The sky was blue, the clouds were gone, the sun was out and there they were, seven influencers with five- and six-digit follower counts doing what they do best: capturing awe inspiring content on their phones and cameras for a cruise line campaign.
The seven influencers moved deliberately, snapping photos from all angles and at every point during the tour of the cruise ship, the Queen Elizabeth from Cunard Lines, docked at Pier 27 in San Francisco. No Boomerang was left untouched. No Instagram story was left unfiltered. All while trapped on a boat, with nothing but water surrounding us.
It was intimidating; as a reporter who’s photographed events and products at CES, Apple, Comic-Con and more, I knew the level of precision some photos take (and the amount of squats you inadvertently do trying to get the perfect shot).
These weren’t just your run of the mill influencers either. Their personal brands have attracted a range of 23,000 to 153,000 followers, filling me with doubts about my own Instagram aesthetic (a few edits on an app, followed by a few swipes through Instagram’s filters and I’m done). They also weren’t the “type” of influencers you might picture; some had master degrees, one is a mother, and another a digital marketer at Rodan + Fields.
So, like any good reporter would do, I politely got out of the way during their photos while picking their brains about influencer marketing, their audience and Instagram’s algorithm changes.
They won’t promote just any brand
Contrary to the number of detox teas you might see floating around on Instagram, these influencers take their audience (and themselves) seriously. If their audience won’t like a product or experience—or worse, know it’s not an accurate representation of the influencer—they won’t post it.
“I don’t like promoting brands that I wouldn’t use myself or promoting things that I wouldn’t like myself or that I wouldn’t want to endorse,” said Mandana Ansari, of girlandthebay with 153,000 followers, and has worked with brands like Orangetheory Fitness.
Some, like Esmeralda Rodriguez (esmeraldatravels) has 23,400 Instagram followers and focuses on travel, has to make sure the brand or campaign is an extension of her story. For example, working with Cunard Line was a way to address a part of travel that’s normally “neglected” and learn more about cruise lines.
“My feed is very niche and targeted, so sometimes depending on the product or experience I have to really think how could I fit this within my feed,” said Rodriguez.
Not all influencers deserve a bad rep
The word “influencer” makes a lot of people think about a spoiled, over indulgent millennial who makes a living off of Instagram posts and eating avocado toast. And while some influencers do exist solely to promote as many brands as possible so they can cash a check, the influencers who took an afternoon boat ride, try to stick to what their audience wants.
“Any influencer who seemingly has a large community [is most likely because] they are probably doing something right,” said Elaine Low Courtney, whose womanoftaste Instagram boasts 96,200 followers.
More than anything, influencers want you to know how much work goes into creating content—and that it’s not just a simple Instagram photo with a filter overlaid on it (like my Instagram feed).
“There’s a lot of planning and understanding what your followers want, the best time to post, the best kind of feel you want to give your photo, the cohesiveness you want to give your entire profile so that it represents you as a person and not a caricature,” Courtney said.
Rodriguez didn’t even call herself an influencer until recently.
“I’m hoping my followers follow me because of what value I offer them based on my experience as a traveler,” Rodriguez said.
Kit Michele—her Instagram is things.sheloves with 39,700 followers—understands why that perception about influencers is there but points to other people in the space that promote causes or use their voice to “change things.”
It’s not about the numbers
I pointed out each influencers follower count—to which they all routinely dismissed and waved it away like it was no big deal.
“A lot of people think the number of followers means you’re more successful,” Courtney said. “That’s completely untrue. I think it’s more how much you engage them and how much value you provide to their life.”
Engagement doesn’t just include the “likes” you get on a photo; it also means the direct messages and comments that a post generates. A “like” is one thing, but interacting with the message of the influencer allows followers to actually feel like they’re connecting with an influencer.
And a big follower count doesn’t necessarily mean a brand is going to get any solid ROI on a post.
Courtney, for example, believes it’s better to have 15,o00 followers that get deep with her—through comments and likes—than having 500,000 followers. She said by making people care about what she’s posting and taking an interest in her life she can generate a high engagement rate that tops 10 percent. And that’s far more fulfilling than having a huge body count that doesn’t interact with her.
“You may have a large number of followers but if you’re posting something that nobody cares about and you get low engagement. It totally defeats the purpose,” Courtney said.
That being said, it’s hard for them to make this a selling point because of other influencers who don’t take have these same ideals.
“We’re frustrated with all this because of course we all want to work with brands,” Rodriguez said. “But there’s few influencers that care about the brands they work with.”
Instagram’s changes also bother them
Instagram first jiggered with its chronological feed, turning it into an algorithmic one in June 2016, which left users upset about the feed and how it’s affected their experience of the app (not that Instagram’s done much to take the feedback into account).
While Instagram users are welcoming Instagram Stories, one thing’s for certain: both regular users and influencers do not like the algorithm change.
“It has really slowed down engagement,” Rodriguez said.
To Courtney and Rodriguez, the change makes no sense. If people decided to follow an account, why not show them that content?
“It’s my own community that I now have to somewhat pay for them to see my own things when they chose to follow me,” Rodriguez said. Currently, she only boosts posts if the engagement is super low.
Courtney echoed a similar sentiment. “. . . You do put in so much effort, [that] it doesn’t make sense why 50 percent of your followers don’t automatically see it because of some new algorithm change.”
Influencers don’t think they should need to boost their posts to make sure their audience sees it, but the reality is it’s now part of being an influencer. Just like any job there’s the good: perks like trips, free hotel stays and promotional products. And the bad: maintaining an audience as the system changes.
“Now I have to spend hours and hours figuring out how can I get more engagement when [the] reality is I should be thinking how can I create better content and more value,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a social thing—I should be connecting with more people not trying to beat an algorithm.”
While the algorithm change bothers some influencers, other features like Instagram stories, are generally positive.
“I feel like it’s really allowed the audience that I do have to feel really connected to me and vice versa,” said Jade Broadus, of vagabound3 with 59,100 followers.
Ultimately, Courtney doesn’t like the changes Instagram’s made.
“Instagram is becoming less like Instagram and more like Facebook,” Courtney said.
Influencers, they’re just like you and me
I left the boat that day with a Boomerang on my Instagram story, a handful of photos that would make it to my Instagram profile later that night, and best of all, new influencers to follow (and wonder if I could make it my second job someday— after all, everyone needs a side hustle these days).
So what value’s of influencers? In the end, they make us feel connected to their story, and they make us aspire to something more (and yes, having them follow me back totally helps accomplish that).