(This blog post has been updated from its original posting date in November 2019.)
This week the FTC announced new internet guidelines that will effect both digital users and publishers alike. Youtubers in particular are now having to rethink the way they target their audiences. One of the biggest shake ups occurred last year with the repeal of Net Neutrality- a law that ensured equal access to everyone. However, the continual changes to rules and regulations of the internet is nothing new. How and if the inter web should be regulated has been heavily debated since at least the late 1990s. I have been around long enough to realize the one constant about the internet is that the rules are always going to change.
Within the last 10 years, the internet has become THE PLACE for entrepreneurs. We now have an entire generation that has grown up online and living life via a click of a mouse is the norm. Traditional business practices such as print advertising, mailers, catalogs, and other tangible marketing tools have all but disappeared. Learning manual layout and mark ups is an extinct course in Advertising and Design. Next year, online shopping is projected to consist of 12% of annual sales in the US and by 2040, a whopping 95% of sales are projected to come from online sources alone.*** If that projection is true, the future of commerce is pretty clear!
In my rural area, online access has been a lifeline- a way for a small isolated community to access a much larger market. In my mostly farmland community that boasts a population of around 3,000 people, with the click of the mouse, I can order the same products as say someone living in NYC or London and have them delivered to my door. Now that’s pretty amazing.
However, with that convenience comes challenges. When I launched my website in 2000, “inter-preneurership” was a new thing. At that time, websites were simple html sites and auxiliary sources of advertising for brick and mortar stores. Netscape was THE internet browser and Napster was the bomb. Blogs were not yet a thing. And social media was a term regulated to the newspaper’s society page. Some larger sites incorporated shopping and checkout features but it was expensive to set up and maintain. My first site consisted of a photo catalog with a printable order form. That’s right. You had to PRINT the order form, FILL IT OUT with a pen, and then MAIL it with a stamp!
But it was a start.
Today, webshops are EVERYWHERE. Never before has it been so easy to buy online. And now we don’t even have to THINK about WHAT we
want to need to buy. We have people telling us what we need. If we want to be cool, if we want to sit at the cool table with the cool kids, then we must have the same cool stuff and/or dress just like the cool kids too. These cool kids are called influencers and they get paid to promote products to followers. Sounds like a great marketing plan right?
Let’s look a little closer at influencer marketing. Influencer culture is not a new phenomenon but social media influencing is. Prior to the age of Instagram and Youtube, influencers were limited to well known celebrities, public figures, and brands. Today, practically anyone who knows how to work the virtual system can gain notoriety within their niche genre.
Here’s how it works. YouTube and Instagram generate revenue through sales. These two platforms utilize the content of their users to do this. With Youtube, content that is popular or visible amongst a large audience is promoted by the platform and embedded with product ads. Youtube, a child of Google, receives revenue from companies who place the ads in the videos with a portion of the Adsense profits going to the content creators.
According to a February 4, 2020 article on The Verge.com, “Youtube earned a whopping $15 billion in advertising alone with $8.5 billion of that revenue being paid out to content creators.”* So just a smidge over 50% going to those actually creating the content.
Instagram, on the other hand, makes money through “boosts” to a small business’s (or individual’s) Instagram post or page (much like facebook ads). Instagram is a child of Facebook and according to marketing expert Christine Welsh, “both platforms earn revenue indirectly by collecting huge amounts of [user] data, which increases the effectiveness and value of the advertising sold both on Instagram AND Facebook.”**
Additionally, both YouTube and Instagram content can be “sponsored.” This occurs when companies reach out directly to influencers and offer compensation for content created exclusively to promote their company and/or products. Earnings vary and depend on the agreement between the companies and the content creators. Can Youtube still slap their ads onto this content? Absolutely.
In any type of marketing- whether traditional or influencing, there is always the element of psychology. How do we tap into our targeted audience’s needs? What motivates our targeted audience? How can we motivate our targeted audience to buy OUR products? You know how it goes. In essence, none of these strategies are inherently bad. It is just when a company and or it’s paid influencers takes an EXCLUSIVE rather than INCLUSIVE stand that things can get ugly.
Exclusivity is not a new thing. Many brands have built a legacy on it- Tiffany and Co., Versace, Gucci, Ferrari, etc. These luxury brands have used exclusivity to convey the obtainer’s wealth and status. But with the advent of social media, the rules are changing and now your average Joe, or the girl next door, can create an exclusive world, build a following, invite you into their world (for a fee of course) and promote himself/herself as an attainable commodity with which to be acquired.
As a result, followers can become rather territorial about their property. Since their commodity has human form, the connection is highly emotional and some followers can become rather vicious at the slightest hint of negativity regarding their coveted brand. And let’s get one thing straight. Social Media influencing is about making money. As much as we want it to be so, influencing is NOT about the audience or the experience. It is not about creating content that contributes to the greater good. Social media influencing has nothing to do with being a true authority in a field. Social media influencing has everything to do with persuasion over others and their purchasing decisions to the notoriety and monetary gain of the influencer. As the consumer, if you don’t pay, you don’t get to play.
And this is where things can go awry. This is when a business’s operational ethics play an important role. For example, I like to keep up with a particular footwear brand. I have never purchased anything from this brand and am not “a follower.” Many are. I have enjoyed watching this business from its beginnings and have paid attention to how it has risen to become a dominant force in my professional field. However, as this brand has garnered a larger and larger following, I have also witnessed numerous accounts of proselytizers verbally attacking potential repeat customers over honest intentioned reviews. This is a consequence of the lack of delineation between individual and entity.
This is problematic and conflicts with personal business ethics on many levels. As business owners, we need to understand consumer feedback is extremely important. And while no business likes negative reviews, it should be viewed as a tool for improvement. The ability to sift out true constructive feedback from trolling and understand most people share feedback on the seller’s website (47%) and Facebook (31%),*** it is pretty easy for a brand to regulate this type of behavior from its followers. When followers verbally attack others, it does not bode well for business. Period.
We now live in a society that is more connected than we have ever been and yet we are more emotionally disconnected than we have ever been. It’s an interesting study in psychology but I wonder how truly sustainable all of this really is? How long can Joe or Jill keep up with the demands of not only the companies with whom they are on the promotional payroll but also the ever increasing demands of their followers? Social media is a monster that must be continually fed. It promotes consumerism in a way we have never seen before. It converts humanity into commodity. In academia, the old adage is if you don’t publish, you die. In social media marketing, if you don’t promote, you don’t get paid.
As an e-commerce business owner and online consumer, social media marketing has been both a blessing and a curse. I credit the internet for the growth of my business. In fact, if I did not start a website WAY BACK in 2000, I guarantee I would not be designing and making historical clothing full time today. My audience would only be as far as I could physically reach and most, if not all of my time, would be invested in seeking out new business clients.
But I have also been around long enough to realize balance is important. A more balanced business owner is more creative, innovative, and provides a better product to its clientele. With 25 years of experience under my belt and an amazing list of worldwide clientele, I can attest real brand followers want an entity that is authentic, transparent, and true to its mission. Quality over quantity matters. Choose two social media platforms to dedicate your time to. Understand these platforms in depth. Be intentional (but not manipulative) with your content. Stay focused and publish quality social media consumables true to your brand. Don’t be afraid to go old school. Be intentional with your partners. And finally get out and get some feet on the ground. Personal connection (i.e. real face to face connection) is STILL the best marketing strategy to date. And understand a dedicated clientele is worth more than growth index, chasing after the latest digital marketing trend, or quick profits.