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Peddling Influence

Often seen as the spoiled brats of the fashion industry, online personalities can now charge a brand thousands for a single post. But even as demand for influencer marketing grows, Anya Georgijevic finds designers, ad execs and even the bloggers themselves wondering whether the days of swag for selfies are numbered

IT-FLUENCERS Canadian online personalities like Alexander Liang (top left), Gracie Carroll (top right), Erica Ehm (far right) and Jay Strut (right) have turned their Instagram accounts into coveted outlets for lifestyle brands. International heavyweights in the social space include Bryan Grey Yambao (above) and Chiara Ferragni (top centre).

IT-FLUENCERS Canadian online personalities like Alexander Liang (top left), Gracie Carroll (top right), Erica Ehm (far right) and Jay Strut (right) have turned their Instagram accounts into coveted outlets for lifestyle brands. International heavyweights in the social space include Bryan Grey Yambao (above) and Chiara Ferragni (top centre).

A couple of months ago, I received an unexpected offer. "On behalf of Fashion and Beauty Monitor, I'd like to welcome you to our invitation-only influencer network," it read. "Launching later this year, this exclusive hub will be a place for brands to discover and contact influencers for future project collaborations." I have about 5,500 Twitter followers, which is respectable, and just over 2,000 Instagram ones, which might as well be zero in the grand scheme of things. I seldom post on either of the channels, so I was puzzled about why I would even be on the radar of this "exclusive hub." I clicked on the link, and to my surprise, is a legitimate platform. It's a subscriber-only database of media, public relations and brand contacts, news and events that earns high praise from clients including Vogue China and Benefit Cosmetics.

Fashion and Beauty Monitor is just one of hundreds of similar agencies – including Influencer Marketing Agency (IMA), IZEA and Toronto-based Influicity – that compete for a slice of the influencer economy, which connects lifestyle brands and individuals with social media sway. Each has a roster of big-name clients, from beauty brands such as L'Oréal to athletic-wear labels such as Nike. In the last year, boutique versions of these shops have started to pop up. In Canada, Rock-It Promotions, a PR house, launched Fourth Floor Management, which represents names like Alexander Liang (he recently traveled to Rio de Janeiro with Paypal) and Gracie Carroll (she's appeared in video spots for President's Choice and Tide). Clutch PR's ClutchCollabs lineup includes VJ-turned mommy blogger Erica Ehm. Both round out their rosters with other social media personalities and content creators they deem authoritative in the digital realm.

The demand for these 21st century tastemakers is growing. According to Fashion and Beauty Monitor's "The Rise of Influencers" report produced in association with Econsultancy, 57 per cent of surveyed brands already have an influencer marketing strategy in place, with an additional 21 per cent planning to invest in one over the next 12 months. But, at the same time, some fashion brands and marketers who already engage with social media movers and shakers are growing increasingly skeptical about just how influential they actually are.

In the early years of the new millennium, the influencer phenomenon saw hoards of young women and men abandoning their day jobs to try their luck at social media fame. Reports of the original star bloggers, including Bryan Grey Yambao (a.k.a. Bryanboy), Rumi Neely (Fashion Toast) and Chiara Ferragni (The Blonde Salad), earning six to seven figures a year from preening and posting led to wave after wave of new online personalities. But it wasn't until the launch of rewardStyle in 2011 that fashion blogging-for-pay went mainstream. The Dallas-based affiliate network proved that there was money to be made through style's growing online footprint. Since its launch, it has generated over $1-billion in sales. To everyone's surprise, the network's top earning bloggers were young women who operated well outside the industry cliques in New York, London, Paris and Milan. "Random Fashion Blogger from Utah Makes $1 Million a Year," read one headline in 2014. The blogger in question, Rach Parcell, who runs Pink Peonies, embodies the girl-next-door persona coveted by brands such as J.Crew and Asos. Her fame and growing fortune signaled a shift away from more fashion-forward faces such as Tavi Gevinson (Style Rookie) and Susanna Lau (Style Bubble) and towards an era of commerciality when anyone with a camera and an Instagram account can, in theory, help make or break a brand.

"Everyone's an influencer," says Jay Strut, a Toronto-based veteran fashion blogger, when we meet at the swish sushi spot Kasa Moto in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood. "This woman," he says pointing to a woman wearing a bright floral blouse, "is influencing me right now with her beautiful top. All you need, literally, is a voice." Strut, who gets whisked away to Milan and Paris by luxury brands like Balmain and Chanel, sees himself not as someone who generates sales for brands, but rather reinforces the idea of aspiration that's essential to a label's cachet. A permanent fixture on Toronto's fashion scene, the blogger doesn't do traditional advertising or affiliate links on his blog. "There isn't one guy in this whole restaurant that's going to my website and saying, 'Oh, I'm gonna wear those tights, that low tank top and that gold chain. And women aren't coming to my page and saying 'Yes, I want to look like that tomorrow,'" he explains. "But, there are aspects of me – the freedom I have in my expression, my attitude towards things and my overall aesthetic – it's not relatable, but it's relatable." He doesn't sell clothes; he sells the fantasy.

CLICK BAIT Blogger Jay Strut is flown around the world to hype up designer labels, but even he’s questioning the future of social buzz.

CLICK BAIT Blogger Jay Strut is flown around the world to hype up designer labels, but even he’s questioning the future of social buzz.

George Pimentel/WireImage

A lack of a consistent way to measure digital return on investment doesn't stop brands from pursuing Strut in the hopes of reaching his 50,000-plus Instagram audience. While it's unclear which of the blogger's posts are paid for (Canada doesn't have the same strict disclosure policies that the Federal Trade Commission monitors in the United States), he seems to have an ongoing partnership with several luxury brands. Strut declined to disclose how much revenue his influencer gig generates, but scrolling through his social media feeds, all signs point to it being a lucrative career. Aside from an enviable collection of luxury handbags (including several Hermès Birkins and Kellys), the blogger recently purchased his first condo in Toronto's Distillery District. Strut's celebrity has been boosted by personal appearance projects, from hosting a Google Hangout with Donatella Versace to DJing the H&M Eaton Centre flagship reopening party. His ability to draw a large audience in person, he tells me, proves his worth.

In a Digiday interview that went viral in May, an anonymous U.S.-based social media executive dismissed the value of influencers, explaining that it's all hype without any proof of ROI. "We threw too much money at them and did it too quickly. So in 2014, they were making $500 to show up and take some photos. Then it became $1,500. Now it's hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said in the interview. The mystery source predicts that the influencer marketing bubble is about to burst: "Influencers are going to start disappearing. Brands are going to start realizing the amount of followers you have doesn't mean s–t."

The lack of goodwill between marketers and influencers isn't helped by the ongoing speculation that many influencers don't necessarily earn their following organically. "Even agencies that represent influencers can't always tell you if the influencers they represent have bought or earned their followers," says Lindsay Mattick, creative director and partner at Toronto-based public relations firm Pomp & Circumstance. One of her clients, Ellie Mae, recently made news when Sophie Grégoire Trudeau wore one of the designer's jackets during the Prime Minister's state visit to Washington. For a young designer, it was a marketing coup and highlighted the power of a bona fide fashion influencer. "Web traffic spiked to over 1,200 international visitors daily for almost two weeks following Sophie wearing her," Mattick explains. "Ellie Mae gained four new retailers as a result, with three out of four picking up the 'Yazmin' [the jacket Grégoire Trudeau wore] as part of the buy."

While working on Ellie Mae's PR strategy, Mattick's team was shocked to learn that a few Toronto bloggers demanded payment and free product to sit front row at the designer's debut fashion show. "When that starts to happen, it feels pretty icky," says Mattick. "[It should be] different when you are asking someone to share a photo of Greek yogurt – and paying them for the exposure to their followers – and when you are inviting them to an upstart designer's first ever fashion show."

On the flip side, some bloggers have started to try to actively educate their followers and the brands who approach them about the costs associated with running a lifestyle blog, in an effort to justify their rates. In June, Justine Iaboni, who operates her social channels under the handle Jetset Justine, wrote a post about the "true cost" of blogging. She called out a long list of expenses (including transportation, office supplies, Internet service and rent) that most small businesses and freelancers have to build into their bottom line. More influencer-specific items she highlighted included expenses associated with personal grooming and professional photography. In order to stay relevant in the competitive media landscape, many influencers feel the need to produce higher quality content and present themselves to the online world looking as polished as an A-list celebrity. And with every jump in audience numbers, they feel more justified asking for the amount of cash needed to maintain their influencer persona. One top Canadian blogger who asked to remain anonymous told me that her rates go up with every new 5,000 followers.

Montreal-based designer Eliza Faulkner questions whether connecting with bloggers would be worthwhile, even if she could afford the rates set by influencers and their agencies. She tells me that the few times she has been featured on prominent blogs, she hasn't seen a huge surge in sales. "I still think traditional media packs more punch. Aside from the really big influencers, I'm not convinced it's as good as print. Magazines sit around for weeks or months while a blog post or an Instagram post is old news within minutes. I still get people emailing because they've seen something in the newspaper or a magazine," she adds.

Monetizing social media feeds has proven difficult overall. Last year, Pinterest and Instagram introduced click-to-buy features, but the result has been lukewarm at best. According to Sucharita Mulpuru, principal analyst at Forrester, a leading digital research and advisory company, the buy buttons generate such low sales that the number is negligible for most large brands. "Retweets and likes/favourites by influencers are important, but it's difficult to get them at a volume where it generates big sales," Mulpuru explains. For small, more niche brands, she says, the instant buy feature could prove more useful: "Those companies are so small that social can be a huge part of their business. But we're talking about a very small scale. These are businesses where three orders a week may be a big deal."

Brands, both small and large, are becoming savvier about their own social strategies. Burberry, a label with 40 million followers on 20 different platforms recently announced its intention to directly monetize its digital audience, coinciding with the well-publicized changes to its seasonal marketing and production cycle, which will see product available for purchase as soon as it's unveiled on a runway or in ad campaigns. If it succeeds, Burberry will become the first major label to reap considerable and instant profit from its social audience, in essence cutting out the influencer as the online middleman between a brand and consumers.

More detailed data on influencers and their audiences is on its way too. In late May, Instagram announced the upcoming launch of Insights, the platform's analytics tool, which will measure top posts, reach, impressions and engagement along with details on followers like their gender, age and location. It would allow marketers to measure an account's value using consistent metrics. Some will probably be disappointed by the findings. "Some brands are just mesmerized by the numbers," says Strut, who believes a website or blog holds more value than a social feed. "My dot com will transcend my @ sign."

As for me, I won't be joining the Fashion and Beauty Monitor influencer network and their "exclusive hub" of thousands. When I contacted the company to ask why I'd make a good candidate for their roster, a representative for the company would only say I was "hand-picked" by its team. It's a flattering proposition, but I think I'll stick to my day job.