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    The past, present and future of influencer marketing, according to Taylor Lorenz

    The beginning of the millennium marked the dawn of modern internet culture. For the first time, ordinary people could create loyal global communities and have mainstream influence. Bloggers began generating revenue streams from brand deals typically reserved for celebrities.

    As these creators migrated to social media, influencer marketing became ubiquitous and prolific (and sometimes notorious). The influencer economy grew, creating more opportunities for creators and brands alike. But some wonder if influencer marketing’s potential has already reached its peak, and if trends like “deinfluencing” could topple it.

    Taylor Lorenz, author and tech journalist at The Washington Post, strongly disagrees. As Lorenz said at Sprout’s Under the Brand-fluence digital event, “This just isn’t true. None of the data supports that. That’s a media narrative we hear every few years like clockwork. But over the past two decades it’s just continued to grow. Even deinfluencers influence—they are influencing someone to live a certain lifestyle.”

    The past, present and future of influencer marketing, according to Taylor Lorenz

    Data from Sprout’s 2024 Influencer Marketing Report supports this. Almost half of consumers make purchases at least once a month because of influencer posts, and 86% make purchases at least once a year.

    While influencers will continue to be a cultural mainstay, how they build communities and forge brand partnerships will evolve. What can the past and present reveal about the future of influencer marketing? These takeaways from Lorenz’s event session explore what led to the influencer boom, why influencers received so much backlash in the early days and future trends that will inform the landscape.

    What the past reveals about the future of influencer marketing

    The emergence of blogging software provided a platform for people and ideas left behind by traditional media. As Lorenz explains, “Blogs allowed people to self-publish their own content. For example, women were writing super candidly about their daily lives. These were moms struggling with breastfeeding or postpartum depression who went on to have thousands and millions of subscribers or followers. They were talking about topics excluded from women’s media at the time, and redefining motherhood. Really, women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people built this industry.”

    Despite their obvious influence and community-building expertise, these early influencers were harassed constantly, discredited for not having “real” jobs and dismissed as narcissists who took too many selfies (“Selfie even became the word of the year in 2013,” Lorenz points out).

    A roundup of headlines from 2013 about influencers, social media and narcissism

    “So many early people on these platforms were outcasts. They didn’t have a lot of social capital. They didn’t have a voice in traditional media. They built these revenue models that so many people have come to profit off of. Now influencer marketing has been mainstreamed, but those people have been pushed out. They faced too much online hate,” says Lorenz.

    The state of influencer marketing today

    Many of the negative stereotypes about influencers persisted and intensified through the 2010s. The pandemic era was a major turning point for influencer acceptance (though, creator harassment will never disappear). Everyone went online, causing many people to realize for the first time that influencers alchemize culture.

    “In the early days of the pandemic, a lot of people who dismissed online marketing realized social media is the primary space where culture is born today. The digital world became everyone’s default reality, which accelerated trends we’ve been seeing for many years,” Lorenz points out.

    As the lines between social and traditional marketing continue to blur, old stereotypes are falling away and influencers are gaining credibility. More than half of Gen Z report they would become influencers if given the opportunity. Another half of all consumers trust influencers just as much as they did six months ago, while close to 30% trust them more, according to the Influencer Marketing Report.

    A call-out card from the 2024 Influencer Marketing Report that reads 30% of consumers trust influencers more than they did six months ago

    Now, influencers are being taken seriously and clinching more brand deals than ever—increasing the volume of influencer-driven content on social. But this is having unexpected consequences. Influencer content saturation led to last year’s deinfluencing trend, and the algorithms are making widespread discoverability harder to come by.

    What it means to be an influencer is changing, but, in many ways, Lorenz argues, influencers are still doing what they do best: building intensely loyal fandoms.

    3 cultural shifts driving the future of influencer marketing

    In the wake of platform shakeups, economic confusion and emerging technology, some question the long-term impact and resonance of influencers. If they still exist, will consumers even care? How can they continue to build revenue streams on distribution channels? Will AI influencers replace them?

    “Even with social network instability, there’s no end in sight for the influencer industry,” predicts Lorenz. She looks at people’s behavior instead of buzzy headlines: “We are only getting more and more online.”

    As we look to the future, she sees early signs that these questions are being answered.

    Influencers will be everywhere (but lose some mainstream influence)

    As more people become influencers, the market will become flooded with creators brands can partner with. In some ways, that means influencers won’t be as likely to go “viral” (in the traditional sense) or have widespread influence, but they will have even more clout in specific pockets of the internet.

    People want more autonomy over their online experience, and desire to go beyond the bounds of algorithms. “Secondary networks like Substack are fostering more niche communities,” Lorenz gives as an example. Channels like Substack, Discord, Patreon and Twitch will continue to offer more opportunities for direct connection, and empower creators with revenue generation models that don’t rely on brands (Substack’s tagline is “a new economic engine for culture”).

    An image of Substack meta data, including the brand's tagline: A new economic engine for culture

    This suggests people’s loyalty to specific influencers will intensify. That’s why it’s critical to find the right influencers—ones who actually love your products and who want to develop authentic, long-term relationships with your brand. These partnerships will fuel a feedback loop that leads to deeper understanding of your audience and internet culture, and facilitates product development and refinement.

    Influencers will seek pay transparency

    With influencer trust on the rise and consumer attitudes shifting, brands feel even more confident betting on influencers. According to a Q3 2023 Sprout Pulse Survey, 81% of social marketers describe influencer marketing as an essential part of their social media strategy, with 79% describing influencer content as necessary for their customers’ experiences.

    But as brands recognize the role influencers play in modern marketing, influencers are (rightfully) demanding fair and equitable compensation. The online conversation about pay transparency was fueled by the COVID era, when influencer labor was largely legitimized. The hope is that brands will fill gaps in compensation for women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ influencers that have existed for the past two decades.

    Lorenz explains it like this, “There will probably never be standardized rates for the industry. That’s like asking for all ads to cost the same. But pay transparency should be the norm. Remember that any piece of communication you share (contracts, proposals, etc.) can end up going viral on social media. Expect your interactions to be screenshotted out of context and shared online.”

    If you wouldn’t be proud if those communications were seen, you should rethink your payment structures.

    AI will refine influencer content creation

    While data from Sprout’s Influencer Marketing Report points to 37% of all consumers being more interested in brands that work with AI influencers, Lorenz speculates this is a passing fad. She explains, “We already have faceless influencers. They’ve been around for a long time. What people want online is reliability—AI influencers don’t engender trust. Humans do.”

    A TikTok from Taylor Lorenz about the new social media trend featuring AI-generated robots doing labor typically reserved for humans

    Yet, AI does offer something that will be invaluable to influencers: It makes extremely high quality content easier to produce. Tools like Jasper and Writer make it easier to write and edit posts and captions, while Wondershare Filmora and Descript speed up video editing. “What AI does very effectively is lower the barrier to content creation so influencers can create better content with less effort. The tools are getting more accessible every year. More and more high quality content is going to continue to shift the landscape because of that,” says Lorenz.

    Influencers will continue to define the cultural zeitgeist

    The trajectory of online influencer marketing underscores its enduring relevance and endless evolution. From its blogging beginnings to the present proliferation of influencers across social platforms, the industry has not only persisted but thrived.

    Even while facing challenges like backlash and saturation, influencers continue to wield significant power, particularly in niche communities. Looking forward, increased influencer diversity, pay transparency and AI-assisted content creation promise to shape the future landscape—ensuring that influencer marketing remains a powerful force in the digital realm and opens up limitless opportunity for brands.

    Want to hear more from Lorenz about influencers’ role in internet culture? Watch her Under the Brand-fluence session on-demand.

    And read Lorenz’s book, Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence and Power on the Internet. You can also follow her on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Substack.

    The post The past, present and future of influencer marketing, according to Taylor Lorenz appeared first on Sprout Social.

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