The influencer economy is a broken mess

A highly successful, 22 year old influencer summed up what’s wrong with the influencer industry in emojis:

“Brands and influencers are messaging each other heart-eyes emojis, but everyone actually hates each other.”

The NYTs article about F*** You, Pay Me (Glassdoor for influencers) confirms Birb’s impressions from interviews with influencers and brands: the influencer industry is a broken, rage-inducing pain to work in for everyone involved – but there’s so much value at stake people participate anyway.

Businesses hate having to pretend to be friends with teenagers on TikTok; influencers hate brands who waste their time trying to get them to work for “exposure”, product samples, or anything but cash. Meanwhile everyone else resents top influencers’ easy lives of glamour, even as those stars hustle ceaselessly to maintain their image, relevance, and partnerships.

A full-time travel influencer who earns >$100k a year told me he doesn’t even bother working with brands directly. “[F*** You Pay Me]’s issues with companies are why I don’t even bother.” He sticks to sharing affiliate links for commission.

Suck it up, or pay the middlemen

Influencers who chase the biggest deals hire agents to interface with marketers (two layers of middle men that create friction and add overhead costs).

Middlemen make the market work – but only if you're big and willing to pay for it.

There’s precedent from earlier in Internet history: working with influencers in 2021 is like running digital ads before 2005. Back then businesses had to identify and negotiate with individual websites they wanted to host their ads. Similarly, websites had to chase businesses to buy their ad space. It was a lot of hassle for everyone until Google/DoubleClick automated the whole process with ad exchanges.

Now anyone can sell ads by pasting a line of code on their site, and anyone can buy ads through Google.  Consumer microtargeting lets Google show relevant ads to the right people. As a result, Google ads killed the human-powered ad placement industry and earned $147B in 2020 – more than the GDP of Ukraine.

Google ads revenue in 2020: $147B | Ukraine GDP in 2020: $151B

Disruption through commoditization

The marketplace for influencers follows the pattern of other industries that commoditized something tedious:

AWS let businesses buy computing instead of computers.

Google ads let businesses buy attention instead of ad space.

Businesses don’t want to buy influencers, they want to buy influence. The tricky part is that computing and ad spots are interchangeable commodities, but influence is unique to who’s influencing whom. In order to make a market for granular amounts of influence, you need software and data that can analyze social relationships, identify who’s the right influencer for a product, and make it fast and easy to pay them to share it with their audience.

Just like Google ads made it possible for anyone with a small website to monetize their visitors, Birb is giving everyone – even people who wouldn't think of themselves as “influencers”— opportunities to get paid for their expertise and recommendations, even if it's on the scale of a 1-to-1 referral. On the business side, they'll be able to buy word-of-mouth as easily as moving a slider on Google Marketing Platform – no TikTok diplomacy required.