What the fu­ture holds for so­cial me­dia stars

▶ Ash­leigh Ste­wart finds out how ‘in­flu­enc­ing’ could progress in a post-Covid-19 world, from a change in the in­flu­encer busi­ness model to a resur­gence of tra­di­tional me­dia

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Dubai has fast be­come a hot spot for global in­flu­encers, and no won­der – it’s a re­gional hub for in­ter­na­tional brands, has a balmy cli­mate and is at the cross­roads of East and West.

The city’s vast and var­ied pop­u­la­tion of con­tent cre­ators tell sto­ries about travel, moth­er­hood, food, fash­ion and more.

But when there are so many voices, it can be hard to know who is worth lis­ten­ing to.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, in­flu­encers are big busi­ness: the in­dus­try was worth $8 bil­lion (Dh29.38bn) in 2019, with mar­ket an­a­lysts at the time pre­dict­ing a $15bn in­dus­try by 2022.

So what does the fu­ture of the in­dus­try look like in the re­gion? We spoke to ex­perts in the UAE to get an idea.

Late last year, com­mu­ni­ca­tions agency BPG Group and mar­ket re­search firm YouGov re­leased the re­sults of their 2019 So­cial Me­dia In­flu­encers’ Sur­vey on the UAE and Saudi Ara­bia: 85 per cent of re­spon­dents said they fol­low so­cial me­dia in­flu­encers.

But 79 per cent of these peo­ple had un­fol­lowed in­flu­encers due to in­creased pro­mo­tional con­tent.

Roozbeh Ali Kafi teaches the So­cial Me­dia In­flu­encers Diploma Pro­gramme at Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Dubai. He be­lieves the pan­demic could pro­vide a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for a bur­geon­ing in­dus­try in the UAE.

“It’s go­ing to bring a pos­i­tive im­pact,” Ali Kafi says. “They all need to think about hav­ing more mean­ing­ful con­tent. What we will see more of is how to adapt to this life­style. How will the world look?”

How­ever, he doesn’t agree with the widely held be­lief that the in­flu­encer mar­ket is sat­u­rated in the UAE. If any­thing, we don’t have enough.

“There are so many peo­ple who want to be in­flu­encers, but they don’t ac­tu­ally in­flu­ence any­thing. They are pro­mot­ers,” he says.

“Dubai is full of pro­mot­ers. In­flu­encers are those who peo­ple look up to and who cre­ate orig­i­nal con­tent.”

Lama Ab­del­barr, spokes­woman for Talk­walker, mapped the num­ber of men­tions of the term “in­flu­encer” on­line over the past year and found that it has al­most halved be­tween April 2019 and April 2020.

While this might not be in­dica­tive of an in­dus­try de­cline just yet, Ab­del­barr warns that it could be if things don’t change.

“One of my ma­jor red flags at the mo­ment is in­flu­encers who are con­stantly post­ing ‘throw­back’ posts to ‘bet­ter times’. They were clearly stumped by not hav­ing ac­cess to the usual frills and thrills and are now re­cy­cling re­serves of images and videos.

“In­stead of fac­ing the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, these in­flu­encers are tak­ing an easy route and op­er­at­ing on auto-pi­lot. It’s lazy and tone deaf,” she says.

This could mean a seis­mic shift in the way the in­dus­try works in the fu­ture – in­clud­ing how each party ben­e­fits from the ar­range­ment.

“The days of send­ing free­bie pack­ages and hav­ing a quick call to brief the in­flu­encer in sim­ple terms, and some­times writ­ing the so­cial me­dia copy on their be­half, should well and truly be be­hind us,” Ab­del­barr says.

The in­flu­encer busi­ness model has tra­di­tion­ally cen­tred around two op­tions: a brand send­ing free prod­ucts or food for a per­son to pro­mote across their chan­nels or, if they are pop­u­lar enough, a paid part­ner­ship.

But brands have tight­ened their belts re­cently. One of the largest in­dus­tries for free­bies is the restau­rant in­dus­try. It’s also one of the hard­est hit by the pan­demic.

The Na­tional spoke to 22 of Dubai’s most well-known restau­rants, on the con­di­tion of anonymity, about their deal­ings with in­flu­encers over the course of the pan­demic.

Since March, 18 of them have re­ceived re­quests for free food from self-pro­fessed in­flu­encers in ex­change for so­cial me­dia posts.

One restau­rant PR said an in­flu­encer was in­vited for break­fast, and af­ter be­ing warned the busi­ness was strug­gling, still pro­ceeded to order Dh800 worth of food and leave “with five bags of take­away”.

An­other restau­rant PR said they had about 150 re­quests across three restau­rants for free food dur­ing the pan­demic. Some in­flu­encers had re­quested pay­ment, as well as free food. Oth­ers had threat­ened ret­ri­bu­tion in the form of neg­a­tive re­views if they were re­jected.

Ja­mal AlMawed, founder of PR and in­flu­encer agency Gam­bit Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, be­lieves there is “a global cloud of neg­a­tiv­ity hang­ing over the con­cept of in­flu­encers which is in most cases un­fair”.

Pre-Covid, he notes, the in­dus­try was “ab­so­lutely boom­ing”, how­ever, that comes with dis­ad­van­tages, too.

“In our re­gion, we had reached a very dan­ger­ous phase where they were re­plac­ing me­dia in the ma­jor­ity of brand’s spend­ing plans, forc­ing me­dia to down­size or go out of busi­ness, which is never a good thing. In­flu­encer fees were ris­ing rapidly and we saw a lot of price in­fla­tion across the re­gion.”

But as belts were tight­ened with the on­slaught of a world­wide lock­down, AlMawed notes that in­flu­encer cam­paigns were the first to go in many com­pany’s mar­ket­ing bud­gets. That has changed as time has worn on, and brands have re­alised peo­ple have more scrolling time at their dis­posal.

“Now when you look at your feed, you will most likely see in­flu­encers cook­ing, do­ing home work­outs, clean­ing and dis­in­fect­ing, laun­dry, on­line shop­ping and en­joy­ing stream­ing plat­forms. Look closer and you’ll see a prod­uct be­ing pro­moted,” he says.

The 2019 YouGov sur­vey that an­a­lysed 1,000 fe­male and male re­spon­dents, aged 18 to 35 across the UAE and Saudi

Ara­bia, cer­tainly speaks to that.

It found that three-quar­ters of re­spon­dents pur­chased some­thing from a brand be­cause it had been men­tioned by an in­flu­encer.

The same amount dis­cov­ered new trends via an in­flu­encer, and a whop­ping 78 per cent of re­spon­dents fol­lowed a brand on so­cial me­dia due to an in­flu­encer’s post.

But not all re­views are cre­ated equal, how­ever: close to 60 per cent of re­spon­dents were less likely to trust an in­flu­encer’s rec­om­men­da­tion if they were paid to ad­ver­tise it.

How­ever, sev­eral in­flu­encers that The Na­tional spoke to have had to drop their rates dur­ing the pan­demic. AlMawed says they need to get used to it.

“It might take some time for them to ac­cept the ad­just­ment, and ob­vi­ously some will have stronger bar­gain­ing power than oth­ers, but even­tu­ally the mar­ket will get a much-needed ad­just­ment, as prices were hugely in­flated.”

Brands are now be­ing ed­u­cated against us­ing “van­ity met­rics” such as reach and en­gage­ment as mark­ers of suc­cess, as they are eas­ily tin­kered with, Ab­del­barr notes. She hopes the PR in­dus­try will now look at “health of en­gage­ment, daily ac­tive users, and fluc­tu­a­tion over time”.

This shift could then “put tra­di­tional me­dia back on the map as a strong con­tender when it comes to in­flu­ence”.

“PR pro­fes­sion­als can now prove the value of me­dia cov­er­age that links back to brand web­sites or prod­uct pages. And the re­sults are of­ten phe­nom­e­nal.”

So how can in­flu­encers, brands and au­di­ences all be catered to go­ing for­ward? While some flip­pantly fore­cast the im­mi­nent demise of in­flu­encers in con­ver­sa­tion, the mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als we spoke to say that is sim­ply not go­ing to hap­pen.

But the busi­ness model may change: one idea that has been mulled over is pay­ing in­flu­encers at the end of a cam­paign, depend­ing on how suc­cess­ful their re­fer­rals are.

“The bot­tle­neck is get­ting the in­flu­encers to move for­ward with this type of agree­ment, which is riskier and less im­me­di­ately grat­i­fy­ing for them,” says Ab­del­barr.

AlMawed, how­ever, be­lieves the in­dus­try should move to a “hy­brid model”: pay­ing a ba­sic fee to the in­flu­encer, and then re­leas­ing fur­ther pay­ment when they can prove sales.

All in all, they can cop a lot of flak, but Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, founder of TishTash mar­ket­ing agency, says “peo­ple do not give in­flu­encers enough credit”.

“Good in­flu­encers are agile and creative and are able to pivot their con­tent to what their au­di­ence wants. We as con­sumers, more than ever, want to feel con­nected to each other, and in­flu­encers give us that. Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the in­flu­encer, at least not the good ones.”

Good in­flu­encers are agile and creative and are able to pivot their con­tent to what their au­di­ence wants NATASHA HATHERALL-SHAWE Founder, TishTash mar­ket­ing agency

Natasha Hatherall-Shawe

Ja­mal AlMawed

Lama Ab­del­barr

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