Many of us spend hours every day indulging in Instagram’s infinite scroll. Influencers didn’t exist fifteen years ago, but today these tastemakers impact how we cook, consume, parent, decorate, think, and live. Despite influencers’ prevalence in our lives, what goes on behind the perfectly curated Instagram grids we obsess over most largely remains a mystery—until now.
Stephanie McNeal, a senior editor at Glamour (formerly at BuzzFeed News) takes us behind the curtain, into the secretive real world of influencers in SWIPE UP FOR MORE!: Inside the Unfiltered Lives of Influencers. Given unprecedented access to three major influencers—fashion and lifestyle juggernaut Caitlin Covington of Southern Curls & Pearls, runner and advocate Mirna Valerio, and OG “mommy blogger” Shannon Bird—SWIPE UP FOR MORE! is based on three years of fly-on-thewall reporting as they build their empires, struggle with the haters and snarkers, fight for creative control from the tech platforms that enable their businesses, parent in public, and try to look good while doing it.
In this interview, I speak to Stephanie McNeal, Senior Editor at Glamour. We discuss the scale, impact and role of influencers in our lives and economy.
Q: How powerful are influencers?
[Stephanie McNeal]: Certainly, the perspective one takes on this subject can be bifurcated into two distinct vantage points, namely, a macroscopic or a microscopic one. If we look through the macro lens, this is a sector that I have, in my book, projected to reach a net worth of $16 billion by 2022. Yet, in updating my figures for the book release, I found that the 2023 statistics have already surpassed that estimate, pegging the industry at an astounding $20 billion. The sheer size and influence of this industry are undeniably vast and potent.
An intriguing statistic that truly underscores this influence pertains to the various revenue streams available for influencers, and more particularly to an application known as liketoknowit. This app serves as a platform for influencers to monetize their product recommendations. As of 2022, it has catapulted 130 women into the millionaire stratum, which, to me, is an extraordinarily powerful statistic. Consider that this represents only one income stream and that self-made female millionaires are not as commonplace as we’d prefer. This single revenue source, within less than ten years of its existence, has empowered women to such an extent. This clearly shows the significant influence and impact it has had on these women’s lives, on female representation, and on the power that money wields.
Shifting the lens to the micro level, the influence of influencers, while subtler, has a profound impact on the minutiae of many women’s lives. This influence stretches from seemingly trivial decisions like choosing a shirt or planning dinner, to significant ones, such as parenting styles. I, for one, have found insights from influencers invaluable in my own life. However, the potential effects can be a double-edged sword. They can be both constructive or detrimental, considering how people often modify their entire outlook based on information gleaned from the internet.
Q: How do people become influencers?
[Stephanie McNeal]: What’s fascinating is that, in the nascent 5 to 6 years of the influencer industry, the answer to how one becomes an influencer was almost serendipitous, which is a surprising notion when you consider the earnings potential and the significant influence they can wield. Many of the pioneer influencers were not intent on carving a career path or generating income through their online activities. They were merely portraying their everyday lives on the digital platform, as is the common practice today, and managed to stumble upon their niche one way or another. This could be due to their unique offerings, or an innate sense of style or expertise in any area, such as makeup.
For a considerable number of people, it began as a leisure pursuit that gradually evolved, almost organically, until there came a point where they decided to formalise it into a legitimate business. Presently, there’s an intentional effort by many to establish themselves as influencers. This is not an unexpected development given the lucrative opportunities it can present..
Q: Are influencers facing (or creating) ethical challenges?
[Stephanie McNeal]: Absolutely, I completely concur that mass communication has the potential to be misused in numerous ways. This underscores why I consider it paramount to write about influencers with a degree of seriousness and understanding. If we dismiss or undermine something, we effectively incapacitate our ability to address and rectify associated issues. Imagine if anyone could broadcast anything on television under the pretext that it’s an inconsequential medium – we’d undoubtedly find ourselves in a quandary. Admittedly, we’re already grappling with certain TV content issues, and a similar predicament looms in the influencer space.
Influencers, with their capacity to reach millions of followers, operate with minimal regulation. We’ve only seen social media platforms like Instagram begin to enforce internal regulations within the last decade, with measures such as enabling the marking of sponsored content. This lack of comprehensive oversight is where the primary problem lies.
Influencers wield enormous influence, and sometimes, this can manifest negatively. One area I often highlight is the spread of misinformation, particularly regarding health and wellness. The spread of anti-vaccination rhetoric, the reluctance to use sunscreen, and the rise of conspiracy theories like QAnon can be profoundly damaging. I’ve witnessed people fall prey to such misinformation and start to internalise it. If we, as a society, are surprised by the extent of influence that influencers possess, it’s because we haven’t established sufficient controls on their content.
We can’t depend on platforms to self-regulate or on the inherent goodness of individuals. Neither can we leave the responsibility solely on influencers. If power is bestowed on someone, there’s always the risk of exploitation. It’s our collective responsibility as a society to establish boundaries and guidelines. We must push for government regulation and ask organisations like the FTC to exert the same level of authority they have over other mass media channels. Only through these measures can we ensure responsible use of this influential platform.
Q: Why do we trust influencers so much?
[Stephanie McNeal]: Influencers, at their most benign, possess a compelling knack for persuading people to make purchases. Consider a fashion influencer, for instance, who embodies the persona of a relatable friend but with a slightly more refined fashion sense or superior insights. This archetype of the ‘smart friend in your pocket’ is what attracts followers. They are individuals you feel a kinship with, who could potentially be your friends in the real world and who seem to have ready solutions to a myriad of questions, such as skincare issues or wardrobe choices.
However, when we extend this perspective, it’s clear that misinformation about mainstream media and government institutions has become rife. Unfortunately, there has been a proliferation of online entities ready to exploit this trust deficit, filling the void with untruths for their own gain. This likely explains the urgency and necessity of treating the influencer industry with the gravity it deserves. For too long, Instagram influencers were dismissed as inconsequential, with their power and influence being underestimated.
Without a doubt, even when an influencer is reaching out to a million followers about fashion, they are still communicating with a million people. That’s a staggering degree of influence. Therefore, to ensure the healthy growth of this industry, we must approach it with a baseline seriousness and analytical rigor. This could potentially avert or at least mitigate some of the negative outcomes we’ve witnessed. I’m convinced that if we had adopted this approach sooner, we might have been able to curtail some of the fallout.
Q: What about the negativity and even abuse influencers receive?
[Stephanie McNeal]: Influencers, in many ways, bear the brunt of society’s online volatility. A fundamental aspect of being an influencer involves portraying a relatable persona, someone akin to a friend rather than a distant public figure. Over the past five years, however, online behaviour seems to have taken a distressing turn, with societal angst often finding an outlet on the internet. This pattern extends beyond influencers to include how celebrities and other public figures are treated online.
The scale of commentary and abuse faced by public figures today is unprecedented. However, influencers, perhaps, experience this to an even greater extent. This could be due to the fact that people don’t accord them the same level of respect or recognition they might grant to more traditional ‘industry publishers.’ While the relatable image that influencers portray facilitates a genuine connection with their followers and enables them to market products effectively, it also makes them prime targets when people seek an outlet for their frustrations.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the current reality. Aspiring influencers now need to approach the role with full awareness that it comes with a high level of public scrutiny and, likely, considerable backlash. While this is merely a reflection of the state of affairs, it’s hard to propose a foolproof solution. Platforms attempt to manage it, but it’s a pervasive issue that extends across the board.
Q: How can businesses best work with influencers?
[Stephanie McNeal]: It’s crucial for businesses to understand that effective influencer marketing involves more than just roping in someone with a certain number of followers and hoping for the best. This strategy often leaves followers feeling frustrated, suspecting that the influencer is merely promoting any product for profit – a common grievance.
However, the true value of following influencers lies in finding someone whose tastes align with your own. When an influencer genuinely endorses a product that fits their personal style or preference, it’s likely that it would resonate with their followers as well. For instance, if you’re in search of summer skirts and you follow an influencer whose style you admire, it’s beneficial when a company identifies this and provides them with products to showcase. This approach works well because it provides followers with the ideas they’re seeking.
An aspect of influencer marketing that often gets overlooked is how it has democratised opportunities for smaller brands. Brands that might otherwise struggle to gain traction can find a more accessible entry point by collaborating with micro-influencers to reach their specific audiences. This opens up exciting prospects for entrepreneurs who may not have massive budgets or significant venture capital backing. Identifying and partnering with micro-influencers, those with even as few as 10,000 followers, can effectively drive product sales if the right individuals are chosen.
Q: What is the future of the influencer space?
[Stephanie McNeal]: Absolutely, the influencer space is far from being anti-men; it’s an open field for anyone to dive into. The fascinating part is how we’ve witnessed an industry sprout from virtually nothing, and now, the upcoming generation is impressively adept at understanding the true potential of being an influencer. For many Gen Z individuals, it’s not just about donning a bikini and scoring a free hotel stay. Instead, it’s seen as a springboard for launching their own businesses.
Many established influencers have expanded beyond their initial platform, developing their own brands or products, and this is precisely what younger influencers are aspiring towards. The business potential is limitless; from authoring cookbooks to launching a line of beauty products, creating a podcast network, or even promoting a range of hair products.
I see many young people critically evaluating the current job market and questioning their approach. If their goal is to work in, say, fashion, they’re weighing whether to enter a volatile job market, where job security is shaky at best, or try to build their own platform as an influencer, and then transition into fashion. This approach seems quite prevalent and is likely to continue into the future.
Influencers are no longer just ‘fashion girls’. There are influencers spanning all industries, and building a brand is gradually becoming a requirement for achieving substantial success in any field. The rise of influencer real estate agents, for example, has caught my attention. The advantage a young person could gain, instead of joining a brokerage and working their way up, is evident. If they can produce engaging house tour videos, like the ones frequently seen on TikTok, they could practically have their own brokerage in no time.
Young people are ahead of the curve, recognising these opportunities sooner than the rest. I believe that the biggest shift we’ll see is influencers moving towards creating brands, diversifying their platforms much earlier, and exploring a wide range of ventures.
Q: What are your views on pet-fluencers?
[Stephanie McNeal]: There’s a part of me that’s a touch resentful because I feel my cat has all the makings of stardom, yet she’s barely breaking 900 followers on Instagram. Just kidding, of course. To provide some context, I started an Instagram for my cat quite a while ago, well before the onset of Covid. This decision was not just a whimsical venture, but also a somewhat serious attempt to understand the machinations behind growing an Instagram account.
We made it to around 1000 followers before my professional work account started demanding more of my energy, and consequently, my feline friend’s online fame regrettably dwindled. But reflecting on it, I can see why pet influencers have their charm. As long as the pets are treated well, it’s pretty innocuous fun. Unlike other forms of influence, where there can be ethical complexities involved, your average cat or dog remains blissfully unaware of their online fame. This takes the existential worry out of the equation, and in a way, it’s quite delightful. Just so long as we’re assuming these four-legged influencers are indeed living contented lives, of course.
Q: What excited you about the influencer space to focus your work, on this space?
[Stephanie McNeal]: My fascination with following influencers really sparked my interest, particularly as I noticed the lack of meaningful discourse surrounding them. During my tenure at BuzzFeed News, I appreciated the company’s openness to experimentation, which spurred me to explore this interest further, wondering if it would resonate with others. As it turned out, the response was overwhelmingly positive, allowing my focus on this area to expand significantly.
As I delved deeper, it became apparent that addressing the influencer industry with a certain level of seriousness was not only important but necessary. Given that this industry is predominantly women-led and often lacks the respect it deserves, it felt almost like a responsibility to lend it some additional weight and gravitas. This sense of duty served as a catalyst for my continued involvement and dedication to this evolving field.