The first time I was offered actual money to post on Instagram was in 2018.
I'd spent about a year building a following that had by then accumulated to roughly 20,000 people. Fitness, nutrition, weight loss and muscle gain were the main focuses of the posts I shared every day, and while in retrospect I still had plenty to learn about these topics, I like to think that my content helped at least some of those people who were taking my advice.
When I received an email asking me to create a post advertising for a supplement company, I was honestly enamored by the idea of having something of value to someone else. My platform had finally achieved a size and level of impact that stood out to brands in my niche, and while that was really never my intention when I started my Instagram page, it was a pretty compelling side effect of the success. This wasn't the first contact to reach out asking me to post in exchange for sending me their products, but they WERE the first willing to negotiate, and ultimately pay me actual cash in exchange for my content.
Influencer marketing today is a staple in business, but when this happened to me (literally just a few years ago), it was not labeled clearly, understood widely, nor was it even a researchable practice for brands or creators. FTC guidelines were non-existent. Audiences were oblivious. Only the most forward-thinking influencers and marketers had the wisdom to utilize well-followed social media accounts in the same way traditional advertising channels had been exploited for years.
Having said that, the $400 per post (for two posts total) I was offered by this brand rep was more or less groundbreaking for me as a college junior desperate for a quick buck, and not to mention some external validation. I accepted the offer, shared two posts advertising two different supplements–neither of which I actually really liked, used, or understood very well–and earned a grand total of zero sales for this company. General brand awareness aside, it was clear to me that my content didn't provide nearly the ROI that this company had expected, and that was a tough pill to swallow.
I carried my fair share of guilt about this incident until only recently, when I myself actually started working as an influencer marketer for a brand. My job entails doing exactly what that brand rep was doing with me: reaching out to social media creators, negotiating rates in exchange for content, and trying to earn sales and site traffic for my company in doing so. The more creators for whom I've personally agreed to payments of $2000+ in exchange for a single Instagram story share–only to generate zero attention or revenue for my company–the more I've come to realize that this is simply par for the course with influencer marketing (and, one could argue, with marketing in general). Thus, the more time I spend in this space, the less guilt I feel.
My less-than-uplifting experience as an influencer repping a brand was my first glance into influencer marketing culture, and was therefore my first insight as to why influencer culture in and of itself is so unusual. Consumers are complex, communication demands nuance, and marketing is an art form that navigates this strange realm of the human psyche. INFLUENCER marketing, though, is like a subset of this art form that bridges the gap between the sender and the receiver with individuals who embody characteristics of both. Influencers are like us, but also tend to be perceived as a step ABOVE us (by their audiences, at least), especially in terms of credibility and reputation. We can relate to them, but also admire and often even idolize them.
Don't get me wrong, the world of "influencer" is extremely diverse, and not everyone within it falls into this description. However, within that spectrum, for every 1000 creators who severely lack purpose and, well, true influence, there is likely only one whose ability to inspire, impact, and influence is a marketer's gold mine. The landscape is complex, and while it's still in its infancy, the ability to benefit from the creator economy is still very much up for grabs... for literally anyone.
Influencers are an ill-defined class of individuals walking the line between ordinary and authoritative. Although the invention of this class has allowed for a democratization of visibility, it's ultimately what each creator does with that visibility–and how meaningfully they do it–that determines if the eyes on them care, stick around, multiply, and, frankly, are actually worth anything.