Are we being influenced by the influencers? A look at the growth and change in Instagram beyond letting our friends see our cool photos.
Influencer, content creator, social media star, blogger, vlogger. No matter what you call them, there is no doubt these people are influencing the world around us by the content they share on social media platforms.
Social media influencers are big business, and not just for themselves. They are helping brands and companies big and small show off their products, locations and amenities to people worldwide.
According to the website Business Insider and working with Mediakix data, by 2022, estimates are that brands will be spending up to $15 billion on influencer marketing.
So, just how is a place like Aspen, which already has national name recognition, using these influencers to further its brand and reach new audiences, and how does the Aspen influencer differ from the national trend of influencers?
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What’s an influencer?
To understand why influencers are such a talked about, written about and followed topic, you first have to know what one is.
A social media influencer is someone who creates content on platforms to share with a large audience of their loyal followers.
The content they share can encourage followers to, for example, buy products, try a new restaurant, visit a place or experience a new workout.
“Social influencers to us are individuals or brands that can share their perspective on The Nell with their audience and, in turn, their audience learns more about us,” said May Selby, director of public relations and social media at The Little Nell.
While the power to impact people in this way used to be strictly relegated to celebrities, these days, where social media is king and most are glued to their phones, when it comes to influencing products purchased and behavior many are turning to influencers who, in theory, are ordinary people.
These regular people achieve Instagram fame by establishing a level of trust with their followers while also curating a feed of inspiring pictures and videos, making their audience covet what they have and therefore willing to listen to and follow their endorsements of products.
“You want to be as genuine as you can and you want to also be aspirational and create content people relate to,” said Selby, who also writes a weekly social scene column for this publication.
National influencers vs. local influencers
When scrolling through the infinite pages of Instagram, it seems that the majority of influencers fall under the categories of lifestyle, beauty/fashion and wellness.
However, if you target Aspen as a specific location, people who would be considered influencers locally tend to fall outside these categories and are more action sports, travel/adventure and photography-based influencers.
“I do feel like there is a couple things with the local influencers,” said Tiffany Cook, senior content marketing manager with Aspen Skiing Co. “They’re definitely valuable from the athlete, the outdoors, the photographer standpoint.”
Arielle Shipe, an Aspen local and Instagram influencer with 115K followers, didn’t set out to be a professional content creator when she started posting her adventures rock climbing, camping and spending time in nature, but her Instagram page, which she said “reflected to the world my goal to find as much joy in life as possible,” rapidly attracted a loyal following.
“I moved back home to Aspen after six years away (school, travel, etc). I had roughly 600 followers on Instagram of mostly friends and family,” Shipe said about her journey to becoming a full-time influencer.
“Around that time, I purchase a GoPro and started bringing it out on adventures with me. Within a year I had grown to about 1,200 followers simply by posting photos regularly, then, seemingly out of nowhere, my page started to grow faster until it reached the size that it is today.
“I’m not sure I will ever truly know that spark that started the whole chain of events, but I am so grateful for the journey and all the things I’ve learned along the way.”
Roaring Fork Valley influencers, like Shipe, often share their favorite lines in the backcountry, a climb on Independence Pass, the scene of the stars lighting up the sky over their tent on a camping trip or a snapshot from a recent adventure outside the valley with their audience.
“I think a lot of photographers are influencers though, because you love their work and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is cool,’ and then you start following them and see what they do,” Selby said.
Take Pete McBride. He lives in Basalt and falls into the category of photographer influencer (he also works with National Geographic), so his feed is filled with insanely beautiful photography from locations local and far-flung.
He has 778,000 followers, but isn’t selling them anything. He is telling his story in his authentic way, which is through photographs.
“I have worked as a photographer and filmmaker for over 20 years, so I have a lot of unique content which I started sharing on social media, mostly instagram, early,” McBride said. “As a result, I have built a following over time by consistently sharing my work and focusing on stories, not just pretty pictures.”
“It is a crowded online world so I try to avoid posts about what coffee shop I visited, unless it is one hell of a wild coffee shop.”
Aspen Chamber Resort Association, The Little Nell and Skico use local influencers in a variety of ways to help tell the story of Aspen, their brand and why people should come here.
“With local influencers, they have more of a passion for Aspen and they really care about what they’re showing to their followers,” said Bridget Crosby, marketing manager for ACRA. “Where, if you get someone national … we wouldn’t get as much heart, so we really think that the locals have their own unique perspective and it definitely is showing our followers how special Aspen is.”
How to use an influencer and why
Marketing through social media is becoming more the norm for brands and business, and with good reason.
Forty-five percent of the world uses social media, according to a Digital 2019 report by HootSuite, which is almost double what it was in 2014. Additionally, the average user is spending 2 hours and 16 minutes a day on social platforms, which is one-seventh of a person’s waking life.
And rather than just relying on peppering sites with advertisements, companies are turning to influencers to promote their product in a genuine way that resonates with followers and encourages them to engage with the company, because in theory, you’d rather get a recommendation from a friend then fall for a traditional ad.
Following these influencers are “how people are buying things and becoming brand loyalists and doing research,” Cook said.
By using a variety of influencers, companies are able to reach different segments of the population and infiltrate different audiences with targeted content.
Aspen Skiing Co.’s account @AspenSnowmass has a strong following of winter and snowsport enthusiasts already, Cook said. So when she looks for influencers to partner with, she’s typically trying to find ones who can reach a different audience and can highlight another part of the Skico brand that people may not be as familiar with.
“We typically use our influencers to kind of fill some sort of gap that we’re working through,” Cook said, “like families or dogs or interesting angles that we can’t otherwise get or stories we can’t otherwise tell.”
Garrett Brown, assistant digital marketing manager at Skico, agreed.
“We actively search for influencers depending on different markets that we’re looking to get into,” he said, “(and) targeting influencers to use to promote specific facets of the businesses.”
And by using social media as an outlet, companies are not only able to promote their brand, but they are able to share events and day-to-day happenings in real time, which can have an immediate impact.
Let’s get real
As an example of this “real time value,” Selby pointed to the time when Francis Mallmann, a famous Argentinian chef who has been featured on “Chef’s Table,” came to The Little Nell as the star chef for a dinner in summer 2017.
“At the time, he had a quarter of a million followers on Instagram and he was taking pictures of his setup … and sharing it,” Selby said.
By sharing what he was doing and where he was in the moment, Selby said they immediately started getting calls from chefs in the industry asking about Mallmann and The Nell along with a call from the Crowns, owners of Aspen Skiing Co., The Little Nell’s parent company, saying their friends who weren’t at the event were talking about it as it was unfolding.
“The real-time effect of having him there, showing what he was doing and speaking to The Nell just in his own words, … this is the perfect example of how social influence makes an impact,” she said.
However, not every partnership with an influencer goes so smooth and has such an impact.
“I feel like every time we (partner with an influencer) it’s a little bit of a risk, and every time afterward we learned some new sort of lesson,” Cook said, clarifying that just because Skico is a “big notable brand” doesn’t mean they have a large budget for this kind of thing.
And many of the companies in Aspen are selling an experience and not so much a product, such as Skico, and it’s not like they can ask an influencer to give back the hotel room, lift ticket or dinner after the fact.
This means that not every influencer who approaches a company becaomes a partnership, and often the answer is “No.”
Selby said there are times when she’d rather not have an influencer work with the hotel because it’s not the right fit or the person is asking for too much.
“A lot of times we get asked, ‘Oh, I’m getting married can you please host my wedding?’ or ‘Can you please give me like an incredible discount and I’ll post about it?’ and we’re like, ‘No … those metrics don’t work, I don’t have the budget to cover your wedding and we wouldn’t do that anyway. That’s not how we operate.’”
Therefore, as these types of partnerships continue to evolve, contracts have become increasingly important. Each party has a set of joint expectations, the content creators have a set of deliverables and everyone understands how to use the shared content.
Just trending or here to stay?
The landscape of social media is constantly changing, and as the popularity of influencers continues to rise and the lines between authentic content and posts with brand partners gets blurred, there is starting to be more and more pushback.
In the beginning of July, a story went viral about the owner of CVT Soft Serve, and ice cream truck in Los Angeles, putting a sign outside his truck that said “Influencers pay double.”
CVT owner Joe Nicchi told the BBC News that he posted the sign outside his truck, and on social media, because each week he would get people approaching him and saying they would promote his ice cream on the condition that he would give it to them for free.
In his post on social media, Nicchi wrote: “We truly don’t care if you’re an influencer, or how many followers you have. We will never give you free ice cream in exchange for a post on your social media page. It’s literally a $4 item … well, now it’s $8 for you.”
But he’s not the only one expressing the concept that likes and followers don’t (or shouldn’t) matter.
Instagram recently expanded a test program, which started in Canada, to Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Italy, Japan and Brazil. It hides the number of likes a person’s post receives.
“We are testing this change because we want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get,” a spokesperson for Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, said in an email to the Aspen Times Weekly.
“We are now rolling the test out to more countries so we learn more from our global community and see how this can benefit people’s experiences on Instagram.”
Likes are one of the metrics that content creators and brands use to measures success of a partnership/promotion. So, if this test proves successful and Instagram chooses to remove likes in all their markets, it could dramatically shift the landscape of influencers.
But that doesn’t mean the end of influencers.
“As grateful as I am for the audience and platform I have to speak from right know, I know that it will change,” Shipe said. “Perhaps removing counts on posts will mean my engagement drops … but if people’s overall happiness and well-being rise because of it, I’m all for it.”
“In the end, my goal is just to inspire people to follow their dreams and find more joy in life, no matter what changes on the app, that is how I will continue to use it.”
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