On Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and weblogs, consumer activity is increasingly institutionalized, guarded by rules and norms. Consumers take on tasks previously performed by trained media workers, but they also create new activities, emerging as a new breed of media workers, institutionalizing new fields of the media and advertising industries and their associated practices (Dolbec and Fischer 2015). It has been described how amateur workers develop new ethical norms and rules for publishing, by taking journalistic/editorial decisions on what content to publish and how, within their new institutional domain (Abidin & Ots, 2015).
This paper is focused on a specific group of stakeholders – everyday Internet users who manufacture themselves into a new form of social media microcelebrity known as the ‘Influencer’ (Abidin 2015). Since 2005, many young women have taken to social media to craft ‘microcelebrity personas’ as a career – “a new style of online performance that involves people ‘amping up’ their popularity over the Web using technologies like video, blogs and social networking sites” (Senft 2008: 25). In their most basic capacity, Influencers produce advertorials on blogs and social media platforms in exchange for payment or sponsored products and services (Abidin 2015). Owing to their power to shape purchase decisions, their clients have progressed from small home businesses to bluechip companies including Canon, Gucci, and KLM. Until recently, the most effective advertorials are those that are seamlessly woven into the daily narratives Influencers publish on their blogs and social media, such that readers are unable to tell apart ‘paid opinions’ from ‘unpaid’ sentiments (Abidin 2014). However, along with the maturity of the field, there is a gradual standardization of new advertising formats.
The conducted study explores how semi-professional microcelebrity Influencers create advertising market innovations. Researchers have previously described how consumer fans help firms innovate (e.g. Füller et al 2008), and how fan cultures celebrate their favourite brands by creating their own advertisements (Muniz & Schau 2005; for overview see Ots & Hartmann 2015). This paper takes a slightly different approach – rather than seeing consumers as co-creators, it demonstrates how new actors outside the traditional media and advertising industries, make innovations that compete with the incumbents. We focus on these vernacular advertising innovations in the age of social media, and seek to understand how Influencers orientate towards a youth market in the saturated, visually dominated attention economy of Instagram. The findings include a typology of innovative advertising formats emerging outside the traditional media companies, along with their associated publishing rules as defined by the semi-professional Influencers.
The data draws on a larger study of social media Influencers in Singapore since mid-2010, including over a year of intensive participant observation conducted with these Influencers in the flesh in the capacity of various roles. These interactions and observations were archived in extensively detailed field diaries. 120 personal interviews were conducted with Influencers, Influencer management agencies, (prospective) clients, readers, and friends and family of Influencers between December 2011 and July 2013. Social media content from blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, AskFM, and popular public forums was archived until December 2015. Fieldwork entailed continued interaction with other actors involved in the Influencers’ social milieu, including their peers, backend production management, sponsors and advertisers, and readers. As such, although the data is drawn mainly from the textual and visual content of publically accessed blogs and associated social media platforms including Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, the analysis is highly contextualised and shaped by long-term ethnographic work among these Influencers.
EMMA Annual Conference 2016, Creativity, Coopetition and Uncertainty in Media, Porto, June 2-5, 2016.