So some interesting events happened in my industry (hair) this last week and it brought many things to my attention, things that I realized there isn’t a lot of knowledge or discussion about – or at least that’s what it looked like from the way people were talking about them. I won’t go into details regarding which specific events I mean, or what exactly happened that led to these discussions, but I WILL say that I’m willing to share some of my own knowledge because it seems needed.
A particular person was basically having her entire person and character questioned because she is a social media influencer. And it appeared that it was being questioned simply because there was very little understanding regarding what it means to be an influencer, and there was the implied suggestion that she is automatically some sort of con artist simply for having an influencer title and capabilities.
Now I am not super great buddies with this person. We know of each other, and have met a few times, and we do similar sorts of work. But she has a MUCH bigger following than I do, so she is more well known and has more industry status than I. Regardless, I, too, have become an influencer myself somehow (not what I was setting out to do), and I wanted to share what I know about the job from my own experience. I am sure there are many other things to learn; at this point, I’m basically winging it because that’s how I live my life. Additionally, this whole influencer thing is sort of new with social media, so I think the rules and options are always evolving, especially as media platforms grow and adjust algorithms.
So what is an influencer? Well, they influence. See, easy!
That’s actually not an inaccurate description, but how does it work? Well, when you have a bajillion followers, you have what’s called a market – people who are already interested in your work. It’s a built-in audience. In my case, I do mostly weird shit, like paintings and patterns on hair. Was anyone interested in that before? I dunno, probably mostly not. But you get a few articles written about you, which gives you some exposure, which sends a stampede of people to your social media pages, and now a lot of people are into it. Now people WANT it – people who probably didn’t want it before. Now there’s more demand for my services. Cool! My social media, along with other media outlets, allowed me to influence the amount of demand for my work.
Naturally, what this means is that a lot of people also want to know HOW I’m doing the work. What’s my technique? Are there specific strategies? What sorts of brushes do I use? What kind of color is that? What works best for this stuff? Now, there’s demand for knowledge and tools. I can provide the knowledge – this blog and my tutorials. But I can’t provide the tools. And this is the part where people start to get funny about all this stuff.
I use anywhere from 10-20 different product brands to do weird shit, from the color to brushes to bowls to foils to meches to hairspray and god knows what else I have to have in order to make this crap. I have used various rainbow colors on hair for two decades now, so I have a ton of experience and brand knowledge regarding things like staying power, color bleeding, coverage, tonal values, mixability, workability, and all the other stuff you pick up after 20 years of playing with hair paint on clients. This allows me to customize my service for each and every one of my clients, to meet their specific requirements regarding maintenance, budget, color preferences, and all the other factors that hair colorists take into consideration every day. So sometimes, when people ask me about what I’m working with, I tell them what and why.
Of course some product brands have picked up on this. They’ve noticed that I might consistently recommend them or say good things about them in such a way that many thousands of people see it every day. I give them exposure, potentially to markets that they were not previously reaching. Sometimes, just to say thanks, they might send me a few samples. Some just start providing me with product regularly (also known as sponsorship) so that I don’t need to buy it anymore. And some want contracts for me to do projects specifically with their products, which can often pay in cash – on the condition that I share the work on my social media and discuss what I’m using.
And this is where people lose their shit. When the person who inspired this post was shown to charge money to work in much the same way, people started tearing into her, assuming that she must automatically be dishonest because she is “paid for her opinion”. I found this surprising for a number of reasons.
First of all, while being a social media influencer is sort of a new job, advertising isn’t. We get advertised to all the time. Is it always dishonest? I dunno, is it? How do you find out if the claims advertised by a product are true? Maybe you ask around, read reviews, or take the risk and try the product yourself. Maybe you’ve tried other things by that company and they did or didn’t work well, so that influences how likely you are to use them again. Maybe you’ve heard unsavory things about that company, so even if their products are good, you don’t wanna support their business. There are a LOT of things that help us decide what to buy.
But here’s the thing – something that doesn’t work at all isn’t gonna last long on the market. People figure it out and word gets around and if there aren’t sufficient sales, then the product gets kicked out of the market. Yay free market system! That company now has a bad reputation, assuming they can even keep their doors open.
This applies to influencers, too. We take on that same risk when we decide which stuff to promote. In my case, I actually have to use this stuff on my clients, who are still my bread and butter. I need to continue to make them happy and provide good results with my service. I can’t use crappy stuff on them – I have to use what works. I also like my job to be as easy as possible, so my clients may not care about the way some of my tools help me out, but I do, and so do other stylists. So in terms of sponsorships, what am I gonna do with regular shipments coming in of product I can’t use? Why would I be motivated to keep promoting product that will just sit in my closet? No, if I’m going to take a sponsorship, I need stuff that I can utilize, or else it’s not helpful at all. It makes no sense to take on a sponsorship to promote stuff I don’t use and love. Which means I actually turn down a lot of offers. It just doesn’t make sense to take them on when there’s actual good stuff out there that I’d rather use and share.
But what about cash payments? Isn’t everyone motivated by money? Sure, money is great. But let’s think about this a little bit. If you’re a stylist (or honestly, in any kind of business), how did you build your clientele? How do you make your money? Probably through consistently delivering quality work, with quality product, and developing a good reputation that got you referrals. You had to show up and kick ass regularly. No faking.
Same deal for influencers. We have reputations on the line. We got our following by establishing credibility much the same way we did in the salon – good work that is consistent, and in my case, also providing usable knowledge to fellow professionals that can help them perform better, too. I look like a dumbass if I provide bad information. You think no one is going to notice that? You think that’s not gonna hurt my credibility? What are the long term effects of that? That’s right, you lose trust in my brand. You don’t wanna follow me anymore, or you can’t take me seriously. I lose influence.
This is bad business. There can be short term gains for getting paid off to use and/or promote ineffective or bad product, but the long term story is different. If I lose influence, I lose more money down the road. I lose professional credibility, not only among clients and followers, but also among my peers. This can hurt, and even ruin, my career. I want to be taken seriously, not only because that’s important to me personally, but because I still have a long time to go in this industry, and I have bills to pay like everyone else. Hurting my own credibility can damage my ability to do those things. I have a responsibility to maintain follower and client trust if I want to continue to have effective and profitable branding.
And consider this. Imagine you have worked hard in your career to build your skills, provide the best work possible, and create a solid reputation that people trust. YOU did that. And then it just so happens, the internet notices and throws a bunch of followers your way. Maybe you’ve even researched and strategized for building your market, which is no small feat and often practically a second job in and of itself. And then someone comes along and wants some space on your social media platform. They want access to your followers and market. They want a spot dedicated just to them, based on all the work you’ve already done, the skills you’ve developed, the mistakes you’ve already made and learned from, the practice and continuing education investments and experience. Do you give it up for free? Maybe, if you really, really want to. But what if they offer to pay you to give that space up, AND you’re already using their stuff anyway? Would you really, honestly, turn that down? Are they entitled to that space just because they asked for it? Why can’t they use their own space? Why are they even asking you? Because they have determined that you have something that they want – your knowledge, skill, followers, reach, and market - and that now makes you valuable on some level. The free market strikes again! So of course you are going to leverage that value if you can. You’re not a charity, you are a business.
We also must take into account how other advertising and education works in the hair industry (and many other industries). We have brand educators coming at us all the time, whether through our beauty suppliers, hair shows, online, and everywhere else. Now, we take them seriously - and we should! They have learned all the ins and outs of their brand and the product lines and the way to best maximize the results they can provide. Do we denounce their credibility simply because they are paid to do so? No, not typically. We respect their knowledge and experience and consider them experts in their particular field. The same can often be said of influencers who may be formally trained or, like me, have learned through experience and a lot of trial and error - but we have no specific loyalty or requirement that we use only a certain brand. We can choose whoever we want to promote, and we have no obligation to say anything one way or another, because we are usually independent contractors that make those decisions entirely free of any ties to a particular company or brand - except our own.
Now, are there going to be some people out there that will advertise anything for money? Sure! There are always cheaters in every system. But they are usually few and far between, and they almost always get caught, especially now that information is so easy to exchange online. People can easily compare notes, take screenshots, and all the other wonderful and awful things that the internet allows. These are just more incentives to be honest with product promotion.
My point is, we can’t assume that someone being an influencer automatically means they are blowing smoke up your ass. Influencers have very strong incentives in place to keep them pretty honest. If they have built a relationship with their following and they’ve been consistent providers of good information, then that will very likely remain the case even once they start getting paid for their knowledge and skillsets. We are just regular people - not marketing teams who are disconnected from their market base - and that is one of our strengths. But like with any type of advertising, consumers must do their own due diligence, too. And there IS some inherent risk in that. Shoot, even a great product that works for 99.9% of people might still not work for you. But the only way to find out is to do the research and try it out for yourself.