The rise of the influencer: why it literally pays to be popular on social media

11 December 2016 - 02:00 By Monica Laganparsad

South Africa's cool kids are being paid to leverage the power of their social media accounts and tell us what to eat, wear and buy

Your social media profile is the currency of your popularity, in a world where your ranking in society is determined by the number of likes and retweets. It is a fact. A sad one, but a fact.

It is also the greatest marketing tool to have emerged this decade.

Big business is latching on to social media's coolest kids to use their influence to reach a multibillion-rand consumer base.

Millennials have grown up using technology. After all, they did create social media and it's no surprise they are using it to bankroll their hustle.

In the US it was reported that 74% of consumers use social media to guide them on what they buy.


Managing consultant Cassandra Twala, from Bryanston in Johannesburg, says becoming an influencer is about believing in the brands you market and building this belief into daily life.

Millennials don't like being told what to like. They want more than a flashy ad with a celebrity; they want an experience.

Twala began blogging as a hobby. Now she calls herself a lifestyle curator. Even her mother is confused by what she does.

''She's very old-school and doesn't understand why people are sending me stuff," she says.

With a following of 12,800 fans on Instagram, the 23-year-old gets paid to be popular.

Big brands are tapping in to her social media influence to use it for word-of-mouth marketing.

In the US it's big business and Instagram is the number one influencer-marketing platform.

A lover of fashion, makeup and all the finer things in life, Twala says: "I love style and really love the platform, where I can share this with other people."

She's never without her camera and documents her whole life, from eating out with friends to practising yoga on the beach and posting photographs of her dream bedroom and her effortless fashion style. Twala's life on Instagram is amazing.

''My life is fun only because I go for what I want. I chose to enjoy my life because I do the things I love to do and want to do. I have the same struggles as everyone else and maybe I don't post those," she said.

It wasn't long before she was noticed by Woolworths, Clinique and Nike and asked to pimp their products. She says some brands pay her while others send her free merchandise to blog about.

''I believe in the brands and still turn down stuff that is not me," she says. Twala is hoping to turn this into a full-time gig.

''Social media and content sharing wasn't so big and now it's become quite a phenomenon. The brand story is built into people's lives rather than advertised. Getting paid to be yourself ... I think that's amazing."

block_quotes_start There's no value to logos anymore and big brands have caught on that content is more powerful than brand affiliation block_quotes_end

Chelsea Krost is one of the US' s most sought-after m illennial digital influencers and brand ambassadors. The 25-year-old's influence and opinions have the power to shape the marketing strategies of Fortune 500 corporations.

She quickly scored a TV gig and by the time she was 18 she had produced her first documentary series, on her family's mission trip to Africa focusing on women's health and feminine hygiene, which led to Kotex making her one of the first-ever national corporate "millennial spokespeople".

Lisa Cohen, the head of strategy at Offlimit Communications in Johannesburg, is a specialist in youth insight and research. She says the approach of paying celebrities to use their social-media influence to promote a brand is giving way to the next generation of influencer marketing.

According to Forbes, millennials are spending cash on what defines them and Cohen warns if brands and retailers don't tap into this new opportunity, they will be left out in the cold.

The four brands getting it right, she says, are Nike, Puma, Coke and Ray-Ban.

''It's progress, partnership, collaboration. From a millennial perspective they want to know how a brand is going to progress their life. Because they are saying: 'I'm doing me. It not about me doing your brand.'"

One of Nike's approaches to this is the funding and administration of an English soccer academy.

The academy has a revolving squad of unsigned under-20 players and is run with the intention of helping them find a professional club. Cohen says this is what millennials want from a brand.

''They are pretty clear about their hustle and brands need to tap into helping and expanding that. Many of the cool kids curate their lives to get a following and instead of living their experience, they are creating it."


Tapping into this consumer market are Linden, Johannesburg, fashion and design duo Bianca Sibiya and her husband, Khaya Sibiya. The couple are the creatives behind the label Punk&Ivy, which is hot favourite among millennials.

Bianca, who has a marketing background, says they came up with the idea to run their ''shop" out of a renovated mobile home.

''We didn't want to be paying rent and it's essentially a shop on wheels."

Their "motique" - which has been trademarked - is parked in their back yard.

Their ingenuity earned them a spot on the reality TV show Power Play, which pairs industry heavyweights with young creatives hungry to make it.

Bianca, 37, says she is inspired by the drive and ambition of millennials.

''Their hustle is a lot stronger and a lot harder than when I was in my twenties and they have so many more resources at their fingertips. Every young person I've been around has got balls. They are not afraid to ask for what they want.

"They are turning around much faster now in the creative economy and if you don't push, you're gonna lose out because there's always someone brighter."

One of those who grabbed the opportunity is artist Danielle Clough. The 28-year-old from Cape Town has a whopping 81,000 followers on Instagram, a following she built up from embroidering everything from vintage tennis rackets to shoes.

She was among the 19 artists from around the globe chosen by Italian fashion house Gucci for its #24HourAce campaign.

Released on Instagram and Snapchat, the project follows the artists over the course of a day, over different time zones, as they interpret the Gucci Ace sneaker.

''I've noticed that brands are moving away from the logo. There's no value to logos anymore and big brands have caught on that content is more powerful than brand affiliation," says Clough. She says her collaboration with Gucci was about creating art, instead of a commercial.

Perhaps one of the youngest of the local influencers is The Cool Kid. Cape Town matric student Musa Nyangiwe calls himself "schoolboy by day, blogging sensation by night".

He is the creator of blog, which attracts major sponsors such as Levis and fashion retailers.

"Being an influencer is a lot of pressure, both internal and external. People look to you for approval, whether they admit it or not, on whatever society deems cool for that moment, and we also hold ourselves responsible for keeping our followers and readers in the know," he says.

These influencers are not just about pimping out brands for free stuff. They are also the generation who want to throw their influence behind a cause.


Lesego "Thick Leeyonce" Legobane, a student at the University of the Witwatersrand, photographer and Twitter celebrity, takes her popularity seriously.

The 23-year-old, who is majoring in politics and sociology, advocates the importance of women having a positive body image and has launched her own plus-size brand.

''We live in a totally different society because digital media is everything. You have to have content on social media that attracts people," says Legobane.

Legobane's loving-life approach attracted cosmetic houses Clinique and Mac.

But her biggest hook-up has been with adidas - something she says is particularly notable for a plus-sized woman because ''people associate a sports brand with small-sized women".

"People create whole new audiences on social media and we shouldn't take that for granted. Being popular on social media is actually a thing, because people have access to you 24/7. You have the power to influence people," says Legobane.