It didn’t take long for Jessica Zollman to amass a giant following on Instagram. As the company’s fifth employee and 95th user of the app in 2011, she was in on the ground floor of the tech giant a year after its launch, advising users on best practices that are now ingrained in social media’s DNA. Naturally, scores of followers flocked to her account.
A photographer by trade, Zollman, 34, soon found herself swimming in opportunities for commercial work. So she left Instagram in 2013 and joined a photo and advertising agency, where she became a roving photographer shooting on behalf of brands and endorsing products with the occasional #sponsored post.
Her newfound Insta-fame quickly earned her a ride on a “beautiful, mysterious train, making a really, really impressive amount of money” as an influencer, she says. But four years later, the train had sputtered to a halt, leaving her scrambling financially.
“Market saturation happened,” she says. “People started noticing how lucrative doing that kind of work was, and so there became this new goal of becoming the influencer.” Brands weren’t paying as much because people would work for less – or even for free. “I had to lower my day rate. I had to work twice as hard for twice as less,” she says.
The psychological impact of struggling for work, coupled with the surge of competition, was enough for Zollman to quit the influencer lifestyle and transition back to the polar opposite: a traditional nine-to-five job.
With the rise in competition and psychological strain, certain influencers like Jessica Zollman have quit their social media platforms (Credit: Jessica Zollman)
“I just had this moment where I was like: ‘Why am I so ashamed of the idea of having to get a job?’” she says. Relying on Instagram for creative validation and regular income had left her emotionally exhausted, and getting a steady job felt like the best thing for her mental health.
Zollman isn’t the only influencer who’s grown disillusioned with what she calls the “song and dance performance” of the industry. Experts say it’s evidence of change; a sort of fatigue affecting not only influencers, but brands and consumers, who are justifiably sceptical of many of the sponsored posts cluttering their newsfeeds.
Saturated, evolving market
The industry remains huge: influencer marketing is projected to become a $15 billion business by the year 2022, and brands are more poised than ever to throw their cash at the next Kim Kardashian. Yet amid the influx of capital, companies are becoming increasingly cautious about selecting influencer talent, according to Karen Doolittle, social media director at an advertising firm in Los Angeles.
A few high-profile cases of influencer fraud – when influencers have artificially inflated the reach of their accounts or fabricated personal narratives – have helped the public become “more shrewd and discerning”, she says, and there’s now a “hesitancy and almost mistrust on behalf of both consumers and brands” when it comes to influencers.
One PR agency in Australia even dropped influencers altogether earlier this year, saying influencer campaigns were too expensive and often provided false or misleading metrics about brands’ online reach. Influencers, the agency noticed, were liking and commenting on each other’s posts to artificially boost their performance.
As many companies try to invest in the next Kim Kardashian, others like Karen Doolittle’s company are more wary towards selecting influencer talent (Credit: Lauren Randolph)
Yet despite these sporadic signs of industry pushback, Doolittle says brands remain willing to invest in influencers with huge followings. “As far as leaning into those types of creators who’ve been able to generate these substantial audiences, I think that will only continue to grow,” she says. Demand for content also continues to increase, she says, but as competition grows among mid-level and micro-influencers, “a steady influencer gig will be harder to come by for many”.
This oversaturated market, combined with the incessant demand for content, has forced some influencers to ask if the hustle is worth the limited payoff.
Daniel Volland, 35, certainly felt that way. He left his job as an optometrist to become an influencer in 2014, swept up in the hype of Instagram’s early days. But a year later, after travelling the US on two sponsored photography road trips, he found himself living in an Airbnb in Los Angeles, embodying a cliché as an underemployed freelance creative in the world’s show business capital.
“A big component for me was the financial stress – not being able to plan a future,” he says. Instagram’s move away from a chronological newsfeed boded poorly for his account – he was consistently shedding followers and losing engagement. “My audience was continuously declining. I think at a certain point I was kind of just, like: ‘What’s the point?’”
He also felt the platform had changed. Instagram began as something of a creative playground for photographers, but Volland felt that artistic freedom was stifled as it evolved into a more commercialised platform structured around celebrities and advertisers. “What’s glorified on Instagram now is drastically different from what was glorified on Instagram in 2012,” he says.
Now, Volland is now back in optometry full-time, running his own practice in Anchorage, Alaska. Though he still dabbles in the occasional paid post on his 81,000 follower-strong account, he’s now thousands of miles away from the world of sponsored content.
Instagram, which initially launched as a creative space for photographers, has changed into a commercialised platform with non-stop demand for content (Credit: Getty Images)
Even those still living the lifestyle can resent it on occasion. Brianna Madia, 29, currently lives the #vanlife that’s come to represent the epitome of a millennial influencer, documenting her travels through the desert with her husband and two dogs. While her itinerant lifestyle might seem like a dream to followers, Madia says she’s grown tired of catering to an audience of “285,000 bosses”. She says deleting her Instagram is something that she dreams about frequently. “I know this is a flash in the pan, and I know that it’s not going to be forever,” she says.
She takes particular issue with the kind of “vulnerability porn” she says her audience demands, saying: “How vulnerable can you be? What piece of information can I expose about myself? How wide can I rip my chest open for all of these people?”
Jessica Zollman can relate to this idea of performative vulnerability; she says that fans crave relationships with influencers and celebrities who display candidness online. But she says there’s a fine line between relatable truthfulness and trading vulnerability for likes and engagement. Fans, on the other hand, can be quick to level criticism when a post doesn’t meet expectations: “It can sometimes feel like [fans] are waiting for people they admire or look up to to publicly fail for entertainment,” she says. “There’s something kind of really screwed up about that being normal and acceptable.”
Madia also says she’s been asked to endorse all sorts of products she’d never use: diet pills, tasers, “pink handguns designed for women on the go”. Since her husband earns a steady paycheck, she’s able to turn misguided pitches down. But not all influencers have that luxury – if Madia won’t endorse a product, someone else will. And the hunt for viral endorsements has created something of a market frenzy, with brands farming their products out to an ever-wider net of influencers. This has created a greater possibility for fakery in campaigns – more influencers endorsing products they might not actually use, which is something fans are quick to notice and denounce.
As audience demands rise, many influencers struggle between offering relatable truthfulness and trading vulnerability for likes (Credit: Getty Images)
“It’s true that audience trust towards influencers has eroded as the market has become more saturated,” Doolittle says. If sponsored content “resonates and feels relevant, people will engage. If it doesn’t, they unfollow.”
Jasmine Sandler, a digital marketing expert in New York, has seen influencer campaigns fail when brands “chose the wrong influencer that wasn’t relatable to the audience”. As influencer marketing moves forward, she says it’s going to be about fostering a greater sense of “trust and credibility” between brands and consumers.
Fewer mid-tier niches
Doolittle agrees. To allay growing public scepticism, brands will be looking for “partnerships that demonstrate the kind of authenticity” that’s lacking with the “one and done, hit it and quit it content deals” you might see scattered across your Instagram feed today, she says. To that end, there will be more long-term campaigns in the vein of traditional brand ambassadorships, and also a focus on micro-influencers whose smaller audiences are more relatable to consumers.
But it will likely make it increasingly difficult for mid-tier creators like Zollman and Volland to carve out a niche as the financially precarious influencer world irons out its kinks.
For Zollman, leaving it behind has been a great decision. She now oversees photography and marketing for a Los Angeles coffee company as its visual coordinator, and no longer feels her self-esteem is so intertwined with her job. She still maintains an Instagram page and publishes the occasional sponsored post for her 216,000 followers, but does so on her own terms.
“I don’t feel like I gave something up,” she says. “I feel like I have a day job so I can still make art, and make art that makes me feel good.”Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedinShare using EmailOpen share toolsLike us on FacebookFollow us on TwitterFollow us on InstagramSign up to our newsletter