and booming industry has thus been created – the industry of influence with more than 7 million social media influencers around the world.

When it comes to social media shilling (promoting something online for money without disclosing the association), Instagram remains the favourite platform. Sponsored influencer posts on Instagram has increased from about 1.3 million in 2016 to more than 7 million in 2020.

According to Arthur Goldstuck in the Ornico and World Wide Worx 2020 Social Media Landscape Report, AB de Villiers, the famous cricket player, is the most-followed South African on the Instagram platform with a huge following of 9.7 million followers. 

Since his number of followers are much larger than the 4.7 million active Instagram users in South Africa his huge following can probably be attributed to his popularity in India where he was an extremely successful batsmen in the Indian Premier League. 

The next most popular influencers in South Africa, with a following of a much lower 3.6 and 3.5 million people, respectively, due to their more local profile, are the actresses and TV presenters Boitumelo Thulo and Minnie Dlamini. 

They are followed by model and presenter Bonang Matheba and rapper artist and record producer Refiloe Phoolo (professionally known as Cassper Nyovest) with 3.4 million followers each. Eight more South Africans have between two and three million followers, while six have between one and two million followers. Most of these influencers are DJ’s, actresses, presenters, musicians or sports people.

The market research company AskAfrika’s TGI database shows that 19.5 percent of people above 15 years old living in cities and towns are using Instagram actively. If the millions of followers are taken into consideration these influencers (except from making large sums of money) wield quite an influence on the thinking, decisions and actions of people in South Africa. 

Although the use of Instagram by marketers has declined from 78 percent to 68 percent, only 2 percent of brands deleted their Instagram accounts this year. 

According to Arthur Goldstuck the major reason for the decline is mostly budget constraints and the enormous cost of using or competing with major personalities on the platform. Instagram and its highly priced influencers may have become too expensive for many brands. 

But traditional advertisements have lost their appeal and especially the younger generation choose to follow influencers and largely respect their recommendations. 

They blindly trust the influencers despite the fact that they are handsomely paid to promote certain brands or products. 

If the top 20 South African influencers on Instagram are closely studied, it appears that their expertise are mostly not related to the products or services they are promoting. Most are just leveraging off their celebrity status to influence people. It is no wonder that influencers are often promoting some weird stuff such as miracle weight loss potions, apartments in exotic locations, health improving food supplements, body enhancers, and many more.

The influencer industry has developed so dramatically that many influencers are hiring agents to help them land lucrative deals. 

Others use third-party services to connect them with advertisers. Unfortunately, since large sums of money is involved, this has often led to unethical behaviour such as the buying of fake followers, likes, channel views, and reposts that are able to fool the algorithms. Many vendors are available that would, for a monthly fee, provide a steady stream of interactions from prominent Instagrammers. It is even possible to fully automate the process by using a bot that will create a frenzy of activity on your social media profile through liking, commenting, and following numerous other influential accounts to ensure return follows. And while the money is rolling in, the influencer does not even have to lift a finger. 

No wonder that influencers are often accused of being fake: fake followers, fake appearance, and fake lifestyles. A particular photo can easily take a full day to set up, with a legion of stylists, make-up artists, a lighting team, and the photographer.  And then there is also the photoshop team afterwards. Unreal, but still masses of people follow and trust the influencers due to their popularity.

But it gets even weirder when we realise that many social media influencers are virtual influencers and not real people. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) used Knox Frost, a 20-year-old virtual influencer from America, with a million followers on Instagram to post about the need to heed the lockdown and to wash hands regularly.

Another virtual influencer is Lil Miquela, a freckly 19-year-old from Brasilia who lives in Los Angeles. She has built a massive following of 2.2 million followers on Instagram since 2016. A significant 80 000 people stream her songs on Spotify each month. 

And to top it all, Prada is one of her clients. Interestingly, for two years Lil’s followers believed she was real and did not know that she was an artificial intelligence driven virtual influencer. It was only in 2018 that the company Brud revealed the truth to the world.

But to be honest, virtual influencers making use of artificial intelligence and bots are not weird at all since this is the direction of technological innovation during the fourth industrial revolution. However, what is extremely weird is that people and especially millennials slavishly follow their recommendations while they know that these influencers are entirely fictional.

We all frown at sponsored content since we do not trust it. But be follow obnoxious influencers like slaves. They almost never declare or warn followers that they receive large amounts of money and gifts from a company when they mention or promote a brand or product. 

From an ethical viewpoint one should expect them to disclose their relationship prominently in their posts or videos to warn their viewers that they may not be objective in their recommendation of the brand or product, but that unfortunately rarely happens. And since many posts on social media has a short shelve life, covert ads simply disappear in the social media chatter verse. 

The weirdness and ethical issues around influencers may very well be the reason for a growing tiredness with macro-influencers. Several hotels have banned all Instagram and YouTube “celebrities” who want to stay for free in exchange for exposure. 

Unilever, one of the world’s largest advertisers, totally stopped working with social media influencers due the lack of trust and unethical practices. 

Instagram and Twitter remove millions of fake accounts every month. But unfortunately, certain companies still sell millions of fake followers to celebs and politicians. The problem, however, is that fake followers cannot purchase any product or brand or vote for that matter. The attention of marketers has shifted from numbers and social media selling machines to micro-influencers with relevance and engagement.

Think carefully before you follow the recommendation of a influencer in future.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist [email protected]


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