The 2010s: The Decade of Influence(r)

On Marketing, Self-Promotion, Audience-Building, and the Future of Work

This is a bit random but I’ve been following “influencer” trends for about 15 years now. Why? I’m not entirely sure why, but I’ve always been drawn to understanding personality (and community) driven demand. There’s something inherently fascinating about the power of a single voice selling out a product or moving a stock $1B with a single tweet. It’s like a super power that needs to be studied (copywriters nodding vigorously in agreement).

Note: This post is really just an arbitrary excuse to share this photo of my influencer friends at my wedding.

TLDR Summary

I share several “pet theories” where I offer no data to support my opinions, but you’re going to go along with what I have to say because I’m a nano-influencer and this is how the universe works now.

Pet Theories (Which I’m sure I picked up from someone else and don’t realize it):

  • [From 2000s] One day, the most important and profitable sales person in a Company won’t be employed by them. Odds are they won’t even know who she is, but she’s going to move a ton of product. Companies will eventually need to reorganize themselves to better handle and embrace this sales funnel.

  • With the rise of influencers and continued acceptance of online patronage, there will be a day when a meaningful portion of a person’s income will come from Internet sponsors who simply want to support people they like and see them succeed. It will be less about buying products and more about supporting the creator.

  • The companies and/or individuals that “breakout” tend to exhibit the personality, values, and culture best suited to “win” and reshape that category.

  • Competition is getting so intense between retailers for Black Friday wallet share (everyone is starting their promos a week or more early now) that the U.S. will eventually adopt China’s Singles’ Day (November 11) as a major shopping day.

  • In order to achieve sustainability in the long tail of any category, there has to be “big winners” (power law distribution) to help attract resources/interest to build out the ecosystem. Most people are not pioneers. They need to see “winners” to know a category is viable and that there’s a path for them to profitably participate. When there’s a viable path, the addressable market is unlocked allowing smaller, niche players to thrive.

  • We’re seeing the early stages of sustainable “1,000 true fans” businesses as audiences shift toward nano-influencers.

  • In 2012, VC Matt Cohler once said great mobile apps act like push-button remote controls for real life. A similar trend will occur with work where individuals can spool up services (i.e. Shopify, Stripe, Instagram, other APIs and apps to fulfill front & back office functions) to create a successful one person enterprise.

A Decade of Influence(r)

Back in the mid 2000s, the phrase “influencer” wasn’t really used. You were either a blogger or vlogger (Youtube) or just Myspace famous. Today, “influencer” seems like a catchall phrase for anyone who creates content on the Internet and gets paid (or gets free stuff) for it.

The importance of influencers to commerce is obvious today, but back then I sounded like a lunatic (probably still do to be honest…) talking about the importance of The Sartorialist, Bag Snob, or Tommy Ton when discussing the future of commerce.

I had this pet theory at the time:

  • One day, the most important and profitable sales person in a Company won’t be employed by them. Odds are they won’t even know who she is, but she’s going to move a ton of product. Companies will eventually need to reorganize themselves to better handle and embrace this sales funnel.

Before the industry experts chime in and say “duh”, I don’t consider myself an expert on “influencer marketing” but I (oddly) love this topic and enjoy talking about it.

And since the decade is nearly over, I figure now would be a great time to discuss the rise of the influencer during the 2010s, and speculate on how business trends started by influencers will continue to reshape and reorganize commerce and how it (possibly) will impact the way we work over the next decade or more.

Influencers: Sneak Peek to “Future of Work”?

Before we start talking about the Kardashians, I wanted to quickly share another pet theory (I’m going to share a lot of pet theories in this post) I have about the future of work:

  • With the rise of influencers and continued acceptance of online patronage, there will be a day when a meaningful portion of a person’s income will come from Internet sponsors who simply want to support people they like and see them succeed. It will be less about buying products and more about supporting the creator.

The future of work is going to feel weird and possibly something out of the Hunger Games at times, but so was being a full-time influencer 10 years ago.

Do you recall the picture of influencers at the top of the post?

I’m going to assume most of you have no idea who they are (feel free to reply or tweet me if you do), and that’s kind of the point.

There are so many “Internet famous” people today with millions of online followers, but the vast majority of people are completely unaware they exist. Interestingly, if one of their fans encountered them in public, they’re treated just like celebrities (some fans get very starstruck).

Social media platforms have made it possible to create nano-celebrities that you have never heard of who command the kind of influence on their fanbase that we previously saw during the “Oprah gives away cars to her audience” era 15 years ago. It’s on a much smaller scale, but the fandom is just as strong (if not stronger).

So when you ask, “who in their right mind is going to give money to someone on the Internet for no good reason?”, the answer (in my opinion) is a lot of people.

The Kardashians

Kim Kardashian gets a bad rap. There, I said it.

Ask people what they think of Kim Kardashian (and by extension the Kardashians and Jenners) and most have an unfavorable view:

Put another way, Kardashian is now viewed less favorably than the U.S. Congress. The least popular branch of government has a 60% unfavorable rating.

Time Magazine, in my opinion, frames why most people dislike Kim Kardashian (and the Kardashians/Jenners by extension) pretty well:

I’m not going to break out that old saw that Kim Kardashian has no talent, but she has no occupation like Miley, Madonna, Joan [Rivers], or Sarah [Silverman]. She has no outlet to express herself and keep herself relevant other than a highly scripted reality show with sinking ratings and her image. Remember, she is a celebrity whose initial fame, after being Paris Hilton’s closet organizer, was predicated on her having a sex tape. Kim Kardashian can only peddle in her body, and her ass is the most valuable part of that body.

Interestingly, this Time article was written in 2014 and Kim Kardashian’s reality TV show continues to chug along 5 years later despite “sinking ratings” and has remained on-air for over 12 years despite a 2.7 IMDb rating.

So why does Kim “Famous for Nothing” Kardashian and the rest of the Kardashian/Jenner family deserve our respect?

They are pioneers of the “attention economy” and the massive fortune they have accumulated has laid the groundwork for an entire generation of “influencers” to make a living on the Internet.

More importantly, the notion of “influencer” continues to evolve and I believe we’ll see a day in the near future when it’s quite normal for individuals to make a living with the help of their online “tribe”.

Kim Kardashian may be “famous for nothing” but she may one day be famous for helping change how we work.

Pioneering the Attention Economy

Pet Theory:

  • The companies and/or individuals that “breakout” tend to exhibit the personality, values, and culture best suited to “win” and reshape that category.

From Sam Walton’s frugality to Mark Zuckerberg’s “You can be unethical and still be legal that’s the way I live my life”, certain markets require (for better or for worse) certain personality traits (quirks) to achieve breakout success.

When it comes to the attention economy, (shameless) self-promotion is very important and the Kardashians took it to another level.

As profiled in the Hollywood Reporter (2011), the family smartly converted their reality television show into a marketing platform for Kardashian, Inc.

"These [TV] shows are a 30-minute commercial" - Khloe Kardashian

The Kardashians relentlessly pursued business opportunities and brand extensions to generate the family hundreds of millions of dollars, and pioneered all sorts of marketing ideas and concepts in the process.

One thing people don’t fully appreciate about the Kardashians is they didn’t exactly have a playbook for what they were doing. Things were getting figured out on-the-fly. Sure, there were other “celebutantes” like Paris Hilton who made money endorsing some products or doing club appearances, but the Kardashians went from endorsing products to reshaping industries over the decade.

To accomplish this, they had to pioneer their own path and model. As noted in Celebrity, Inc.: How Famous People Make Money:

When Kim first sat down with her mother to talk business in 2007, they agreed there was no business model they could follow. [Paris] Hilton’s was a good start, but it didn’t go far enough.

My mom and I talk about it all the time. We have just done what works for us and stuck by that…We make our own model,” Kardashian told me.

A really important concept they embraced was bringing their audience along on their “journey” (whether that journey was real or not is a separate conversation) and turning them into “stans” (an obsessed fanbase) hungry to consume any and all things Kardashian.

If reality TV provided the platform to attract attention, the rise of social media provided the Kardashians the platform to really embrace, engage, and evangelize their fanbase.

This is want separated the Kardashians from the Paris Hiltons of the world.

Rise of Social Media

The Kardashians, however, could never have catapulted beyond the bounds of reality TV without the rise of social networking. - Hollywood Reporter

I’ve placed a lot of focus on the Kardashians thus far, but the rise of social networking and the broad adoption of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Youtube, Soundcloud, Twitch, Vine (R.I.P), TikTok, etc. led to a Cambrian explosion of influencers and online personalities that have used these platforms to access, engage, and mobilize audiences.

This doesn’t even include what’s going on overseas and the social networking innovations occurring in places like India, China, South Korea, and Japan. “Social” is such a massive category that it’s next to impossible to properly cover it in one post.

That said, given that we’re approaching the end of the decade, there are some pretty good 10 year retrospectives on Beauty Youtube, Influencer Testimonials, and How Instagram Changed Shopping. I encourage you to read them if you’re interested in learning more about what has happened this decade.

Kardashian in the Social Media Koal Mine

So why focus on the Kardashians in this post?

In general, they’re the “canary in the coal mine”…or as I like to say…the “Kardashian in the social media koal mine”.

The Kardashians are an excellent reference point to what’s going on in social, what’s trending, and most importantly where are the monetization opportunities. As I mentioned earlier, the family is relentless in pursuing opportunities and trying out concepts to extend their brand. It’s like a Kardashian social flywheel. (I’m just as disgusted writing that.)

Will they be on-trend with everything? No, you’re not going to see them on Twitch and sometimes they’re late to the party but it’s still important to keep an eye on what they’re doing.

For instance, Kim Kardashian recently participated in a livestream for China’s Singles’ Day to promote her KKW fragrance line. Those who follow China will say “duh, that makes sense”, but livestream online shopping is still an early concept in the U.S. and Kim’s participation this year will likely open the door for other influencers to pursue similar promotions next year.

Pet Theory:

  • Competition is getting so intense between retailers for Black Friday wallet share (everyone is starting their promos a week or more early now) that the U.S. will eventually adopt China’s Singles’ Day (November 11) as a major shopping day.

Facebook and others are proactively developing live online shopping functionality for the U.S. market and you have to assume a Kardashian (or Jenner) will definitely be on this trend in the U.S.

Twitch is currently known for gaming, but don’t be surprised if that infrastructure is repurposed for live online shopping channels some day.

Addressable Market Growth

Pet Theory:

  • In order to achieve sustainability in the long tail of any category, there has to be “big winners” (power law distribution) to help attract resources/interest to build out the ecosystem. Most people are not pioneers. They need to see “winners” to know a category is viable and that there’s a path for them to profitably participate. When there’s a viable path, the addressable market is unlocked allowing smaller, niche players to thrive.

If the Kardashians can figure out a way to make big money on a platform (or in a category), that’s generally a good sign for the whole ecosystem and the long-tail of entrepreneurs seeking a sustainable living.

A decade ago, you could pay Kim Kardashian $10,000 to do a sponsored tweet to her 2 million Twitter followers. That sounds like a bargain today, but back then that amount seemed ludicrous to casual observers. It may have been an eye popping amount, but it was important for others to see a “non-celebrity celebrity” get that kind of payout and seed the idea of “hey, I can do that too”.

Fast forward to today and it will cost you $300,000 to $500,000 for a single Kim Kardashian Instagram post. Influencer spend has grown considerably over the decade as brands and companies embrace influencer marketing, making it possible for smaller influencers to carve out a living for themselves.

A decade ago $10,000 could get you a Kim Kardashian sponsored post. Today, that same $10,000 will get you a sponsored post from a mid-tier influencer (50K to 500K) as influencer rates have climbed 50% per year since 2017.

So when I hear Kylie Jenner sold 51% of her Company for $600M to Coty, Jeffree Star broke Shopify, Ninja gets paid $500,000 per month to play Fortnite, or 8 year old Ryan Kaji got paid $26 million making Youtube videos, I get really excited.

That usually means the underlying ecosystem can potentially support a long-tail of creators and give more people the freedom to work for themselves.

That said, despite the ramping growth of influencer marketing spend, there are still challenges. From mediakix:

Increasing influencer rates is feared by marketers—so much so that nearly 40% of U.S. marketers agree the rising cost of influencers is a leading challenge in the space. This turbulent pricing model poses a major pain point to marketers who are trying to harness the power of influencers. Measuring ROI is already difficult, and the fact that rates are on the rise is enough to cause concern amongst marketers on a budget.

Influencer Fatigue: Shift From Macro to Nano-Influencer

Proving the ROI of influencer marketing is challenging and influencer fatigue is an issue.

While influencer marketing activity is up 48%, engagement rates for Instagram posts are hovering near all-time lows.

Instagram influencers have seen their engagement rates hover near all-time lows as the Facebook-owned app becomes over-crowded with sponsored posts, per a study that analytics firm InfluencerDB shared with Mobile Marketer.

So what’s going on with low engagement rates?

Jeff Bezos once said:

I feel that society develops an immune response eventually to the bad uses of new technology, but it takes time,” Bezos continued, pointing to social media, which he said increases identity politics and tribalism. “The internet in its current incarnation is a confirmation bias machine. You have a going-in point of view, you go do some searches, you find confirmation of your point of view.”

Influencer marketing isn’t bad per se, but consumers are definitely being turned off by mega influencers constantly pushing sponsored content and are developing an “immune response”.

So what is the “immune response” to influencer marketing?

In my opinion, it’s moving to “authenticity” and tribalism (which Bezos also correctly points out is driven by social media). Online tribalism has negative connotations, but the sense of identity and belonging is a very powerful force and very much a part of our humanity. There are negative elements, but let’s not ignore the positives.

Audiences are shifting to nano-influencers where they feel greater connection (tribe) and authenticity to the content creator. Gen-Z loves nano-influencers:

Gen Z tends to find out about new products via social media. They also tend to value social influencers who speak honestly, authentically and without a hidden agenda. While they might follow social media “macro-influencers” like Kylie JennerDJ Khaled or Hayden Williams, they recognize that celebrities who get paid up to a million dollars per Instagram post aren’t necessarily the best metric for authenticity. That’s where so-called nano-influencers come into the picture: regular people with only 2,000 - 10,000 social media followers who, nonetheless, can “influence” Gen Z brand engagement by virtue of... not being famous.

Marketers are also shifting their dollars to the smaller influencers to improve engagement and generate positive ROI:

As brands are investing more in influencer marketing, their focus is shifting to microinfluencers as a key strategy for engaging with younger consumers who spend more time on social platforms. Plus, 78% of millennials either don’t like celebrity endorsements or are indifferent to them, according to eMarketer. Microinfluencers or other non-celebrity influencers are seen as more engaging and trustworthy.

Nano-influencers command roughly four times the engagement rate from their followers than social media royalty. Why? Because they’re real people who are responsive to their friends. Indeed, a recent study finds they get 22x the number of buying conversations you’d get from your average consumer — and up to 11x the ROI you’d pay for a digital advertising campaign.

In many ways, the Internet is fracturing consumers back into smaller tribes.

1,000 True Fans

Note: I wrote about “1,000 True Fans” in my Gen-Z post, but felt it added to the conversation on influencers and the shift to “nano-influencers”.

Over 10 years later and the 2008 essay on “1,000 true fans” remains one of my favorites:

To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.

And the tools for connecting keep getting better, including the recent innovations in social media. It has never been easier to gather 1,000 true fans around a creator, and never easier to keep them near.

If millennials sought to reshape the workplace in their image, Gen-Z seek to avoid the workplace altogether and be a one-person enterprise, leveraging technology to attract and monetize their audience of “true fans”.

Pet Theory:

  • We’re seeing the early stages of sustainable “1,000 true fans” businesses as audiences shift toward nano-influencers.

Shopify: These Are Tribes, Not Stores

Note: Shoutout to Terminal Value for sharing examples of content/social driven commerce with me.

Anecdotally, influencers large and small are well aware that the Instagram gravy train can go away…and it can happen very quickly. Many of the long-time influencers (who were bloggers) still remember how quickly premium display ads disappeared and are constantly thinking about how to build a sustainable business.

Not everyone can be Joji or Jeffree Star, but platforms like Shopify are helping influencers mobilize audiences built on social platforms to create sustainable businesses.

Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke describes his Company’s purpose as “arming the rebels”. I like to think of Shopify as empowering online tribes.

That all said, you don’t have to be a large influencer to leverage social platforms to build an audience and drive sales.

And sometimes, sales have less to do with the product and more to do with supporting the creator:

There’s a long tail of content creators who use Shopify to run their businesses, and it’s amazing to watch.

I love this video. Entrepreneur and content creator Nay Nichole made a video about fulfilling orders for her sunglasses business, and she talks about how much she loves Shopify. While making the video an order comes in and she celebrates. The best part is the top comment to the video is the person whose order she's fulfilling.

That was my order!!!! 👀😍 and I loveeeeeee everything!!! Down to each detail! this was amazing to watch ! A true boss ❤️

This content, commerce, audience loop is amazing to see “in the wild”. In a world of intense product competition, getting customers to care about who they buy from can be an important driver of purchase and differentiation.

10 years ago, 40K to 50K online stores existed when Tobi Lütke was on Sand Hill Road pitching Shopify. Today, there are 1M merchants on the Shopify platform, and I expect that number to rise as more individuals find their “1,000 true fans” and build sustainable businesses to serve their fans.

Online Patronage

Beyond selling products direct-to-fans, people are much more comfortable giving money online (often to complete strangers). There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about this trend, but I’m trying to look at this from the perspective of a curious observer and not to jump to judgement.

Millenials and Gen Zers are using Venmo to crowdfund money. People are very open sharing their Venmo and Cash App accounts online to crowdfund a few hundred dollars. Yes, people like throwing money at problems, but there is something genuinely heartwarming about seeing people help others online simply because they want to see them succeed. Maybe it’s for the dopamine flood, but it’s pretty cool to witness.

To the shock of no one, the adult industry tends to lead the way (suitable for work NY Times link) when it comes to online monetization.

Models who join the [OnlyFans] site often presume that their subscribers will increase in number if they post more often and make the content more explicit. The “more often” part is true. The “more explicit” part is not.

When OnlyFans started, in 2016, Ms. Harwood was one of just 10 models who sought subscribers. She didn’t think much would come of it initially. Her earnings for the first month were $257.

[Presently], she brought home $29,420.47 in August, $34,303.24 in September, $52,693.29 in October and $52,760.49 in November.

“You can get porn for free,” she said. “Guys don’t want to pay for that. They want the opportunity to get to know somebody they’ve seen in a magazine or on social media. I’m like their online girlfriend.”

The desire to feel “connected” is a powerful driver of online patronage. It will be interesting to see how online patronage is broadly adopted as a mainstream source of income.

Things That Have Never Happened Before Are Mis-Priced

A quick detour before discussing the “future of work”. Former HF Manager John Burbank gave an interesting talk about his belief that “things that have never happened before are the most mis-priced things in markets”. I recommend you listen to the entire 5 minute segment, but one thing that stuck out was John Burbank discussing the career interest of students he taught in China in 1988:

My best students [in China] wanted to be farmers, because that was the only part of the economy that had market prices. That was the only way they could make money.

Things have changed quite a bit in China since 1988. And despite “influencer fatigue”, many young people in China want to be influencers:

Motivated by the earning potential and possible fame, many digital-savvy Chinese are joining the influencer ranks. There are reportedly over 1 million influencers in China who have more than 10,000 followers on social media. According to a Chinese job survey, 54 percent of Chinese born after 1995 chose “influencer” as their most desired occupation.

A similar sentiment can be seen in the U.S. with 86% of young people saying they want to post social media content for money:

86% of Gen Z and millennials surveyed would post sponsored content for money, and 54% would become an influencer given the opportunity, according to the report by research firm Morning Consult, which surveyed 2,000 Americans ages 13 to 38 about influencer culture.

Like I said, most people are not pioneers. They need to see “winners” to know a category is viable and that there’s a path for them to profitably participate.

Is the desire to be an influencer today a lagging indicator similar to wanting to be a farmer in China in 1988?

I think the answer is yes and no.

We can’t ignore influencer fatigue and the audience’s desire for authenticity. We’re probably reaching the limits of the mega “Coachella influencer” model, and marketers also recognize this as they move more dollars downstream to smaller influencers.

That said, what “influencer” means will continue to evolve and I’m bullish one’s ability to build an online audience of “1,000 true fans” and make a living from it. We’re just getting started on the “one person enterprise” trend.

Future of Work: The One Person Enterprise

Atomic Habits James Clear recently tweeted:

I wholeheartedly agree. It’s never been easier to create a one person enterprise and should only get easier over time. The hard part is building an engaged audience, but the online tools are available to quickly build an online business.

Pet Theory:

We’re still in early days and seeing the friction of “gig economy” as market participants figure the right balance of independence and employment capture, but I believe the perception and economics of “one person” work will continue to improve.

And with remote work becoming a trend, the same infrastructure getting built for distributed teams will also benefit one person enterprises who can plug-in and add value. Anyway, back to influencers…

20 years ago, young people had limited references to “one person” success. You could be a star athlete or an actor or singer (i.e. a singularly unique talent), but otherwise you’re getting absorbed into a corporation. These days, young people are constantly exposed to influencers who look just like them that are doing amazing things in commerce and content creation as one person enterprises.

That is a powerful motivator and inspiration. Build an audience of “1,000 true fans” and you have a legitimate opportunity to make a sustainable living. You don’t need a spectacular individual talent to “break out” and build a sustainable online business. That’s incredibly exciting and I look forward to what the future holds.

Happy New Year

Here’s to 2020. Get after it and (shamelessly) promote yourself.