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'It's Been A Minute' Ponders: Are We In An Influencer Bubble?


Influencing is a job. I don't mean that metaphorically. It's an actual job where people promote products through their social media feeds. And influencing is big business - expected to grow into a $10 billion industry by next year. NPR's Sam Sanders wondered if we're living through an influencer bubble and what would happen if it burst.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Marissa Grossman has 178,000 followers on Instagram. She posts video and photos of her life every day all day and in the midst of it, several carefully curated posts plugging merch. This kind of stuff can make someone like Grossman a lot of money. When Grossman's boyfriend, Gabriel, wanted to propose, he did it - obviously - on Insta.


MARISSA GROSSMAN: Literally freaking out, hysterical crying. It's Tuesday, and Gabe is doing an Instagram story proposing to me through Instagram.

SANDERS: Gabriel arranged an extravagant, multiple-day wedding proposal scavenger hunt for Marissa.


GABRIEL GROSSMAN: We're not really into traditional weddings. It's not really our style.

SANDERS: At the end of this Instagram journey, there was a wedding ceremony.


M GROSSMAN: We're married, guys. I have my grandmother's ring on. Gabe, show your ring.

SANDERS: But soon after the proposal Insta journey began, stories began to circulate that Gabriel Grossman and one of Marissa's friends had pitched the entire thing to a bunch of brands asking them to sponsor it. The thing for sale seems to be this couple's relationship. This, influencer advertising, it's everywhere. You name the product, a company can find a way to get a regular person - sometimes with as few as 10,000 followers - to plug it. Estee Lauder announced this summer that three-quarters of their advertising budget next fiscal year would go to digital marketing, with a big chunk of that going to influencers. But as this type of advertising grows, there are questions about whether all of it is real.

CHAVIE LIEBER: Some of the engagement, some of the numbers, are a little sketchy.

SANDERS: Chavie Lieber covers fashion influencing for the website Business of Fashion. She says creative influencers can find lots of ways to juice their numbers.

LIEBER: Buying followers - there is another tactic called Instagram pods. Influencers get into groups, and they agree to, like, comment on like on each other's photos.

SANDERS: And if you want to buy followers, there's an entire cottage industry of companies that help influencers create fake accounts. A recent report from a cybersecurity firm called CHEQ found that fraud in the influencer world, it cost brands up to $1.3 billion last year alone, even as studies show consumers trust influencers more than brands. Joe Gagliese runs an influencer management company called Viral Nation. He says over time, the market will adjust in major ways to correct for fraud. And all these platforms and the art of influencing will continue to change. Even with all that shift and uncertainty, Joe thinks influencing isn't going away.

JOE GAGLIESE: I used to think it was a bubble, for sure. Here's what changed my opinion. Viral Nation gets between, I want to say, 200 and 500 emails a week.

SANDERS: And Gagliese says a big chunk of those emails are from young kids.

GAGLIESE: As early as 5 years old who now are saying, screw being a doctor, screw being an athlete. That's too hard. I want to be an influencer.

SANDERS: Doesn't that make you sad (laughter)?

GAGLIESE: I don't know what it makes me, but I'm not super happy about it.

SANDERS: So, yeah, like it or not, get used to it. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.
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