ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
If I say the word influencer, what comes to your mind? Some of you might picture a millennial or Gen Zer on TikTok or Instagram posting lots of videos and selfies, trying to get famous, avoiding a “real” job.
Others might think of the trendsetters that you follow online, maybe the ones who encourage you to try that new workout routine, buy that magnetic golf towel, invest in that carry on luggage set. If you work in marketing or for any consumer facing brand, you probably immediately think of influencers as potential endorsers, people who can help you sell your products and services for a price.
Born out of the great recession and the rise of social media platforms, the influencer industry has indeed made people famous and given them not just jobs but lucrative careers. It does drive consumer trends. It’s become a key sales tool for businesses of all sizes, and it’s now a segment of the economy worth billions of dollars.
Here to discuss all of this is Emily Hund, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, and the author of the new book The Influencer Industry: the Quest for Authenticity on Social Media. Emily, welcome.
EMILY HUND: Thank you so much for having me.
ALISON BEARD: Let’s start at the beginning. Who were the first influencers and how and why did they get started?
EMILY HUND: The influencer industry as we know it today, really dates back to the first decade of the 21st century. There were cultural changes that had been going on for a long time with the rise of the popularity of self-branding and things like that. There were, of course, technological changes. Social media was a new buzzword on people’s minds. Early platforms like Twitter, and Tumblr, YouTube, Facebook were popularizing it and there was a lot of optimism about these platforms. Then, when the recession happened, so many people became unmoored from their planned career paths and turned to these new platforms that seemed really promising to try to invent a new way of working.
A lot of the earliest influencers worked in fashion, beauty, things like that. There’s a rich history of the early mommy blogosphere as well. A lot of these earlier influencers were women who were sharing their ideas about a range of topics, but mostly tied to commercial industries like fashion and beauty.
ALISON BEARD: Why do you think that influencers are still so misunderstood, even looked down on, because you seem to be arguing that it was this way to be entrepreneurial of sorts. You’re becoming a social media content creator and earning money from it.
EMILY HUND: That is something that has come through really strongly in my research. Pretty much every influencer that I have talked to identifies themselves as an entrepreneur. I think this feminized history of the industry absolutely plays a significant role. Like I said, a lot of these early influencers were women and they were talking about topics that are traditionally thought of as stereotypically feminine topics, whether that is fashion, beauty, parenting, that sort of thing.
Even though these topics are not frivolous and they actually have a significant role in the way we understand our world, it was very easy for people, I think, to look at these women and just say they’re shallow. They’re just self-involved or narcissist or whatever. All these tropes that are ultimately pretty sexist about the work that they were doing.
Another reason is there are particular high profile influencers, too, that take up all the air in the room, if you will. People like Kim Kardashian or Addison Rae or these banner name influencers, they get a lot of press attention. These are people who beg the question I think of why are these people who are hawking hair growth gummies, why are they making so much money? Or, these women are propagating unrealistic beauty ideals or they’re engaged in cultural appropriation and all these things.
What we miss with this narrative though is behind these few high net worth individuals is a gigantic industry of workers. The broader public sees the top of the pyramid, the Kim Kardashians and the like. They don’t see this enormous middle band of people who are working. They’re not necessarily getting rich, but they’re essentially running their own advertising or marketing agencies, and they’re just cranking out content and just working, working, working to power this industry.
Then, there’s this even larger base at the bottom of aspiring influencers. Those people who aren’t making money or only making a few bucks and trying to make it in this industry. There’s also a huge amount of marketing agencies, advertising agencies, the commercial brands that are engaged in the space. The social media platforms who have vested interests in the influencer marketing industry, and a range of other organizations who are trying to figure out how to leverage influencers for their own end. There is a massive and complex industry behind these, I guess, influencers or influencer moments that grab a lot of press attention.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, and I want to dig into all the aspects of that industry. First, the influencers themselves. How do they build their fan bases? Given how crowded the market is now, do you still see new entrants coming in?
EMILY HUND: In the beginning, it was mostly bloggers and maybe people on the earlier platforms like YouTube and such. They were really talking about topics that were near and dear to them in some way. Like I mentioned, there were a lot of people who were unemployed or underemployed and creating content that centered on their professional expertise or their particular professional niche. They fell backwards into this work because it was not something that had existed before. It’s not like they could have gone into it saying, “I’m going to be an influencer.” There was, I guess, more truth to the narrative of we’re doing what we love and we’re creating content just based on what we love in those early days.
They were able to really cultivate loyal and large followings based off of their extensive genuineness and authenticity. Then, once those early bloggers and influencers started to gain traction, advertisers noticed they entered the space, they recognized these early influencers as really powerful potential persuaders. Got involved and started sponsored content in these branding deals and things like that. Then, that’s when things start to get complicated because after that initial wave, that established being an influencer as a potential career path, then we have this just absolute crushing wave of people flocking to social media thinking, “I want to do that too.
It became really complicated because in those early days it was this whole idea that I can measure this person’s influence. They have this many followers, this engagement rate. That correlates to this level of influence, which is worth this amount of money. Once the field became so saturated, it became pretty much impossible to rely on influence metrics to single out people who are influential. Then, it became about more pointedly cultivating the sense of authenticity.
It’s extremely difficult to do because there are so many different stakeholders in this industry. For an influencer, they are not only wanting to gain professional satisfaction and express themselves in their own particular ways. But they’re also beholden to their audiences who expect them to present themselves in particular predictable ways that communicate their selfhood and their authenticity. They’re also beholden to advertisers and the very opaque algorithms that govern social media visibility. So as time has gone on over the last decade plus, it is only getting harder and harder and harder to break through. At that same time, the prevailing norms of authenticity, what is perceived as authentic and what is monetizably authentic are constantly changing.
ALISON BEARD: Is there a particular influencer that you would point to who’s done a good job navigating that balance between authenticity and maintaining credibility with their followers? But then, also drawing in the endorsements and advertising that will earn them a real living.
EMILY HUND: That is hard to say. There are influencers, of course, who have gone the distance, but they are pretty few and far between. I have interviewed several influencers in my research who were really successful at earlier periods of the influencer industry. Then, when the shifting expectations of their audiences and advertisers have changed, they have decided, “Okay, now is the time for me to leave. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t start creating video or I can’t be sharing more of my personal life or whatever it is.” A lot of influencers have chosen to either leave altogether or to pivot away toward maybe influencer adjacent work, like getting into marketing or that sort of thing.
Another issue with the current landscape is that it is so vast that it’s almost impossible to wrangle the amount of influencers that there are working today and the ones that are really successful. When the influencer industry first developed, a lot of influencers gained traction because they were very niche, so they had super specific topics that they posted about. Then, the industry changed over the course of the 2010s, and it swung toward a much more generalized lifestyle influencer. Now, in more recent years, we’ve seen a shift back toward people going more niche again. This has also helped along, obviously, by the proliferation of platforms, TikTok, Substack, they really stand out to me as really pushing the influencer industry in particular directions. And so there is just such a wide variety of influencers out there and the influencers that you or I see or engage with or seem really successful to us or seem really famous to us, many other people probably would have no idea who they are.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, so I don’t follow many fashion or beauty influencers but I do have a lot of pet focused channels on my Twitter and Instagram feeds. And one of my favorites is a guy who started one called WeRateDogs. And he features, you know, adorable pets that he’ll give 10/10 or more commonly 13/10 or 14/10. But he’s really built a whole brand around it.
He has a partnership with Trupanion, the pet insurance company. He’s started his own foundation to support dogs in need who are sick or need medical attention. He even has a product line. And so, this is really an entrepreneur, who has started a business around his passion, and found ways to get compensated for it.
EMILY HUND: So influencer marketing is, of course, very appealing because it has the potential to really build that sense of personal relationship, I think, with your customers. I think brands are attracted to it for that reason. Also, the technological infrastructure in the influencer industry that allows products to be sold quite seamlessly. Obviously, now it depends on your industry and what kind of product you are selling, but tools like affiliate linking and the shopping in app on Instagram and TikTok and things like that, that makes it so easy. If you connect with the right influencer who has a super engaged audience and they are able to post about your product with a link right there in Instagram story or whatever, it has the potential to drive a lot of customers your way. It’s very appealing from the brand perspective.
ALISON BEARD: You know exactly how they’ve come to you also.
EMILY HUND: Yes. There is a largely unseen sector of the influencer industry that is these marketing middlemen type firms that help brands connect to the right influencers for them. We have marketing agencies who offer these huge databases of influencers where they have the stats on every influencer and brands can get access to these databases and search keywords and easily turn up influencers with particular stats or particular content specialties. Engage with them in a transactional way, make offers through the platform, that sort of thing. Or, brands can also post, “Here’s our campaign. We’re looking for influencers to create X, Y, Z type of content. Here’s our rate, let us know if you’re interested.”
We see influencer marketing agencies who are positioning themselves as being on the technological cutting edge. Marketing agencies will say, “Oh, we’re now using AI. We have this AI tool that will help you find the right influencer.” Or, whatever it may be. They are constantly wanting to position themselves as being on the cutting edge of knowing the absolute best way to find the right influencer for your brand. There’s a lot of complexity behind the scenes of how they do their work as well, because when you are in the business of trying to sift through this, again, absolutely massive pool of potential influencers, and you are relying on perhaps your own in-house algorithmically driven tools or things like that, you’re relying on your own technological tools to do it, issues can come up. Potential influencers get overlooked.
There is research by a media scholar named Sophie Bishop, who has found that some of these tools have basically baked in biases. One of her examples was one of these tools had red flagged the use of the word queer. That potentially disadvantages queer influencers or influencers who are simply using the term to self-identify or what have you. It potentially red flags them and puts them less likely to get the deal or potentially at a lower earnings bracket and that sort of things.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, a big criticism of the influencer industry has been that the people who do rise to that high level of prominence, maybe not Kim K, but just a tier below, are predominantly fairly wealthy white young women.
EMILY HUND: Exactly, yes. That has long been the prevailing aesthetic norm in this industry, despite the popular narrative of the influencer industry as being all about doing what you love, following your passion, democratizing culture, that sort of thing, it is not free of these biases and problems that plague society. While there has been, I think, a little bit more awareness of this in recent years, and there certainly have been attempts by people working in the industry to correct these biases and remove these hurdles as best as they can, there is still so much work to be done.
ALISON BEARD: For both the companies that are trying to work with influencers and this group of middlemen that you’re talking about, how are deals negotiated in terms of pricing, in terms of exclusivity for certain product areas, all of that?
EMILY HUND: Yes. Again, this is something that happens very differently depending on the influencer of the brand and the campaign. I think this points to one of the really prevailing problems in the influencer industry today, which is that there is little to no transparency in how these deals are being made. There is little transparency about how influencers are being judged. Also, there is no transparency in pay. There is a huge variety and disparity in what type of content is worth how much. There are many, many stories that circulate about a brand engaging a number of influencers for a particular campaign. Then, paying them different amounts or bringing influencers on trips and providing different perks for the same trip and the same amount of work.
ALISON BEARD: What about from the company’s side though? How do they ensure that they’re getting their money’s worth? Especially if they’re a small company, for example, a startup that’s investing in influencers to really kick off their marketing efforts in an inexpensive way.
EMILY HUND: I think most companies engaged in influencer marketing rely a lot on the advice of the marketing agencies that they use to carry out these deals. Of course, they set goals, like with any marketing campaign, they have goals and expectations for their campaigns. They rely on the advice of the agencies that they engage to ensure that they’re getting their money’s worth.
ALISON BEARD: But it’s a try and see type of exercise at this point, right?
EMILY HUND: Right, yes.
ALISON BEARD: You experiment and see what works.
EMILY HUND: Exactly.
ALISON BEARD: But it does seem that companies can maybe get more bang for their buck by finding a group of niche influencers who do feel very authentic to their followers, who truly do connect with their products as opposed to paying for an expensive celebrity actor, sports star, et cetera endorsement, right?
EMILY HUND: Yes, absolutely. I think there has also been a shift toward cultivating some longer term relationships with the influencers. While these big transactional agencies that I talked about are still very much an important player in influencer marketing, I think there, especially for smaller businesses, there’s a lot of attraction toward cultivating these smaller influencers and having more of a professional longer term relationship with them.
ALISON BEARD: Are companies working to cultivate sort of their own group of organic influencers? Either, among their employees or people that they know are already loyal customers who don’t necessarily have a social media presence to start with, but they help them create one.
EMILY HUND: Yes, absolutely. And both of those things are really happening and seeming to gain traction. So as far as the cultivating employees goes, there are programs out there. The Walmart Spotlight Program is probably the largest and highest profile one that I’m aware of, but it is a program that essentially incentivizes Walmart employees to post about their time working at Walmart and share online a day in the life of working at Walmart, or here’s a cool new product that we have, or this sort of thing. And then they reward employees who do it really well with either cash bonuses or a free product or something like that. And so, again, on its surface, this seems like a fun thing to do.
What I fear is that it is really incentivizing workers to behave in particular ways. And you end up rewarding people with skills that aren’t necessarily important to carrying out your day-to-day business and overlooking people who might actually have those skills that are critical to carrying out the business day-to-day in the long run. So, really, I would urge companies to think what is the real benefit to us as a business of incentivizing or rewarding our employees with influencer skills? How important is that really to us? And consider the sort of ripple effects of shifting business norms in that direction.
And then we also absolutely see companies increasingly cultivating their sort of regular customers as influencers. This is really apparent in the fashion space. Again, companies like Banana Republic and Loft will encourage customers to post a selfie from the dressing room or with your try-on haul or whatever, and then potentially get a small cash reward or a coupon or something like that. And I worry about the sort of social ramifications of this, of encouraging more and more people to think of themselves as influencers. And again, why are we sort of incentivizing and rewarding this sort of influencer like behavior and to what ends?
ALISON BEARD: You do talk in the book about the downsides of so much of the content that we are all consuming on social media being commercialized in this way. As someone in traditional media, I’m used to a real separation of church and state. There’s something just a little bit strange about content creators also being endorsers of products. But you also argue in the book that this isn’t a flash in the pan or a bubble about to burst. Given that tension, all the people in it in order to become influencers now, all the money flowing in, the icky feeling we all get about everything being an endorsement, why do you think it’s a lasting growing trend?
EMILY HUND: There are a few reasons. The first, I think, is the role of broader economic precarity in this space. Surveys continually show there’s mounting distrust in traditional pillars of society. We’ve had a lot of economic turmoil in the 21st Century where careers that were previously thought of as stable are proving to not be. There are a lot of societal factors that I think drive people to want to pursue this work. I don’t really see that changing, even though the conversation is starting to change around influencers and the cracks in the facade of, “Oh, this is just an ideal, wonderful way to make a living.” The cracks are becoming more obvious, it still purports to offer people a way to feel like an entrepreneur and have a sense of professional autonomy. I think that is very, very attractive.
I also think that the influencer industry has had a lasting impact on the technological evolution of social media, and it’s really rooted itself deeply in these platforms that are really central to how many people use the internet. We’ve also come to expect this rampant commercialism in our feeds. It’s very much rooted itself in our way of life, in our ways of using technology.
ALISON BEARD: You don’t see the marketing benefit fading anytime soon either. Companies are still going to find this worth the investment.
EMILY HUND: The influencer industry has shown itself to be extremely adaptable. As a whole, the people working in it are extremely driven to keep this industry going and keeping it growing and adapting to changing times and technologies. I absolutely don’t see it going anywhere. I think it will just, the way it looks and maybe the way it operates, will shift, but it’s going to continue to exist. And I think it would behoove us all to recognize it as an industry that exists and is here to stay and start thinking about, okay, what are we going to do about this? How are we going to make the industry operate internally in a way that is beneficial to the workers in it.
Preserves the positive things about the influencer industry, which is opportunities for entrepreneurialism, effective ways of getting media messages out there, networking, finding community, all these things. How can we preserve the benefits and reduce the harms? Whether it’s the rapid spread of misinformation, mental health toll that being an influencer and also having a lot of exposure to particular types of influencer content can bring. How do we reduce those harms and how do we educate the public about what this content is and help people gain a better understanding of what exactly they are encountering when they encounter influencer content, so that they are able to evaluate it for themselves?
ALISON BEARD: Just to conclude, I’m going to ask you to give advice to three different subsets of people. First, what advice do you have for an aspiring influencer today?
EMILY HUND: My advice for aspiring influencers is to go into it with eyes wide open, knowing that this is a really totalizing line of work that is incredibly difficult. While people can find great personal satisfaction, creative satisfaction, or a solid income and that sort of thing, it’s not as common as popular narratives would lead you to believe. I would go into it with the knowledge that while you will be entrepreneurial and you have to be entrepreneurial to do it, you are still beholden to other stakeholders and other people who have a vested interest in the work that you’re doing.
ALISON BEARD: What advice do you have for people working for companies that want to more effectively tap into this industry?
EMILY HUND: I think that valuing influencers as professional colleagues is really critical. Rather than approaching them as like a one-off engagement, someone that you can just leverage for a quick campaign and then throw away, I think those days are increasingly needing to be left behind us. I think companies will find more value and more satisfaction in a longer term relationship if they can find influencers who they really value creatively and bring a lot of value to the company and treat them accordingly as valued collaborators who you pay fairly and work closely with.
ALISON BEARD: Last, what advice do you have for consumers who are being bombarded by influencers?
EMILY HUND: I say to try to engage with a little bit of distance, and again, with eyes wide open as much as you can. Knowing that there is a range of pressures that influencers are navigating behind the scenes that shape the content that we see. I think just remembering that this is a professional who is making this content shaped by a range of pressures that we do not see can hopefully go a long way in reorienting the average consumer’s relationship with influencer content.
ALISON BEARD: Terrific. Well, thank you so much. I really have learned a ton about this industry from your book beyond what I see on my Instagram and Twitter feeds.
EMILY HUND: Thank you so much for having me. This was really enjoyable.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Emily Hund, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and the author of the new book, The Influencer Industry, the Quest for Authenticity on Social Media.
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This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.