Renaissance of influencers’ influence

Ebb tide in the pandemic has led to a second surge in the power of social media stars, all of whom benefit from a hyper-connected world. Top names in this cyber-verse share their insights on sustained success

By Sanchita Guha

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Published: Fri 15 Apr 2022, 11:57 PM

For some of us who aren’t “millennials” — a demographic group with a whole marketing industry dedicated to them — having influence meant reading the Dale Carnegie classic and applying that wisdom to our lives. We had small goals: expanding our peer network; running a successful enterprise; getting recognition as a highly skilled professional. All of that required active engagement with people, and investing time and effort.

Then came social networks, a mind-bending space where anything and everything could happen — where a pre-teen child could become a multi-millionaire without doing anything normally categorised as work; where a student could simply junk her studies to make home videos of her dance moves, because the money was pouring in before she got any kind of a job. As their follower numbers increased enough to hypothetically fill stadiums, the cult of social media influencers grew.

And then came the pandemic: a highly lethal guerilla attack on the entire human race by an organism invisible to the naked eye, making the global economy keel over in pain. The influencer segment took a big hit, because once you get past the trope of influencers being free spirits doing only what they love, a lot of it is about selling something — you can’t sell when there are no buyers.

Two years, millions of deaths, and billions of vaccine doses later, the world is back to near normal. For the influencer economy, the prospects are rosy: the spike in online activities during the pandemic should make the recovery phase profitable for those with an established digital identity. “…influencer marketing is stronger than ever; brands are projected to spend $15 billion (approx. Dh55bn) on influencer marketing during 2022,” writes Ismael El Qudsi, co-founder and CEO of SocialPubli, an award-winning influencer marketing platform, in a January 2022 blog on titled ‘The State Of Influencer Marketing: Top Insights For 2022’.

So, the world’s insatiable appetite for the good times and the good things never went anywhere. The pandemic hasn’t rewired our brains. For influencers, that’s the best news of the year. “I believe all lifestyle segments will come back. Fashion, travel, food, everything — we need these elements in our life,” says Nina Zandnia, Dubai-based award-winning media personality, who started the first lifestyle television channel online in the Middle East in 2008. Within six months of launching, she gathered 420,000 followers and had 2 million viewers. She had been blogging on fashion since 2006.

‘Everything is going to be digitalised — that’ll be the only way to see the world’

With a presence across social networks, television, and radio, and a three-year stint as a Khaleej Times lifestyle columnist, Nina has tasted the power of all forms of modern mass communication. Her confidence in the influencer economy is absolute: “I truly believe that it’s actually going to become bigger, because our future is digital. Everything is going to be digitalised — that’ll be the only way to see the world, to feel the world, especially through lifestyle. I think everyone who was living off their social media [activities] will start over again and will start earning money, doing what they were doing before.”

The consumer base that many social media influencers normally target may have had its spending power slashed during the pandemic, but the connection with social media grew and that has opened new doors, believes Murad Osmann, one half of ‘the #FollowMeTo couple’. His 2011 photograph of his then girlfriend Nataly Zakharova leading him by the hand through a street in Barcelona became one of those iconic images of social media. That totally unplanned photograph became their signature shot, and they’ve replicated it hundreds of times in different parts of the world, including in the deserts and cityscapes of the UAE.

While Murad has 3.6 million followers on Instagram, Nataly has 991K, and their #FollowMeTo page has 424K followers. That’s a combined base of more than 5 million followers on Instagram alone. The Russian couple, their child, and their creative team have recently moved to Dubai. Murad says, “We moved to Dubai as we see big potential here; it’s a perfect international hub for creative initiatives… Also, it’s very digitalised and always open to new perspectives and trends. This is the best atmosphere for influencers to grow and develop their business.”

The Osmanns now have a range of offline and online travel-related activities and services under the #FollowMeTo brand, aside from running their other personal enterprises, such as Murad’s multimedia production company and Nataly’s career in journalism and holistic wellness. “Now social media is a crucial part of any business,” says Murad. “During the isolation [of the pandemic], it was the only way to cope with uncertainty and loneliness, and helped to stay connected, inspired… for people, it’s always important to feel being part of something bigger — of the community, the society.”

To that, Nataly adds, “The influencers will have a renaissance now, especially those who work on their communities. During the pandemic, we felt a very special connection with our audience, and we felt more responsibility for the content we produce and for the message we send to the world. As for the trends, thanks to the pandemic times, we started to produce more unusual digital content, with CGI (computer-generated imagery) graphics, collaborating with NFT (non-fungible token) artists, etc. We have the production creative agency, so we give consultations to brands, and in general #FollowMeTo has turned into an umbrella brand recently.”

Nina, Murad and Nataly, who’ve all had careers independent of social media, emphasise on the need to create content based on effort and integrity in order to run a marathon, not just a sprint, as an influencer. As Murad says, “Build your own self-brand, no matter if you’re a blogger or not. Now everyone is an influencer, so you need to respect what you’re doing. Don’t play with the audience, be honest, test the products before you make the commercial, share your opinion, be a personality, not just a travel or lifestyle blogger. We always have our own filter, based on our values, moral principles and artistic vision. People always feel the truth, even on mobile screens, so don’t let them down. The confidence of your audience is the base of your work.”

The Osmanns have branched out into TikTok, YouTube, and Telegram, too. “Everything in the world is getting faster now, so we need to be more mobile, adaptive and look for new opportunities. It’s not about easy money; it also requires effort and hard work,” says Nataly.

Nina advises, “Try to find something you’re good at, that you’re interested in; then study it, experience it, and then go for it. For example, if you want to be a travel blogger, then study about the countries, travel to learn, educate other people with your interests. But if you’re going to use social media just for posting selfies and showing your body, then that’s no good.”

Juggernaut of social media influencers

began rolling and rolling Looking back at the evolution of the influencer economy, it’s not that hard to identify at what point being an influencer became a career choice. The very first influencers in the early Noughties weren’t really trying to influence anyone; they pursued a passion and happily shared their content online. Appreciation was enough; remuneration was neither expected nor available.

Two things changed all that. In January 2009, Google launched advertising on YouTube, making it possible for content creators to have an income from widely-viewed videos. And exactly 10 years ago, in April 2012, Facebook put a billion dollars on the table for a tiny mobile app called Instagram, then less than two years old in its cyber-life.

After that, the juggernaut of social media influencers began rolling and rolling, sometimes trampling over things that were of real value.

Less than four years later, in January 2016, thanks to his Instagram influence — then having a follower base of 5.9 million; now 13.4 million — rookie photographer-model-celebrity son Brooklyn Beckham landed the kind of gig for which veteran fashion photographers might give a leg, if not an arm. Brooklyn announced via social media that he’d shoot the next fragrance campaign by the iconic British luxury brand Burberry.

The photos shot by the junior Beckham were later described thus by Jonathan Jones, who writes on art for The Guardian: “To call his photographs a bit tame is like saying a hamster is not a very fearsome animal. These pictures have no bite and no drama, and nothing to say.”

In the established photographers’ circle, the luxury brand’s decision to hire the Beckham boy was seen as “sheer nepotism”. Never mind, said the marketing people. Instagram helped make it a precision strike on Burberry’s target audience.

Stunning example of fake influence leading to real influence

The digital space is seeing events that some of us still find hard to grasp. For instance, the $69 million sale in March 2021 of an NFT created by the artist known as Beeple, whose works reportedly never fetched anything higher than $100 before October 2020. Then, suddenly, he began selling his digital artworks for tens of thousands of dollars; the buyers resold those works for millions of dollars mere weeks later.

Analysing the mind-boggling sale, an article on attributed this art price explosion to a few factors: the main one was Beeple’s Instagram fan following of 2.5 million. That’s what turned his art into a red-hot commodity.

The follower numbers of Brooklyn and Beeple are, of course, small potatoes compared to the 327 million (and counting) Instagram followers gathered by Kylie Jenner. One of the youngest dollar billionaires in the world, she’s a member of a family that first became famous for… well… not much more than existing.

The branding of the show Keeping Up With The Kardashians (first episode aired in 2007) was clever: the show title immediately suggested that here was a bunch of beautiful people with whom mere mortals must keep up, i.e. follow, even though all the Kardashians and Jenners were complete non-entities before that show. It’s a stunning example of fake influence leading to real influence.

Identify who you are and combine that with a sense of purpose

For any aspiring influencer, the smart route is to identify who they are and combine that with a sense of purpose. The first step, perhaps, is to not set out to influence, but to connect. When a connection is made, influence follows. Two of the most recognisable faces in the UAE, social media stars Khalid Al Ameri and wife Salama Mohamed gave up their corporate careers and took a leap of faith into creativity some years ago. Their goal is to produce content that’d let people connect with the UAE and its culture, and do so with a helping of humour. With 7 million followers on Facebook, 3.3 million (combined) on Instagram, and 4 million on TikTok, they’re most definitely influencers now.

In a recent conversation with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, the couple spoke of their purpose. “It was always in me to create videos, to entertain people, to inform people,” said Khalid. During his family’s stay in the US, he made a few videos and those got noticed. “And you realise that there are a lot of people in the world that want to know more about a certain culture or a certain community, on the other side of the planet. [We] started getting some engagement; a lot of people were talking about our videos and how they were learning about us.”

One day, Salama joined Khalid while he was making a video, and a star was born — the viewers wanted to see more of her. She says, “It has been one of the best experiences ever… We build bridges. We change the narrative about how people see Arabs, [and] an Arab couple in the region.”

Nina, who studied journalism and TV broadcasting at university, entered the space of social media not with the goal of becoming an influencer — she already was one. “I don’t see myself as a social media influencer. I was working in television from the age of 14, and at that time, there was no social media; there were only, like us,

TV presenters, TV hosts or reporters. We used to be the social influence, but through a TV network or a radio network.” Then social media came, and “everybody could, without any experience or education, become a television reporter or a TV host or a model or a lifestyle blogger or a fashion editor”.

She decided to forge a deeper connection through Facebook and Instagram, “inviting my existing audience into my private world”. And, she adds, “It has been a good thing.” With more than half-a-million followers on Instagram, she’s able to use the platform not just to promote her own fashion line, but also to highlight her work as a United Nations SDG speaker and UN ambassador for the Middle East.

Murad and Nataly sum up their journey on social media: “We wanted to show the world without borders, full of love and kindness, so everyone could see that people are the same everywhere. So if we truly influence on these values and popularise the good, we don’t mind being called ‘social media influencers.’”

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