Influencer marketing is changing  new data from GWI shows how, writes insights Analyst Shauna Moran.

People get tired of trends, which is why they go round in circles. For example, popular outfits from the 80s and 90s fell through the cracks for a period of time, and are now back in style.

Fashion has already been through several cycles. Meanwhile, influencer culture as we know it today – linked to the creation of Instagram in 2010 – is coming to the end of its first leg. And the once in vogue “Instagram face” is falling out of fashion.

Research from as far back as 2010 speaks of social media fueling demand for less artificiality in images. But this sentiment snowballed during lockdowns, beckoning a new dawn in the age of influencer marketing.

Some audiences are now trying to close the chapter on perfection, meaning brands and social media stars who fail to dig deep may miss out on a great opportunity to meet followers where they are.

Some background to the current cycle

We only have to look at some of the movements currently gaining traction to get a sense of where consumers’ heads are at. 2020 was dubbed the year of the “photo-dump”, and there’s a reason why many enjoyed chucking random groups of photos together during lockdowns: they wanted a break from their carefully curated online personas, which couldn’t be further from reality. Cluttercore is another nod to this; it’s a new craze that embraces people’s lived-in mess, in contrast to the pristine rooms you usually see on Instagram.

If these real-world examples aren’t convincing enough, our research helps them along. Since last year, American Gen Zs are less likely to want their lifestyle to impress others and more think it's ok for people to say when they're struggling. 16-24s are powerful trendsetters in the world of social media and often offer glimpses into where global consumer sentiment is headed. With this in mind, it’s likely polished online personas won’t have the same impact they once did.

In many cases, owning our imperfections achieves the opposite of what it used to: it can give us an aspirational halo. Right now, around a third are more willing to trust people if they know about their difficulties.

There was some criticism when gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympics to protect her mental health, but AI platform HypeAuditor found that the overall reaction on social media was favourable. Every influencer will have struggled at some point. For many social media users, sharing this truth doesn’t leave a blemish on an otherwise perfect profile. Instead, it can make a person seem more relatable, and therefore, influential.

Aside from speaking more freely about the things that matter to them, filters (or rather, a lack of them) are also central to the new look. This year, Norway made it illegal for influencers to share retouched photos without a disclaimer, and this line of thinking is catching on among social media users. Around 1 in 4 agree that influencers should make it clear when they use filters on their photos.

A growing number of brands work in long-term partnerships with influencers, which means they’re closely associated with the content they create. While editing professional posts isn’t illegal in most countries, businesses can get ahead of the regulation game by ensuring they have a strong set of guidelines ready and raring to go; as untouched work can help both stand out against today’s curated backdrop.   

If filters and guarded posts are out, what’s in?

There’s a reason why we’re comparing awareness events to a fashion cycle. It’s because ditching the glam is a trend in itself. Consumers who say they’re less interested in filters show above-average concern for their online image and are much more likely to list posting about their life as a top reason for using social media. The “in” aesthetic may have changed, but many continue to chase it.                                                  

People don’t always agree about fashion, so no change is clear-cut. On the social media side of things, there’s still demand for inspirational images that look good. The point is that a large number now crave posts that reflect the reality of their post-lockdown life and help them adapt.

More social media users say they most want to see funny or light-hearted material (55%) and information that helps people (48%) on their feed than inspirational content (47%) or images that look good (41%). This means that luxury or fashion brands that depend on glamour shots might drive growth by adding some eccentricity to their marketing. Whether that’s in the form of raw images or self-deprecating memes, the latest style is all about impulsive creativity.

According to some fashion experts, animal print will continue to rise and fall in popularity, but never become obsolete – and this offers a likely summary of curated perfection. In order to make the most of these changes in tide and ride the new wave, brands just need to move in time.