Under the influence of social media
Updated: May 4
by Abigail Lia
It started with Alix Earle’s “Get ready with me” video on Tik Tok.
And in just a couple of days the Drunk Elephant tanning drops were sold out in stores across the nation and white eyeliner became the newest trend.
Earle’s fame came overnight, and in no time her fans were creating “what would Alix do?” content, making the influencer even more famous.
And Earle is just one of the many rising influencers who have built a large following on social media for their relatable content and desirable lifestyles.
It’s been a growing advertising trend for a while but thanks in part to the rapid rise of Tik Tok, social media influencers are a primary marketing strategy.
Influencer marketing takes hold
Influencer marketing is nothing new. The concept of hiring a spokesperson who has established some credibility - either for their knowledge or their large fan base - to promote a brand is practically the same as testimonial advertising and celebrity endorsement.
But influencer marketing has swept through the advertising world like a wildfire.
As Joe Gagliese of Viral Nation marketing wrote in Forbes,
“the influencer space was always going to take off. Then the pandemic came along and added serious fuel to the fire for those creating online content and those stuck at home consuming it at levels previously unimaginable.”
Now more than 50 million people around the world call themselves influencers, and Influencer Marketing Hub estimates the total influencer economy to be worth about $104 billion with a future valuation projection in the trillions.
And this is what makes the social media influencer’s role so unique.
Rather than having to be famous first in order to be chosen as a spokesperson for a company, now anyone with time to roll out creative content in video format may catch a company’s eye and become “an influencer” overnight to their followers.
The ‘social media influencer’ can now become famous for marketing brands through a large social media following.
Influencer marketing is effective because other consumers build trust with the influencers they follow and will buy the products they promote because of it.
Dr. Kelley Anderson, a social media marketing professor at the College of Charleston, believes the trust aspect between an influencer and their followers is crucial because it is a trust that traditional marketing cannot achieve.
“When you are working with an influencer, the influencer should really be in control of what that content looks like,” she said. “That is what is going to keep it more authentic and from a consumer's standpoint that is what they need to see that is what creates that trust in the brand.”
Using influencers differs from traditional efforts because the brand cannot control any part of the marketing. Instead it provides the product and an incentive, and the rest is left to the influencer.
And these interactions between influencers and brands are far more informal than those between a brand and its marketing team.
College of Charleston student Reigan Ciarfella, a rising influencer with a following of 19.4k on Tik Tok, notest that a brand will get in contact with her through email or sometimes Instagram DM.
“And then I usually post [content] on Instagram or Tik Tok,” she says.
Ciarfella particularly enjoys the perks from the companies.
“I just started randomly posting one day and then gaining a following and now it is just fun because I get to post the things that I love and get free stuff out of it,” she said.
Brands seek out influencers like Ciarfella and they have to negotiate an agreement on the influencer’s terms, the influencer controls the business interaction when an influencer has high desirability.
“You see a tik tok star making it big right now because they have such a huge following and if a brand connects with this person, then their brand spreads to that many more followers,” Irvin explained, adding that the brand is often able to gain those followers too.
Social media changes the game
Social media is a prevalent force in society today and has numerous features allowing brands to sell and promote their products.
Social media marketing on brands accounts has become a widespread concept, now marketing has evolved past brands marketing their on their own social media platforms, to working with influencers that fit their target audience.
Tik Tok, the video platform that took off during the pandemic when people were isolated and bored and sought any form of online entertainment, was among the top 8 most downloaded applications in 202o and 2021, reaching 1508 million downloads.
In 2021, 42% of U.S. marketers employed influencers on Tik Tok.
Unlike other social media platforms, Tik Tok’s primary target audience is adolescents through 20-somethings. And it is the platform of choice for a majority of Gen Z.
For brands targeting this age group, having a strong presence on Tik Tok is a no-brainer.
And since Tik Tok’s mission is “to capture and present the world’s creativity, knowledge, and precious life moments, directly from the mobile phone their passion and creative expression through videos.
Julia Irvin, a senior business marketing major at the College of Charleston and social media influencer, has noticed changes in her marketing curriculum over the past few years as social media marketing has grown.
“A lot of my marketing classes have changed a lot, especially after COVID, because now more than ever social media marketing is so relevant for becoming successful in our society,” Irvin said.
”You genuinely do need to put yourself out there and market yourself on social media as well as market your brand because influence has so much to do with how successful you are.”
Perks and drawbacks of being an influencer
In order to be an influencer you must accept that you are putting yourself out there for public scrutiny - both good and bad - and this is not for everyone.
Influencers are all very different, each posting on different platforms, with different content, different styles and different audiences.
And this means each influencer has their own unique experience when it comes to how they are treated.
Irvin worked in a store in downtown Charleston, where she handled the social media accounts, posted content as an influencer and also modeled for the store.
“I would say that I think I was treated like a lot of people in the industry and a lot of people
who participated in the social media marketing but in summary I would say it is not always fair.”
Irvin is not the only one to see some negative effects of being a social media influencer.
Phoebe Siegel became an influencer after starring on the reality show, Love Island. With 39.5k followers on Instagram, she struggles with the negative effects social media has on a person.
“All this pressure started to compile,” Siegel said. “I felt like I had to be doing X, Y and Z in order to grow my following. It is as if my entire identity is surrounded by what I was putting out into the world.”
Siegel found that as her following on social media grew, she grew further from her own identity. She struggled with the loss of that identity, so much so that she had to take two months off of school.
“The negatives about social media are something I don’t think are spoken about because of how our e-commerce and our economy and how dominant social media has become,” Siegel said.