Influencers Have Come Far, But Have a Long Way to Go

social media illustration
Illustration by Barbara Spurll

I spend a large part of my day on Instagram (and, quite frankly, so do you).

Professionally, I use the platform as an influencer marketer in the alcohol industry, targeting what we call “drinkstagrammers” on behalf of brands. My day-to-day work includes monitoring Instagram conversations plus scouting trends and new potential partners for the companies I represent. I also use Instagram in my personal life to cultivate community while building my own brand. And, if I’m being totally honest, I’ve frequently gone down the rabbit hole of Instagram memes for entertainment.

Instagram is evolving. On this social platform where brands and consumers share content and conversations, crucial dialogues also occur. News organizations, frontline workers and activists use Instagram hashtags, posts and videos to share updates amid the global pandemic and civil unrest due to violence against the Black community. Within social media rests social responsibility.

Unfortunately, when it comes to using Instagram with a social conscience, the drinkstagram community has a long way to go.

In 2016, I worked as a beverage publicist, and part of my job was pitching journalists to write about my clients. I needed their coverage in order to succeed. Unfortunately, at this time, the media landscape was shifting. As publishing profits and budgets shrunk, journalists went from staffers to freelancers, and many print publications pivoted to digital or closed altogether. Fewer outlets and staff contacts equaled fewer media placements, and my success metric was suddenly in peril.

Around the same time, influencers started arriving en masse to fashion shows, hotels and restaurants, and on timelines. They donned, ate and posed with the latest thing, all in the name of content. I figured, if food and fashion could use social media to tell stories and market brands, why not wine and spirits?

Modern consumers are increasingly conscientious, curious to know where ingredients come from, who makes them and whether production is sustainable. Why shouldn’t drinkstagrammers speak to these concerns?

Consequently, I approached my then-boss with the simple idea to treat influencers the same way we did traditional journalists: develop relationships, pitch relevant angles, send sample products and garner a placement—this time, instead of in an article, on Instagram. Our client would be the hero of the Instagram image and copy.

There were all sorts of benefits to this strategy. Unlike travel, beauty or fashion influencers, the drinkstagrammer community encompassed part-time enthusiasts as well as full-time members of the trade, including bartenders, sommeliers and beverage directors, some of whom touted significant followings. My clients could speak to both consumers and professionals by marketing to them on social media.

This soon became the rinse-and-repeat formula of beverage industry marketers, and we rejoiced at the multipronged approach. We could offset the cost of photoshoots by repurposing content on brand pages. Influencers’ trusted voices would rattle off tasting notes or showcase a new recipe to keep our clients top of mind for consumers. On-premise sales benefitted, too, because drinkstagrammers promoted products available at key accounts across the United States.

These sorts of collaborations grew audiences for brands and drinkstagrammers. Soon, top influencers wouldn’t accept payment in the form of product-only exchanges, experiences or a round of drinks at the bar. Followership became king. One’s following—a simple vanity metric—was now determining rates for time, labor and usage.

Behind the scenes, I’d negotiate on behalf of clients and target influencers, ping-ponging between budget parameters and creativity. Bigger brands with bigger budgets opted in, sponsored content swelled and relationships that once felt genuine became transactions that put butts in seats and brand messaging in newsfeeds.

Fatigue set in. I realized there was one thing I could control, and that was my own digital representation and relationships. After working at a public relations agency for several years, I decided to lean into what I saw as influencer marketing.

I’d taken some time off to flex my consultant muscle before transitioning to an in-house position, where I started to contribute to the larger conversation around our use of Instagram.

I also started thinking about how I used the platform personally and professionally. Who was I following and how were they challenging the status quo? Were my favorite accounts putting forward anything other than aesthetics? As COVID-19 made its way across the U.S., influencer content served as an avenue of escapism from the news cycle and sense of normalcy. But what portion of that was real and human, and what was sales and smoke and mirrors? And could we the audience stomach not knowing?

As stewards of the community, influencers have a responsibility to the followers they’ve amassed. It goes beyond informing their audiences about products they can purchase. Modern consumers are increasingly conscientious, curious to know where ingredients come from, who makes them and whether production is sustainable. Why shouldn’t drinkstagrammers speak to these concerns?

This summer, amid social unrest came a campaign called #ShareTheMicNow. It amplified Black voices on platforms with mostly white followers. Several beverage professionals took a page from this book and some drinks content creators followed suit. Then, on June 2, many companies and individuals participated in #BlackOutTuesday to raise awareness of anti-Black racism and demonstrate support for the Black community. Influencers shared lists of Black-owned everything, anti-racist resources and calls to donate.

Savvy audiences naturally questioned their intent. Social sharing, in scarcity, begets skepticism. In the weeks following the mass protests, as parts of the country entered their second and third phases of reopening, many drinkstagrammers’ feeds are slowly returning to the same cadence of apolitical sponsored posts and partnerships.

In my opinion, influencers are left with two options: Repeat the virtue-signaling cycle, or continue to evolve to create real, lasting change.

I have spent enough time on Instagram and in digital marketing to understand and predict analytics. If drinkstagrammers continue to post about social justice, will their Instagram engagement metrics pivot or decline? Absolutely. But that’s the difference between prioritizing your humanity or an algorithm.

Published on August 5, 2020
Topics: Outpourings