Instagram has bitten the bullet and begun offering a select group of its influencers the ability to sell subscriptions. It’s a move that alters the power dynamic between brands, influencers and audiences – one that leans into the ideals of web3 and puts greater power in the hands of the individual. But what does it mean for the relationship between advertiser and audience – and do people trust the platforms to do it right?
The advertiser has always been a core part of the Facebook/Instagram influencer model. Many social-specific agencies have been founded on the understanding that the conversation with influencers would always include a brand angle.
On January 19, however, Instagram announced it is launching trials of a subscription service, one that allows its users to pay for extra content from creators. Its pitch to those individuals is that it is a revenue source other than advertising and sponsored content deals. The tacit implication is also that it will extend those deals to new influencers who come across from other platforms, as the battle to attract the biggest social stars heats up.
Not to be outdone, TikTok announced it too is testing subscriptions with a small number of influencers. It follows its roll-out of tipping options and the Creator Next program, which are also designed to diversify revenue models for its subscribers.
The trend, then, is for influencers to gain greater control of the conversation between themselves and the audience – and that conversation can allow for direct monetization, without the need for brands.
Pollyanna Ward is head of paid social at Social Chain. She argues this shift in the dynamic has been a long time coming, based on growing recognition of the appeal of influencers. “This update from Instagram to provide creators with the ability to monetize their content is definitely part of a broader trend that we’re seeing across the internet. Historically, as consumers, we’ve all become used to getting content for free, and creators are expected to make this content for free with the hope that they may get picked up by a brand where they’ll be paid to talk about a specific product or service.
“But in the wake of platforms realizing that the reason people go on their platforms is because of the great content by creators, it’s really a good thing that the creators are now able to make money on their own.”
She notes, however, that subscriptions will take time to take off for creators and influencers, as audiences on social platforms aren’t yet habituated to making direct payments to individuals. “It’s important, however, to realize that in all of this brand partnerships still account for the majority of creator revenue, with 77% of money made being from brand deals, whereas subscriptions and tips make up around 1-3%. So it’s good to keep abreast of these shifts in their early stages, but also keep in mind the current landscape.”
Mo money mo problems
Anna Hart is founding director of One Roof Social. She says that historically direct payments rely on the audience’s readiness to pay. That, she says, relies on creators offering a tangible benefit in return for that extra revenue. “It didn’t work for YouTube but really worked for OnlyFans – it’s going to come down to how compelling the content is, as that will drive demand. What’s compelling in 2022 is TBC, but audiences appear to be interested in the behind-the-scenes, candid moments more than anything – and there’s a real shift in what a creator is prepared to share from a personal wellbeing perspective.
“However, I feel the opportunity for a creator’s content to not be dictated by content partnership briefs is smart. There is a lot of apathy for poor-fitting partnerships and the option for creators to drive revenue in a way that’s true to their style is quite exciting.”
Ward agrees, noting that creator partnerships with brands that fit their online persona are still effective. Those deals, ones that add value across the entire relationship of brand-influencer-audience, will still have a place even with the addition of direct payments. “Something that I’ve seen posed by some commentators on this new power dynamic is that creators are now competitors to your brand, because they can launch their own products and services and monetize directly in the social channels, just as brands can. They also have highly engaged audiences, whereas for brands it’s arguably more passive. Take the following example: if you’re a pizza brand and a successful TikTok chef creator launches their own line of pizza, that’s now a competitor, where previously you might have sponsored them to post about eating your pizza.
“However, instead of seeing this as a challenger brand, see the chef creator as someone who could launch a bespoke line of pizza wheels with you. Or could you provide the pizza boxes and the creator puts their design on? This is an opportunity to strike up partnerships, not battles.”
The last wrinkle in the story, however, is the fact that creators are often deeply untrustworthy of the platforms’ intentions. Some have been burned by demonetization from platforms such as TikTok on the back of segments of the audience complaining, or of brands not wanting to be associated with particular types of content as the influencer’s focus shifts.
While Instagram has stated it won’t begin taking a cut of influencer subscription revenue until next year, some influencers are likely to be burned by any such change. Over the past few years creators on Twitch have complained about the livestreaming platform’s monetization options being counter to streamers’ best interests, with its ‘paid boost’ feature in particular receiving criticism from the bigger creators. Hart also notes that, with the fragmented and unclear means of regulating paid-for content on social, adding the ability to monetize directly means influencers are likely to run into more rules and restrictions when melding sponsored content and audience subscription revenue.
In the meantime, while Instagram and TikTok attempt to lure influencers across to their own apps as influencer primacy grows, brand partnerships are still the largest source of influencer revenue. For the moment, it is less of a pressing question – but if audiences grow to appreciate the ability to support creators directly, brands’ influencer strategies will require significant readjustment.