The majority of the clothes in my closet were bought online. All of the posters on the walls of my bedroom were found after scrolling websites like Etsy and Redbubble. I got my sheets, comforter, and bed frame in one click, and they arrived at my doorstep the next day.
When I need something, my first instinct is always to look online first. A few weeks ago, I needed a new pair of jeans. Before the internet, the process of getting them would have taken up the bulk of my Sunday. Instead of lying on my couch with Master of None on the TV, I’d have to get in my car and drive across town to the mall. I’d have to wander from store to store, keeping track of varying prices and fits of denim instead of just having a few browser tabs open. I would have to keep indecisively trying on different pairs of jeans until I wanted to pass out, instead of just making a decision and then going about my day.
Retail is the industry that has been changed by the internet more than, perhaps, any other. Over the past decade, brands have had to change the entire way they conceptualize, market and sell their products. And even then, the internet market itself is rapidly changing.
In March, Instagram announced a new feature where users can purchase the specific items tagged in posts straight from the app. For example, if an influencer like Kendall Jenner posts a picture of herself in a Victoria’s Secret top that you decide you just have to own, you can with just a few taps on your phone.
This has the ability to allow Instagram to be not only a social media platform, but a commerce platform where you can follow brands and influencers to do your shopping in between vacation pictures and cute cats.
But not every brand can afford a Kendall Jenner to advertise their products, so smaller and more local business can turn to independent Instagram influencers to help promote their products. But what exactly is an influencer, and how do they factor into this social media retail boom?
Alessandra Paolinetti is 19 years old and studies marketing at Florida State University. Like a lot of girls her age, she loves days at the beach and going out with her friends. But what separates Paolinetti is that instead of waiting tables or folding clothes, a typical source of income for someone her age, she’s turned her fun into a way to make money.
Paolinetti is an influencer on Instagram, where she recently hit 100,000 followers. Influencer marketing works like this: Businesses pay people with influence in social media, a.k.a. a lot of followers, to promote and post about their products. Ideally, influencers would rack up followers on Instagram because people like both them and their taste in the products that they promote. It’s a bit like having an internet friend who will recommend things for you.
“It’s something that I’m always working on rather than sitting down to do a few hours a day,” Paolinetti tells me over text. “I spread it out throughout the day by doing stuff like replying to emails when I’m eating lunch or checking my [direct messages] when I’m watching TV.”
Typically, an online influencer will cater to a specific audience. Tech influencers may put out unboxing videos and reviews for the latest gadgets. Beauty influencers will make videos trying on and talking about new makeup palettes. Paolinetti focuses more on fashion, specifically swimsuits.
“People definitely expect mostly bikini content from my page,” Paolinetti jokes. “I would classify my content generally as lifestyle, but my ‘lifestyle’ is mostly stuff I end up being in a bikini for. Like going to the beach or surfing or traveling.”
At a glance, pictures on her Instagram feed might not look too different than any other college girl. Poses on the beach, nights out with friends, but tagged in nearly all of them is where Paolinetti’s followers can buy whatever she’s wearing. A picture of her and a friend on a balcony, tagged with the fashion brand Dolls Kill. A pose on the beach under a palm tree, and you can find the swimsuit she’s wearing in minutes.
Influencer marketing isn’t exclusive to Instagram and its user-base of 7.53 billion people. Poke around social media goliaths like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and you’ll find plenty of people trying to balance marketing themselves to potential followers, as somebody who can point them in the direction of cool products they’ll be interested in and to brands as someone who can pedal those products. Paolinetti herself also posts weekly vlogs to YouTube and maintains an active Twitter account.
As with most things online, it’s been difficult to determine the exact size, scope and effect that influencer marketing has had on e-commerce in the past few years. A study from the social media marketing company HubSpot estimated that the Earned Media Value of sponsored posts in influencer marketing campaigns would reach $8.08 billion in 2020.
Although it might look nothing but glamorous to some, being an influencer, as with any job, has its downsides. Although Paolinetti gets some perks like free clothes, meals at nice restaurants, and even complimentary hotel rooms in exchange for promotion, she estimates that she works about nine hours a day to make just as much as she would in a service industry job for extra money.
“People don’t think about how difficult it can be to post content every day,” Paolinetti says. “Some days you don’t want to do anything or you’re really sad about something, and you still need to put content out there.”
It’s also a job where one is not only judged by their appearance but can get a measurement of what people think from the number of likes and the types of comments a photo receives. Notoriously, the internet can be unkind to people who put themselves out there.
Time will tell how much of online retail will revolve around influencers, but in an increasingly gig economy, it’s no surprise that the next frontier of business involves independent agents.
“My main goal right now is to grow more of a fan base rather than just followers so that they convert across platforms,” Paolinetti said. “Even if Instagram goes away, they’ll follow me to the next social media website.”