While many of us might use Twitter and Instagram to post artsy snaps of our dinner, the odd selfie or sepia-filtered pictures of cocktails in jam jars, there’s a whole other side to social media that’s earning the power players big bucks.
We're talking about online influencers.
Flash-back a few years, and being an ‘influencer’ on social media came with relatively little merit (and likely the odd smirk). You could even argue it barely existed as a concept before Instagram’s launch in 2010.
But if you’re savvy enough to have built-up a loyal following on social media, you could now be wielding a power that big brands and labels are keen to get in on.
That’s right, freebies, cash for posts and the lucrative new title of Influencer, all in return for exposure to your merry band of followers.
So what does it take to become a pied piper of Instagram? A trailblazer on Twitter? We asked three experts exactly that:
What makes an influencer?
Achieving influencer status isn’t just about the number of followers you have. It’s also about how much those followers engage with the things you post.
Are they listening to you? Do they really care about what it is you say or share? How likely are they to buy something you've recommended, and can you directly influence their behaviour?
It's that level of sway that brands are now looking for in the influencers they pay to collaborate with, says Ward-Ongley.
“In simple terms, an influencer is someone who can affect their highly engaged audience's behaviour,” she explains. “And the really powerful ones are those who can do it at scale. Be it featuring a camera worth £500 on their Instagram and it selling out as a result, through to encouraging young people to vote via a Vlog.
“An influencer has the power to inform and steer behaviour or actions.”
So what does it take to be considered a true influencer? A whole combination of factors, according to Ward-Ongley.
“It depends entirely upon category,” she notes. “Within fashion we look for follower numbers of at least six figures, and combine that with a specialist algorithm which tracks likes and comment numbers. But in art for example, which is far more niche, we'd be looking for four to five figures, and then we overlay the algorithm.
“The channel or platform on which those followers appear on is another factor. Different audience demographics tend to congregate around different platforms, for example film audiences are wider on Twitter and blogs, while fashion lovers are all over Instagram and YouTube.”
But while followers, a chosen niche, engagement and platform are all important, the bottom line comes down to the quality of content that a person is sharing, says Ward-Ongley. When assessing a potential new influencer, she and the Fab Trade team can tell almost immediately if they've got what it takes.
“We know if we're willing to work with someone or not within around two minutes of checking their channels," she explains. “It's all about quality of content.”
Why is it such big business now?
The social media explosion has coincided with a general fatigue for mainstream advertising, as well as the gargantuan blogger boom.
By Ward-Ongley's measure, while a select few influencers may have bagged big bucks as many as four years ago, it's the past 12 to 18 months that have seen brands more willing to dedicate six - sometimes even seven - figure spend towards influencer-led campaigns.
Add to that the far simpler process of setting up a sponsorship deal with one individual rather than a big media outfit, and you’ll start to see the appeal for labels who are looking for a softer approach to promotion.
“I make all the decisions, there aren't twelve hoops to jump through to get a campaign or idea off the ground,” says blogger and influencer Johnston, who has previously collaborated with brands including Ralph Lauren, Coach, Hermes, Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Victoria's Secret, River Island and Marks & Spencer.
“If I love what I see, I'll champion in every way and on every platform I can. If I don't like something, I'll never pass that onto my readers. Brands know that my blog Fashion Foie Gras is a positive space.
“It's all about great things and I truly believe, as a blogger, you are only as good as the last thing you recommend to a reader. I take that pretty seriously and I think brands respect that.”
Fashion designer Charlotte Simone agrees. “Social media is a huge part of my day-to-day business,” she confirms.
“The modern consumer (myself included) is heavily influenced by social media platforms, especially those that are image-led. Curating key content appropriately can be an incredibly effective way of directing sales, particularly when influencers are speaking to a captive audience of followers.
“The posts that perform well for me are generally reposts of celebrities wearing Charlotte Simone. My site analytics tell me that close to 50 per cent of my online sales are generated from images on Instagram, which clearly shows how important a platform it is.”
Can anyone become a power player?
Here, our experts are divided, but what is clear is that you’ll need to dedicate a whole lot of time to building and communicating with your audience, which can often be the first and final hurdle for those already juggling busy lives and jobs.
Johnston believes that the influencer door is open to anyone willing dedicate themselves.
“Anyone can do this, 100 per cent,” she says. “But you do have to have an insane work ethic and a massive amount of patience. It does not happen overnight and it can take a long time to build a platform where your voice is recognised.
“Even when you do, there's no guarantee that it will last forever. So I guess you have to be a bit of a free spirit, ready to go with wherever the social wind blows you.”
For Ward-Ongley however, it's far more a skilled art.
“You need to have a unique skillset combining expertise in your chosen field, written and visual skills, creativity, entrepreneurialism, tech ability, passion and tenacity,” she argues. “Plus, you need to be commercially-minded.”
Influencer tips and tricks
Think you've got what it takes? As Johnston says, growing an impressive following isn’t going to happen over night, and you’ll need to apply strategy to the way in which you build and retain your audience.
“When Fashion Foie Gras first started it wasn't a social numbers game, it was all about the hits I was getting on my site. So that is what I've concentrated on more than anything else,” she explains. “But if you call posting religiously everyday a system? Then yes, I have worked systematically to build my presence on social media channels.”
How to really win followers and influence people...
So what’s the best way to go about building yourself a formidable online audience? We asked Johnston, who has over 64,000 followers on Twitter and more than 42,000 on Instagram, to share her top three pieces of social media advice.
1. Establish a look. Followers love an Instagram page that has ‘rhythm’ - whether that's with a colour theme or a filter style.
2. Figure out what you want to be known for. Are you a foodie, a travel addict or a serial shopper? Give people something to expect daily from you, have a niche.
3. Be a participant. Communication isn’t just one-way, so like and comment on other pictures. Be a part of the conversation, and that conversation will eventually become a community.
We also spoke with Stylist's own social media manager, Georgie Wilkinson, who gave us her three cardinal rules for making it on social...
1. Create content for each platform specifially, so each touchpoint should be adding value. The same image/article shouldn’t just be blanketed across FB, Twitter, Insta, Snapchat etc. otherwise people have no reason to follow you on every single one. Each platform has a purpose, so tailor content accordingly.
2. Equally, you don’t need to be on every single platform going. If you don’t have any videos then there’s probably no point starting a YouTube channel. If you don’t know how to use Snapchat then leave it to the pros, unless you’re willing to learn. You’ll be spreading yourself too thin and come across as a jack of all trades, but master of none.
3. Don’t chase likes, there’s nothing more obvious and inauthentic. Yes an Instagram of your matcha latte will probably garner a robust amount of likes, but where is your point of difference? You won’t build up an active, engaged and ultimately USEFUL audience this way and it will make it harder to keep creating content if it’s not content that you’re passionate about.
Photos: iStock, Instagram