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The Age of the Micro Influencers

It’s entirely possible that Instagram as our go-to platform for Millennials and younger digital natives peaked somewhere in 2016, as enhanced meme viral platforms like TikTok begin to take over in 2019.

Digital Natives Spawned New Trends in Social Media

As a digital entrepreneur, I’m familiar with all sorts of apps like Snapchat and IG, but I didn’t grow up on them. Let’s face it, it’s at times painfully hard to remember a moment when scrolling through Instagram (or feeds or stories for that matter) wasn’t anything but a thoroughly exhausting and somewhat draining experience.

While peer-to-peer influencers on YouTube are knocking it out of the park, micro influencers are the plague of Instagram, for good and for bad. We live in an era of sponsored content, where bots and black-hat under the table deals ruined influencer marketing ecosystems — that genuinely could have been more uplifting places. There’s now a certain street cred and trustworthiness lost. And it could be permanent.

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Is Instagram No Longer Cool?

Now, you must be familiar with the articles of Taylor Lorenz on this topic. I think she (twitter) has added a lot to this conversation. There’s something about the Instagram aesthetic and it being a cool play that’s truly over. If Snapchat is where Gen Z grew up, in part, Instagram is the marketplace that stole her ideas.

While YouTube channels by young creators are taking off, the state of influencer marketing in the West is more than a bit broken.

Influencer marketing had big promise, it was supposed to be a thing. It was the idea that social media could elevate personal brands (the micro influencer) in support of authentic content that truly reflected their core interests and fan base. However in an age of bots, algorithmic manipulation, fake followers and back-room deals between brands and (sometimes illegally young) micro influencers, something snapped — our trust in these systems.

Visual storytelling was getting faked and even fake-sponsored content became cool. Stories brought with them the impossibility to regulate the content, something TikTok has learned the hard way in India, for example. Social media become less about being social and more about monetizing a personal brand and those shiny vanity metrics that kept us so addicted.

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Monetization that’s Unregulated Kills Social Ecosystems & Innovation

So we created a world of algorithms and ecosystems where the cheaters and celebrities won, and good content or honest content didn’t always win. In fact, good content rarely even placed second. With advertising at the core of products like Instagram, the incentives for the ecosystem to remain honest were minimal, even as micro influencers exploded (circa 2017–2019).

As Facebook struggles to funnel Millennials into Instagram and monetize the average user, we’re already seeing a decline in advertising revenue for Google and we’ve begun to question how Facebook should be regulated due to various privacy and other infringements. Now, Facebook (among others) is even banning right-wing content creators. Yet this won’t solve the misinformation problem, the apple is toxic at its core, this just limits freedom of speech on platforms that were supposed to be democratic.

So in 2020 you have a hoard of micro influencers and digital natives who are active online and in video, with basically few options: YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and not many others. As influencers flee Instagram, they will specialize in niches such as live-streaming video content production or even micro-video social commerce apps, accordingly. The exodus from Instagram is due to a lack of trust in Facebook’s products.

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Too Much of a Good Thing Syndrome

As Instagram has grown to more than 1 billion monthly users, it has ushered in a very particular look: the familiar formulas of what a good selfie or story might seem like.

Those tinted and scripted bright walls, colorful food, happy people, artfully arranged lattes and avocado toast and, you know — Millennial-pink bits of everything, all in that careful photographical style, with its arranged, staged, color-corrected, glossy-looking aesthetic.

Copycats. Fake content, whatever you want to call it. It’s a bit of a dead beaten cute cat of a history for influencer marketing now.

Instagram can’t reinvent itself behind a walled garden. A younger segment of Asian and global teens are moving to TikTok. There will be more micro influencers than ever in the 2020s. They will have to go and create somewhere.

There’s limited room at the top of old websites like YouTube and Instagram. However, it’s not clear what could take their place. For now it appears to be niche channels.

The model for television ads for decades was to use a known figure to promote a brand or product. This was known as Influencer Marketing. Now influencer marketing, whatever that has become, needs to remake itself in new apps that use video, immersion, creativity and viral meme-like quality differently.

For many parts of the world, apps like YouTube and TikTok are just getting started. Think Brazil, South East Asia and India. Millions of young people are new to the internet for the first time, think Africa, China and Indonesia.

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The “Fake It till you Make It” Apocalypse

With online fraud and fake followings at all time highs, new standards and regulation also need to be set up for influencer marketing to help regulate how micro influencers can make impactful lives online in a fair and honest way. The ethics of apps need to be super clear, and Governments need to step in to make sure they are following the rules.

Creators deserve to be supported. Micro influencers make these ecosystems go around, not the engineers and product managers and executives who design the rather nefarious embedded digital dopamine incentives.

If China has a hands-on way to regulate apps in China, America needs to step up and take some responsibility too with whatever Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and other similar apps will become. Under-regulation is maybe worse for micro influencers than over-regulation.

It’s not just about privacy but fair play and creating a more ethical and honest content ecosystem where not just brands and platform, but people can have their fair share of the advertising and data revenues.

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Creators Cheated out of a Fair Share of Revenues

Creators deserve to be supported. Micro influencers make these ecosystems go around, not the engineers and product managers and executives who design the rather nefarious embedded digital dopamine incentives.

For influencer marketing and micro influencers to flourish, they need to have more control and, with blockchain, more decentralization in the future of content and video is now possible. This is one of the reasons we created the WOM Protocol. We could envision a future ecosystem that was Ad-free, and where tokens instead helped create more honest content and referral mechanisms.

Influencer marketing still has an incredible future along with micro influencers. With over 70 percent of brands reporting social media sponsored activity in 2017 and 60 percent of them wanting to increase their budget back in 2018, it’s clear it is working at least from an ROI perspective. Video, social commerce and micro influencers can bring a lot of value for brands and sales and increase brand loyalty and retention.

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Gen Z Needs More Freedom from Digital Dopamine and Platform Corruption

While young people advocate for inclusion and decentralization, Facebook’s family of apps plans to centralize its monopoly on chat and social media. It will squeeze even more profitability out of its 2 billion strong ecosystem with project Libra, dating, Instagram checkout, even its own copy of Patreon, and so many other new features.

However Micro influencers might move on to something better, if such a thing existed. The problem for brands and micro influencers is there’s not so much room for something better with the lack of regulation on Facebook’s products such as Instagram and WhatsApp.

For the future of influencer marketing, it shouldn’t just be about how many fans or followers you’ve amassed or how much money per story or storytelling post you can make — it has to be about honest content and rewarding creators fair value not just for their vanity metrics, but for the quality and value of their content.

Without regulating influencer marketing and platforms like Instagram, we’ll continue to create an online marketplace that is corrupt and incentivized in such a way as to make Facebook more revenue and creators less.

What if we lived in a world where micro influencers didn’t feel the need to create fake sponsored content on Instagram? A place where online experiences such as Instagram, YouTube and TikTok were more than just online malls in the making? We can do better, the internet can do better. Not just for micro influencers, but for all of us.