Kate Spicer reports on the rise of ‘digital influencers’ and examines how they make their money.
When Aimee-Rose Francis left King’s College London last summer with a 2:1 in religion, philosophy and ethics, she already had her fashion blog, Aimazin. “At first it was about having fun, but I always knew there was money in it.”
A month after graduating, the 23-year-old started focusing on it as a livelihood. Today, she has almost 30,000 followers on Instagram, the magic mark at which brands start to take a social-media presence seriously. Francis is relatively small fry. The more followers a blogger accrues, the higher the rate rises. She can charge about £800 for a single post to Instagram — the fashion blogger’s shop window — and up to £5,000 for bigger projects with brands such as Reiss, H&M and Armani Exchange. “Everyone knows how it works. Blogging is a business and we should be paid. The brands have budgets to pay us, and you get to a level when you know your value. This is the truth behind blogging and it needs to be addressed,” she says.
To prove her point, last month she took out a full-page ad in the London Evening Standard’s ES magazine at a probable cost of £5,000. “I knew it would reach potential new followers and clients in the fashion industry. Some people at the brands said they thought I was brave. Journalists were interested. And I was seriously trolled on Twitter.”
If “everyone knows” that bloggers mean business, as Francis says, then why doesn’t anyone want to talk about it? The more confident bloggers are cautiously coming out with the truth about their financial dealings. However, brands remain silent, evasive or admit, as Topshop did, that the issue is “confusing”.
All this may be about to change. Later this month, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) — often criticised for not being sufficiently on top of the new advertising mediums — is releasing clear directives on the various scenarios where a blogger’s work is or is not classed as advertising. Currently bloggers are encouraged to use the disclaimers #ad or #spon to highlight paid-for posts, though few do. Matt Wilson of the ASA says: “There is nothing wrong with bloggers in the social-media space entering into commercial relationships with third parties, but when there is payment behind a tweet/vlog/blog/Instagram or whatever, it must be made clear up front that it’s advertising. Adverts must be obviously identifiable as such.”
Many questions remain, however, such as what is an Instagram post that flags up a blog post that has been paid for? Or if a blogger is paid a continuing fee by a brand to wear its clothes, is that advertising? Pandora Sykes, Style’s Wardrobe Mistress, blogs at pandorasykes.com and has 50,000 followers on Instagram. Sykes, who occasionally gets paid to blog but chooses not get paid to Instagram, says: “There’s not much clarity regarding when social-media posts require an #ad or a #spon. The space is so new, everyone is still fumbling around.”
What is clear is that the fashion and beauty brands now reserve as much money for collaborations with bloggers, or “digital influencers” as they are known, as they do for more traditional types of advertising. An adviser to high-end fashion brands on digital-marketing strategy told me emphatically: “Some of these girls, the influencers, have a bigger readership than Vogue, so the brands are relocating their budgets away from traditional ads to pay the digital influencer directly.” Some of the most powerful influencers aren’t even blogging, and simply exist on Instagram alone. “The power of Poppy Delevingne’s [837,000] Instagram followers to make click-through is huge,” she says.
Click-through is when a post translates into commercial success, be that sales, internet traffic or conversation around a brand, and unlike a billboard ad, it is highly quantifiable. Sarah Doukas, Cara Delevingne’s agent, told the Financial Times recently that brands will pay for being seen on a girl’s Instagram feed, above and beyond any modelling work. “We have monetised it. If Cara does a big campaign, you quote for her to model and then you quote separately for the fact that she has 13m [now 14m and counting] followers.” Doukas’s brother, Simon Chambers, who runs Storm agency with her, spells it out: “This is a media space that belongs to that person — it’s an asset — and if a brand wants access to that, then it has to treat it like buying media. The cost grows as the girl’s following grows.”
Yet nobody is calling it advertising; blogging and Instagram retain a veneer of independence and editorial sincerity. Whether a post is “sponsored”, or the even more euphemistic “collaboration”, is rarely made clear, and #ad is seen even more rarely. “People don’t realise how hard it is to get people to follow you on Instagram,” Francis says. “It requires 100% consistency, professional photography and the right sequencing. You post food and link to a review on the blog, then an outfit shot, then some flowers to break up the feed. You don’t want it to look too sponsored; you must keep it personalised.”
Blogging at this level is no hobby, but that doesn’t mean to say it is bogus. “I would never feature something I don’t believe in,” Francis says. And this, she feels, is sufficient explanation for why she never uses the #ad or #spon that the advertising authorities expect should appear.
“D-listers put #spon so they can make clear this is something they would never actually buy,” Francis says. “I’m always being asked to post a certain slimming tea. It’s easy money, £80 to £200 for a quick post. But as a blogger, you have to not make money to make money in the long term. Getting the big designer brands to pay for posts requires tactics.”
To see how powerful digital influencers can be in creating engaged and viral content, the #mycalvins digital campaign is a perfect example. It was designed to inject life into Calvin Klein’s familiar branded underpants. The campaign kicked off early last year with a predictably sexy selfie from Miranda Kerr. It is not known what she was paid, but with more than 6m Instagram followers, industry experts guess it was £30,000.
More #mycalvins selfies followed from the biggest fashion blogger on the planet, Chiara Ferragni (almost 4m Instagram followers) of My Blonde Salad, and from the one with the most fashion credibility, Leandra Medine of Man Repeller (“only” 930,000 followers, but they are considered a cut above for taste and style), both of whom declined to be interviewed for this feature. Over the past year, more people with strong social-media followings posted pics of themselves in their Calvins, keeping the campaign buoyant, including Jourdan Dunn, Rita Ora and Poppy Delevingne. With these influencers on board, thousands more posed in their pants for free.
Calvin Klein did not want to comment on the campaign, but Danielle Bernstein, the 23-year-old American blogger behind WeWoreWhat (1m followers), is more candid about Instagram advertising. “Nobody has ever really talked about it. I’ve been doing paid content for two of the four years I’ve had my blog,” she says. Roughly two of the nine posts she makes a day on Instagram will be paid for, and contractually the brand may have asked for anything from a single Instagram post (£3,000-£10,000) to a multimedia campaign with a product line thrown in, which will involve six-figure sums. “I’ve done a bunch of collaborations with clothing and jewellery brands.” (The one with the Freedom at Topshop jewellery line was her favourite.) She knows her value: “It’s proven — if I post a picture of a pair of shoes, they’ll sell out that day.”
So, how much can an influencer earn? It is hard to quantify and, understandably, the bloggers are not forthcoming with their precise bottom lines. Without giving specific figures, Bernstein admits that her income today is “more than I could ever have imagined”.
The London-based Camille Charièrre of Camille Over the Rainbow (330,000 followers) is also keen to be open. She has been paid by McQueen, Maje and “other brands offering interesting work that’s going to make me look good”, such as the “super-fun” #mycalvins campaign. She is well known for featuring Chloé and Acne, who do not pay her. She has turned down offers from names that are not a good fit with her personal brand. Does she ever use #ad or #spon? Like most bloggers, the answer is: “I don’t want to, because I want my feed to look nice, so I only use them when the brand states it wants it made clear. The lines are blurry. Most of us are pretty average people who haven’t studied intellectual property law. I used to be a lawyer, and even I don’t feel I have the tools to navigate this.
“I follow some of the big bloggers who are doing this purely for business and I never see anything saying ‘ad’ or ‘sponsored’,” she continues. “Of course fashion bloggers are paid to do things. When people expect me to go on trips for free, I ask them, ‘How do you think I make money?’ When they say they aren’t paying journalists, I say, ‘Yes, but someone else is paying them.’”
Style’s Sykes has her feet in both camps. “I see both journalism and blogging as jobs, but they are different. Journalism holds itself to rigorous standards and it has checks and balances, while blogging is a more direct, filter-free medium. It’s more my own space.”