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Influencers: Love or hate them, they are here to stay

April 18, 2021
Editor(s): Oliver Soo
Writer(s): Jason Suhartanto, Julia Hu, Yee Xuan

The present youth generation has no upper bound on their online engagement, prompting a major shift in the way businesses market their products to consumers. Businesses who traditionally advertised on cable television or print media have had to adapt to a world where they rely on influencers to act as an intermediary between themselves and consumers.

Influencers are people who have the power to affect others purchasing because of their authority, reputation, or knowledge [1]. On the other hand, content creators are well… people who create content. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, there is a clear distinction between the two. The term content creator encompasses anyone who creates content regardless of their following. Meanwhile, it is one’s ability to monetise their content (by accumulating a following and promoting other companies’ products) that determines whether they are an influencer. So, while all influencers are content creators, not all content creators are influencers.

Participation in the influencer economy as a content creator is attractive to many as it provides the potential for enormous monetary gain with few barriers to entry. Once upon a time, lucrative endorsements and sponsorships were reserved for Hollywood actors and elite sportspeople, however social media has acted as the great equaliser, providing everyone an opportunity to taste this financial success through engagement with their followers. This is best exemplified by Charli D’Amelio, a 16-year-old TikTok influencer who rapidly accumulated wealth by interacting with her 110+ million TikTok followers. Estimates of her net worth sit at around $8 million, revealing how lucrative influencing can be in such a short period of time. This phenomenon of ‘cult-following’ – where people who admire someone or something will approve of anything they do – plays a big part in the marketing value of each influencer. Kylie Jenner, the so-called youngest self-made billionaire [2], conducts most of her marketing efforts through her Instagram account. Her online presence combined with the admiration her followers have for her commands a whopping endorsement post fee of US$1.2 million [3].

Charli D’Amelio on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

For companies, marketing through influencers is advantageous as it allows them to interact more intimately with their target audiences. As social media platforms host an enormous variety of user generated content and algorithmically categorise consumers based on the content they consume, firms can pinpoint their target audience using tools like Adsense by Google. Once companies determine who they want to market their products to, they can partner with the appropriate influencers. For example, a virtual private network (VPN) company might seek to partner with technology focused influencers.

This approach provides companies selling niche products with more ‘bang for their buck’. Rather than spending large sums advertising to a broad audience through television or billboard ads, smaller firms can utilise influencers to advertise with surgical precision. The educational DIY project company Kiwi Co. is one example of a firm that leverages social media this way, sponsoring popular ‘maker’ YouTube creators such as ‘DIY Perks’ and ‘Simone Giertz’.

One type of influencer, the ‘Micro-influencer’, has begun to rise in popularity within the online advertising space. Micro-influencers, those with a relatively low number of followers, demonstrate an audience engagement rate up to four times the rate of their mega-counterparts [4]. These small-time individuals tend to provide viewers with a more personal and authentic experience, resulting in greater engagement with the content [5]. Audiences are then more likely to act on influencer’s recommendations, trusting their opinion and knowledge of the product [6].

Simone Giertz using a Kiwi Co. product in a sponsored video

While influencing appears to be a glamorous profession, it should be noted that these people bear risks in their line of work. Being able to appeal to viewers who possess a wide range of experiences, opinions and skills is a tough tightrope to walk. Particularly when audiences develop an ‘intimate relationship’ with the influencer, it can lead to them feeling betrayed if their expectations of the person are not met. For instance, a common criticism of influencers is being a ‘sell-out’ where the person disingenuously pushes a sponsored product without disclosing the sponsorship, or partners with companies that are not aligned with their audiences values.

In addition, content creators who engage with their followers using their real name or exposed face risk having their private life targeted. Prime examples include female content creators on the social media platform Twitch.tv, such as JadeyAnh [7] and SweetAnita [8]. Both streamers experienced stalking from their viewership; the former receiving fake emergency services calls and the latter receiving harrowing death threats. Constant social scrutiny also weighs heavily on influencers, who are expected to always uphold a good reputation and behave consistently with the image they project. Cancel culture, which started as an internet joke [9], is now a widespread practise, where prominent people who misbehave, are exposed for mistakes they made in the past, or refuse to speak out on certain issues, are boycotted by fans.

Even though social media is currently dominated by influencers who sell their own personalities to viewers, a new generation of content creators known as VTubers (ブイチューバー, buichūbā) provide an insight into the evolution of this business. VTubers are online entertainers who voice virtual avatars equipped with movement tracking capabilities. These digital personalities transcend the limits of physical influencers, providing anonymity to the entertainer and allowing the virtual avatar to be passed on once the entertainer retires. In a sense, VTuber performances are a hyper modern version of a puppet show. With VTuber channels generating over 1.5 billion views per month [10], the virtual space is becoming an inescapable future for digital content creation and marketing. But what makes these fake, computer-generated figures so appealing?

A Hololive VTuber ‘concert’

Unlike traditionally animated, virtual characters, VTubers can livestream and interact with viewers in real time. Interestingly, while VTubers are intrinsically connected with the real people who voice them and drive their movements, viewers intentionally disembody avatar from actor [11]. Their highly fantastical storylines and character designs clearly points out the lack of realism, however, their ability to personally interact with individual viewers in real-time creates the possibility of reality. The success of this illusion rests on the near-anonymity of the voice actors, who rarely reveal their true face or personal lives. This enables viewers to maintain their own relationship with each VTuber without the hindrance of real-world dramas and controversies. Furthermore, the lack of real-life elements allows VTuber fans imagination to go wild, with other mediums, such as comics or fan-made material, often continuing the VTubers’ story outside of YouTubes’ platform [12]. This allows viewers to selectively engage with the aspect of each VTubers’ identity they resonate with most. Interestingly, the highly personalize-able aspects of a virtual content creator mean they are as authentic as the level of the viewer engagement with them [13]. This is also precisely what makes them more attractive than traditional creators, as their lack of complexity allows for a deeper, personalized, immersive experience.

VTuber Kizuna Ai promotes the launch of the iPhone XS and XS Max to her millions of YouTube subscribers

Likewise, virtual content creators are becoming a lucrative business opportunity for companies and performers alike. The growth of the internet brings the “zero marginal cost society” [14] closer to reality and is shown in the advent of tools such as Live2D, which enables almost anyone to create their own VTuber at a relatively low cost. The resulting low barriers of entry into the virtual content creator market provides more people with the opportunity to gain popularity on social media platforms while protecting their identity. More importantly, the clear distinction between avatar and actor means that VTuber talent agencies (yes, they exist [15]) can hire or replace VTuber voice actors with little backlash from the audience. This lack of emotional attachment between viewer and actor is driven by the actor’s minimal public exposure, and thus lack of personal branding. This makes the VTuber an “interchangeable and disposable image commodity” [16], whose un-autonomous existence enables its traits, personality, and story to be changed to fit the demands of the public. Of course, this has created concerns over the future of labour laws for virtual content creation and whether this industry will give rise to the types of slave contracts seen in the music industry [17].

While some critics dismiss the rise of influencing as promoting digital exhibitionism, with its appeal remaining strong for aspiring creators and profit maximising companies alike, it is hard to see it becoming irrelevant any time soon. For most, the term influencer elicits images of picture-perfect social media personalities, however as we have seen in the virtual space, this industry is evolving rapidly and may be unrecognisable soon.


Citations:

[1] 100 Influencer Marketing Statistics For 2021. (2021, April 13). Influencer Marketing Hub. https://influencermarketinghub.com/influencer-marketing-statistics/

[2] Warren, K. Borden, T. (2020, August 11) Kylie Jenner just turned 23 years old — and she’s already worth $900 million. Take a look at how the mogul built her empire. Business Insider. Kylie Jenner Net Worth: How the Mogul Built Her Fortune (businessinsider.com)

[3] Mitchell, A. (2019, July 25) Kylie Jenner Reportedly Makes $1.2 Million Per Sponsored Instagram Post. Allure. Kylie Jenner Reportedly Makes $1.2 Million Per Sponsored Instagram Post — Read the Details | Allure

[4] 100 Influencer Marketing Statistics For 2021. (2021, April 13). Influencer Marketing Hub. https://influencermarketinghub.com/influencer-marketing-statistics/

[5] Vos, L. (2020, February 25) Why Focus on Micro-Influencers for Better Marketing in 2020. ANA.  https://www.ana.net/blogs/show/id/mm-blog-2020-02-micro-influencers-better-content

[6]  Kirkpatrick, D. (2016, March 31) Micro-influencers have major impact on buying behavior: Study. Marketing Dive. https://www.marketingdive.com/news/micro-influencers-have-major-impact-on-buying-behavior-study/416579/

[7] Periwal, S. A. (2020, November 24) Twitch streamer cries and ends stream after stalker sends her 25     pizzas and calls fireman in her name. Sportskeeda. https://www.sportskeeda.com/esports/twitch-streamer-cries-ends-stream-stalker-  sends-25-pizzas-calls-fireman-name

[8] Dodgson, L. (2020, August 1). A Twitch streamer with 900,000 followers says she’s being stalked by a man who is making death threats and ignoring a restraining order. Insider. https://www.insider.com/twitch-streamer-says-she-has-stalker-threatening-to-kill-her-2020-7

[9] Brito, C. (2020, August 19). “Cancel culture” seems to have started as an internet joke. Now it’s anything but. CBS News. “Cancel culture” seems to have started as an internet joke. Now it’s anything but. – CBS News

[10] Eisenbrand, R., & Peterson, S. (2021). Vtubers have millions of subs and huge revenues—but the reality is, they don’t exist. OMR. https://omr.com/en/vtubers-hololive-kizuna-ai/

[11] [12] [13] Lu, Z., Shen, C., Li, J., Shen, H., & Wigdor, D.J. (2021). More Kawaii than a Real-Person Live Streamer: Understanding How the Otaku Community Engages with and Perceives Virtual YouTubers. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/More-Kawaii-than-a-Real-Person-Live-Streamer%3A-How-Lu-Shen/1d1d32e037fab35059afad181af9c2d074c326f3

[14] Lam, K.Y. (2016). The Hatsune Miku Phenomenon: More Than a Virtual J‐Pop Diva. J Pop Cult, 49: 1107-1124. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpcu.12455

[15] Kobayashi, Hajime and Taguchi, Takashi (2018). Virtual Idol Hatsune Miku: Case Study of New Production/Consumption Phenomena generated by Network Effects in Japan’s Online Environment. Markets, Globalization & Development Review. 3(4). https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/mgdr/vol3/iss4/3

[16] Hololive production. (2021). https://en.hololive.tv/

[17] Kreps, D. (2015, August 9). Prince Warns Young Artists: Record Contracts Are ‘Slavery’. Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/prince-warns-young-artists-record-contracts-are-slavery-32645/


Images:

[Image 1] Sheikh, A. (2020, March 11). Charli D’Amelio Slays Jimmy Fallon’s ‘The Tonight Show’. Bugle24. https://bugle24.com/charli-damelio-slays-jimmy-fallons-the-tonight-show/

[Image 2]

[Image 3] Dennison, K. (2020, August 1). VTubers Are Going Through a Lot Right Now. Otaku Magazine USA. https://otakuusamagazine.com/vtubers-are-going-through-a-lot-right-now/

[Image 4]

The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ, our Partners and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.

Meet our authors:

Oliver Soo
Editor

Oliver is a second year Bachelor of Commerce student. He is interested in business, politics and science and hopes to improve his written communication skills by writing for Cainz Digest. When not focusing on Uni commitments he is either digesting world news, participating in some form of sport or reading a book.

Jason Suhartanto
Writer
Julia Hu
Writer
Yee Xuan
Writer