The six highest-earning influencers on Instagram as of April of this year commanded a combined following of over 2 billion people and, on average, earned north of $1.8 million per post according to personal finance site GOBankingRates. 

After glancing at such whopping figures, one might assume that small to midsize brands looking to land an influencer with significant sway don’t have much of a shot. Except they do – and now more so than ever.

What has motivated the change?

Another study by Morning Consult recently found that consumers (especially Gen Z consumers) have a far wider and more inclusive understanding of what constitutes an influencer. They’re not only happy to pay attention to online personalities with modest followings (nano and micro influencers in marketing parlance), but also prefer to follow a bunch of them.

The study surveyed 2,204 adults and 1,000 Gen-Zers (age 13 and up) to determine who they follow on socials, how much they trust them, and the degree to which those figures influence purchasing decisions.

This shift means that mega influencers and celebrities such as Selena Gomez and The Rock just don’t hold as much literal influence as they used to when it comes to promoting brands and services. I would argue that a motivating factor behind this change is consumer awareness. 10 years ago, only a small handful of Instagram followers were aware that the Kardashians were being paid $1 million for a post. Their innocence was therefore easier to capitalize on. Now that more consumers and followers are aware of the unbelievable buyouts, it is only natural to question the authenticity of the promotion, i.e does Selena Gomez really like Coke all that much? 

Newer brands are less discoverable on mega platforms

Furthermore, consumers are there to discover new brands and seeing that almost only the megas can afford to pay celebrity influencers, the everyday user finds themself at a loss when looking for a new skincare brand. We all know what Coke, Neurtogena and Hershey’s can offer because we have known of them for years. We want to discover a new, young cruelty free skicnare brand who probably don’t have the budget to market via a Kardashian. So instead, we look elsewhere, to a smaller and more relatable alternative. 

The definition of an “influencer” has broadened 

In addition, the everyday consumer’s idea of what defines an influencer has changed. In Morning Consult’s study, 71% of respondents said that an influencer is someone who “makes entertaining content,” 70% said an influencer will “share ideas or inspiration,” and 61% said an influencer should “share advice.” Nowhere in the 10 most common responses did respondents say that an influencer had to be rich, gorgeous or famous.

The influencer with a modest but devoted following is all the more attractive to brand sponsors now owing to another of the study’s findings: Trust in influencers is growing. In 2019, millennial and Gen-Z consumers who said they trusted what influencers said stood at 51%. This year, per Morning Consult’s data, that population had grown to 61%.

That’s a remarkable development, considering that trust in web content overall is down sharply. According to an international poll conducted by Ipsos at the end of last year, 63% of people now say they trust what they see online—but that’s an 11-point fall from 2019’s slice, which was 74%. 

Marketing is now more democratized for brands 

As a result, while a bigger and more diffuse array of viable influencers does leave the brand marketer in search of the right fit with a tougher job, it also democratizes the process. Since fewer consumers have a single favorite influencer, a brand should consider working with a range of smaller ones, which in theory will reach a larger and more diverse pool of would-be customers. Better still brands are not just fighting in a pool of 5,000 celebrities that they’re competing with all the other brands to sign. 

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