With 2018 set to be a bigger year than ever for social media, Solberg Audunsson outlines what will be the biggest trends such as influencer audiences driving brands, sponsor tagging and Instagram’s one billion active monthly users.

The year 2017 was undoubtedly the biggest yet for influencer marketing, especially when it comes to Instagram. The platform’s monthly active users grew by over a third, reaching 900 million by the end of December, and it was a driving force for the influencer marketing sector with the arrival of new features like Stories and swipe-up links.

The social network has brought influencer marketing into a new space. While a year ago the conversation was around education, looking at how influencer marketing works and the benefits it can bring for brands, we’re now in a position where we can talk about its evolution, and why it has become a legitimised and much-valued tactic.

So with 2018 set to be even bigger for the sector, and for Instagram in particular, what will the three key trends be?

1. Influencer audiences, not content, will be the new driver for brands

Influencer marketing is currently a content and media one-two punch. By that we mean influencers own their channel and their audience, but they also produce the content, which is often licensed to the brand for further reuse. In 2018, there are a few forces that could disrupt this.

First, the price for Instagram-ready content has crashed. It’s easier than ever for brands to generate high-quality imagery elsewhere, so the importance of influencers as solely content generators isn’t what it once was. Their creativity will of course always drive engagement, and there is no influencer marketing without talent and creativity, but that might not be the main lever this year. Their media impact and their audiences will instead become increasingly important, as brands work with influencers to tap into followers and key demographics – a major shift from what we have seen over the past year.

Second, Instagram will likely start to limit organic distribution for influencer business profiles, meaning that influencers won’t simply be able to promote brands and businesses on their feed without properly tagging or signposting the content. This makes the audience even more important, as brands will need to choose influencers that have the right following in order to build successful partnerships. Many consumers see through promotions if they aren’t well suited to the influencer or feel inauthentic, so addressing this will be key.

In return though, brands will gain both better insights into organic audiences, and the ability to secure a more accurate distribution than they’d otherwise get – the elusive demographic targeting that influencer marketing has been missing so far.

We can already see this starting to happen on Instagram, which takes us to the next big trend for 2018.

2. Brands and influencers will embrace sponsor tagging

Instagram pushed a lot of influencers to business accounts in 2017, laying the groundwork for an epic native influencer programme. It made the content creators an integral part of its business model and tied them to the platform, and this approach is in stark contrast to YouTube and Snapchat.

These accounts have initially only been made available to top-tier influencers, but it signals a big step forward for influencer marketing, as once creators have a business account, they can more clearly signpost promoted content with bespoke tags. It's effectively self-regulation from Instagram.

What really sets the sponsored post programme apart however, is that it doesn’t prey on the creativity of influencers. It acknowledges that brands should pay the influencer for their work, and then pay the platform for distribution. It’s not quite as clear a split as that, but that’s where it seems to be heading.

Getting back to the point above, 2018 will see the complete rollout of this programme with influencers of all sizes. It’s flexible, fair and open, which will be a big driver for influencer marketing. Instagram will now be able to distribute reliable data, but sourcing and collaborating with talent will remain the trickiest part.

3. Instagram will reach one billion monthly active users

One thing that looks almost certain in 2018 is that Instagram will reach one billion monthly active users. The platform grew rapidly in 2017, but as Stories continues to drive daily active users, Snapchat and other rivals have just a fraction of the user base.

There are already 500 million users on Instagram who are active on a daily basis, and they are engaged by a mixture of friends, local influencers, larger influencers, brand accounts and paid ads. As influencer marketing matures, advertisers have started employing tactics for each of these segments, and the maturity and complexity grows with the size of Instagram as a platform.

What looks likely to come with this growth in 2018, are bigger budgets with highly engaged micro-influencers around the 10,000 follower mark. This represents the most important segment of brand influence, as these are the influencers people relate to most and for whom word of mouth is still real. Their content is authentic and they have a close bond with their audience.

Brands want to tap into the level of trust that exists between these influencers and their followers. Because of this, we’re starting to see a new budget tier unlock for this size of influencer, where it’s less about the content generation and more about the high-impact media.