When Arielle Charnas, creator of lifestyle blog SomethingNavy, posted a story about a face mask by Peter Thomas Roth on Snapchat, it drove sales of the product worth $17,565 in the following 24 hours.  Online influencers have been shaping the way people interact with brands since the advent of social media, adding layers of context to products outside of a brand’s traditional advertising channels.
But while the discussion around influencers is well-trodden ground, their role in the marketing landscape is ever-evolving. And influencers today aren’t always bloggers and vloggers, or even people actively attempting to impact others at all – sometimes they’re just in a video with the right product at the right time. When a Twitter clip featuring a boy wearing white slip-on Vans went viral – affectionately dubbed ‘Damn Daniel’ – the footwear brand saw online sales spike 30% in the following weeks. 
The idea that more followers equate to more influence is no longer always true. A growing number of marketers are redirecting their resources towards a new generation of ‘micro-influencers’. So who are today’s most influential online voices (aside from celebrities with millions-strong followings), and how can brands harness their potential?
The rise of the micro-influencer
Legally speaking, ‘influencer’ is a broad term. “An influencer is anyone who's receiving compensation of any sort for having endorsed a product,” says Susan Scafidi, professor of fashion law at Fordham Law School, and founder of the Fashion Law Institute. “That compensation can be simply free product, it can be a direct payment, it can be even be someone who signs up to receive free product every month, and is not explicitly required to talk about them online, yet chooses to do so.” 
Once upon a time, it might have been assumed that more followers equate to more influence, but research suggests that this is no longer the case. A survey of two million influencers by Markerly – an influencer marketing platform – found that Instagram users with 10,000 to 100,000 followers have a 2.4% like rate, compared to 1.7% for those with over a million. “More than 55% of our agency partners have incorporated ‘micro-influencers’ as a part of their strategy,” says Chico Tirado, chief revenue officer of social advertising platform Gnack. “We’ve seen some micro-influencers on certain campaigns get up to 25% engagement.” 
With influencers now commonly included in marketing budgets, micro-influencers create content that can feel more authentic than their super-user peers. “These guys might not have a million followers, or a reach that a celebrity or a high profile blogger might have,” says Mona Akhavi, founder of influencer platform Sidebuy, “but they’re attractive to brands because they produce great quality material, in a genuine way.” 
A product placement in a Zoella video can set marketers back up to £4,000
Zoella (2016) ©
Proper advertising requires proper disclosure
Since influencers are now a bona fide marketing tool, the rules around them are changing. Scafidi tracks this back to around 2009. “At that point, beauty bloggers in particular were boasting about having set up blogs and developed followings in order to get free cosmetics and other products,” she says. “It was becoming a very open conversation.”  In response, the US-based Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued guidelines for brands to follow around their relationships with bloggers, and how those relationships are disclosed – guidelines that were updated in 2016 to focus on influencers more generally.
“For some fashion influencers, amassing a following on social media is simply a hobby, or no more than an exercise in personal brand building,” writes Lauren Sherman for Business of Fashion. “But as fashion businesses move their marketing dollars online and the number of native advertising deals grows, it’s becoming more difficult to discern between organic commentary and paid sponsorship.” 
Ultimately, this is about ensuring people are protected – that they’re aware of what’s paid-for advertising and what’s authentic recommendation. While today’s consumers have a wealth of information at their fingertips, letting them be more informed than ever, they’re still at risk of mistaking product placement for authentic placement. “Under the law, an act or practice is deceptive if it misleads ‘a significant minority’ of consumers,” reads the FTC act. “Even if some readers are aware of these deals, many readers aren’t. That’s why disclosure is important.” 
I previously assumed that the consumers that are most at risk would be older consumers, rather than digital natives – but even younger consumers can prove to be gullible in this regardSusan Scafidi, founder of the Fashion Law Institute
The potential to make this mistake while perusing Instagram feeds is only set to grow as brands build relationships with micro-influencers. “The FTC is concerned about consumers in general,” says Scafidi. “I previously assumed that the consumers that are most at risk would be older consumers, rather than digital natives – but even younger consumers can prove to be gullible in this regard.” 
While brands were once the ones likely to take the fall for any misconduct, influencers are increasingly being reprimanded for a lack of disclosure. “Influencers are already being treated differently [legally speaking, depending on their followings],” says Scafidi. “There are agents who represent these influencers, and they negotiate their rates based on the number of followers they have.”  But with major names like Zoella (who boasts over 11.5 million YouTube subscribers) gaining sizeable pay packets thanks to branded partnerships, there’s a chance that the legitimacy of large-scale influencers could soon take a hit.
Fewer followers means greater authenticity
EventPhotosNYC, Creative Commons (2016) ©
Friends in influential places
As brands attempt to tap into the authenticity of smaller scale influencers, the guidelines around who influencers actually are have never been blurrier. While those with large followings are now operating firmly within the jurisdiction of the FTC and similar global agencies, small-time names are still relatively below the radar.
In some cases, the people doing the ‘influencing’ don’t have to have followings at all, further blurring those boundaries. Girls’ Night In is an exclusive Facebook group not unlike a digital sorority, where members ask for advice on everything from boyfriends to botox. With 96% of American women seeking the advice of others before they buy or try, this is a 1,500-strong community that offers members the validation they need to take the plunge – whether it’s splashing out on a new pair of shoes or even figuring out which guy they should date.  While these aren’t influencers in the legal sense, with 59% of all social sharing in the US now occurring in private channels, groups like these have a huge amount of influence in the literal sense. 
At the other end of the spectrum, Wantfeed is a website where influencing other users is monetised. Its members create Pinterest-style wishlists, and if someone – including the list creator – purchases something via the platform, revenues are split 50/50 between the user and Wantfeed, incentivising the use of the site. They don’t need a following, because the platform bumps up posts on their behalf, meaning anyone can make a little extra cash simply by swaying other users – all without the hassle of having to build up an Instagram following.
Generation Milk are mid-weight influencers-cum-brand ambassadors
Milk Makeup (2016) ©
Insights and opportunities
With user-generated images seven times more likely to be trusted than company-made ads, the role of the influencer has never been more certain.  And with the use of ad blockers having surged 30% globally over the course of 2016, increasingly savvy consumers are only paying attention to the most sophisticated marketing – some of which involves influencers. 
The effectiveness of these online personalities all comes down to trust. Because while Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows trust in establishments to be at an all-time low – the majority of populations in two-thirds of countries surveyed said they distrust public and professional institutions – online influencers have a very different rapport with their fans, and they’re keen to maintain that.  “It’s all about the relationship that you have with your followers,” say influencer Chriselle Lim. “Once they trust you, it's your responsibility to be transparent, real and honest with them.” 
Micro-influencers feel more authentic than their superstar peers. Plus, while big followings still pack a punch, there’s a high price tag attached to product placement – a single placement with a vlogger of Zoella’s status is reported to cost as much as £4,000, and how much influence they have is still relatively unknown. “Brands are falling over themselves to recruit [vloggers] as advocates,” says Jason Mander, head of trends at GWI. “At present, though, it’s clear that vlogging is still heavily associated with entertainment, comedy and advice – rather than a space for overtly commercial activities. Incorporating the latter in a way that seems acceptable to the vlogging audience will be crucial.” 
The content the micro-influencers produce resonates with the audience that follows them. You really relate to them, you think they’re kind of cool, they have cool stuff, they go on cool travelling adventuresMona Akhavi, founder of Sidebuy
While heavyweight brands continue to build relationships with bloggers and vloggers – Maybelline’s latest campaign features Manny Gutierrez, a YouTuber with over two million subscribers – product placement among micro-influencers may prove to be more effective. “The content the micro-influencers produce resonates with the audience that follows them,” says Akhavi. “You really relate to them, you think they’re kind of cool, they have cool stuff, they go on cool travelling adventures.”  As marketers shift away from targeting the masses, instead specifically speaking to niche groups led by interest rather than demographic, this move towards smaller-scale influencers is a logical one. It’s about appealing to the microcosms of culture that the internet is bursting with.
Small brands are similarly able to create a fruitful dialogue with mid-weight influencers. Milk Makeup has harnessed these kinds of Instagrammers by cherry-picking them as brand ambassadors and placing them under its Generation Milk umbrella. “My make-up style is 100% chola hyna, representing my blood and the city I grew up in,” says Jean Pacheo, a member of Gen Milk who has more than 92,000 followers.  Milk’s image is built on women like Pacheo, who are both a part of the brand, and – legally speaking – internet influencers who are being compensated for the exposure they provide. What remains to be seen is how the law will adapt around complex partnerships like these, and if contemporary consumers will be able to make sense of them.
Lore Oxford is Canvas8's deputy editor. She previously ran her own science and technology publication and was a columnist for Dazed and Confused. When she’s not busy analysing human behaviour, she can be found defending anything from selfie culture to the Kardashians from contemporary culture snobs.
'Bloggers and digital influencers are reshaping the fashion and beauty landscape'The Los Angeles Times
'Vans sees sales surge thanks to viral video'
'The rise of 'micro-influencers' on Instagram'
'The rise of the micro-influencer'
'The art of disclosure: fashion’s influence economy and the FTC'
'Word of mouth influences most female shoppers'
'Would you want to chat to a brand on WhatsApp?'
'People trust social media photos more than ads'
'Ad blocker usage is up 30% — and a popular method publishers use to thwart it isn't working'
'Global trust is at an all-time low'
'Why vloggers are a waste of time and money for brands'The Telegraph
'Jean Pacheo 'Coneja''