Imagine this scene: You’re out with a friend and admire her new purse. You aren’t really in the market for anything, but now you want your own shiny new bag, so you decide to head to the store after you’re done hanging out and pick up one for yourself. However, on the way home, you forget or you’re running late, so you don’t make it to the store after all and never end up buying the purse. That’s OK, you think; you didn’t need it and weren’t planning on buying it until you saw it on your friend’s arm. You keep using your current purse instead, and that money gets put toward something else that you had intended to buy.
Now, imagine if you could have admired the purse on your friend and then bought it instantly with a convenient link using your smartphone. It’s much more likely that you would have bought it since the task of procuring the purse would be so easy and seamless. But no one really operates that way, right?
While our real-life friends may not give us immediate opportunities to purchase the products they share with us, some of our online “friends” do. If you’re on Instagram, it’s likely that some of the people you follow are constantly showing you new products to buy and a lifestyle to aspire to. Instagram has a whopping one billion active monthly users worldwide and growing. The popular social network app also has a plethora of “influencers” – people who use it to make money through sponsored posts and by hosting contests and giveaways for companies.
What Is an Instagram Influencer?
In a nutshell, an Instagram influencer is an Instagram user who has a large number of followers – some of the most popular influencers have 10 million or more – and who “engages” with their audience frequently by posting pictures, sharing stories, and responding to comments and direct messages from followers. While some of them are also movie stars or TV personalities, most influencers started as regular people who garnered so many followers that it made them famous in certain Internet circles and in popular culture.
These influencers reach thousands upon thousands of viewers through the platform, and companies and advertisers have taken notice. Influencers are often paid by brands big and small to promote their products and services on the social media platform. Most advertising budgets nowadays include a portion allocated both to Instagram ads, which pop up between pictures posted by people you follow, and for influencer campaigns, in which the influencer posts a picture or video to their profile, which you’ll see if you follow them. Some of the most popular influencers make up to $25,000 per post, and even influencers with only a few hundred thousand followers can get paid several thousand dollars for a post or campaign.
Why Are They So Influential?
One of the reasons these Instagram stars are so influential is their relatability, and part of that comes from the sharing nature of the platform itself.
In July of 2010, Instagram was launched by two college friends as a free photo sharing app with a name that’s a portmanteau of the words “instant camera” and “telegram.” It was successful almost immediately, garnering a million users just one month after its initial launch. With this success came attention from other tech giants, and Facebook bought the company in September 2012. The funding and support that the acquisition provided enabled Instagram to begin adding features such as location tagging, new photo filters, video, direct messaging between users, and Instagram stories.
The more ways that Instagram diversified the app and allowed users to engage with each other, the more time people spent on the platform. Data shows that users spent, on average, almost an hour a day on Instagram in 2018, compared with 30 minutes in 2017. More eyeballs on the app, for more hours of the day, means that the potential to advertise to these users is huge, especially considering that 33% of Instagram’s users are millennials who are less likely to see digital ads in more traditional ways. This group of users eschews cable in favor of paid streaming services like Netflix or Hulu and uses ad blockers on Web browsers, so advertisers have turned to Instagram as a great new way to get their attention.
How Instagram Makes You Spend Money
While human beings have been falling prey to keeping up with the Joneses for centuries, Instagram influencers are a new, sneakier way to increase spending and encourage consumerism. A 2018 study by Allianz Life found that 57% of millennials surveyed said they had spent money they hadn’t intended to because of something they saw on social media, and a whopping 61% said they feel inadequate or lacking compared with the people they see in their social media feeds.
This phenomenon, known as the fear of missing out (FOMO), is a real feeling that none of us wants to experience if we can help it. Not only do we hate missing out on a party we weren’t invited to, but we’re also worried about missing out on a great deal on new jeans, a hot new purse, clearer skin, whiter teeth, or a better-looking life. That’s exactly what Instagram influencers, and the companies who pay them to hawk products, are banking on, and there are two main ways they accomplish it.
1. Advertising From a “Friend”
Most savvy consumers are wise to common strategies that companies and advertisers use to try to get us to part with our hard-earned money. From holiday sales to buy-one-get-one deals to limited-time coupons, we know their tactics. However, we’re much more trusting of our friends and family, so when they tell us to buy a product or service, we’re more likely to do so than if we’d simply encountered the item through traditional marketing. We believe they’re telling the truth about the product instead of being paid to do so. They’re our friends, so why would they lie to us?
However, if the “friend” happens to be a stranger we follow on Instagram, we’re still more apt to buy a recommended product from them than from a standalone advertisement – never mind the fact that we don’t actually know the Instagram influencer and that they may be getting paid to shill these products by the company that makes or advertises them.
2. Aspirational Lifestyle Purchases
Consider this a version of keeping up with the Joneses on steroids. Not only are people buying stuff to feel like they’re keeping up, but they’re also taking pictures of this stuff and posting them on social media to signify their wealth and status to their own followers, either consciously or subconsciously.
These aspirational lifestyle purchases and experiences can really add up, especially when people spend so much time on the app. Some millennials surveyed have spent over $200 on items and food just for the perfect picture to post on Instagram. People also admit to going to a restaurant or staying at a hotel specifically because it’s ‘gram-worthy, regardless of whether it’s a great deal or has the amenities they want. People are choosing to stay in hotels or flocking to destinations made popular by Instagram influencers, many of whom are paid to post these pictures or are at least given free accommodations in exchange for exposure.
What Do Influencers Have to Disclose?
You might assume that the people you follow on Instagram have to tell you when they’re sharing a sponsored product or a product they received for free from a company, to differentiate from when they’re posting something they bought with their own money, enjoy, and want to tell you about. Technically, they do, but influencers don’t always follow these disclosure rules to the letter.
Sponsored posts, reviews, and giveaways technically fall under the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act of 1914, which was designed to prohibit unfair methods or practices that affect commerce. In 1914, when it was signed into law by Woodrow Wilson, it essentially meant that companies couldn’t conspire to price fix and monopolize the market or deceive customers through false advertising. The act has expanded since then and is still enforced today by the FTC, whose main mission is to promote consumer protection.
The FTC has issued disclosure guidelines and repeatedly reminded bloggers and social media influencers that they must reveal any “material connections” between themselves and a company whose product they share with their followers. However, despite clear instructions from the FTC about what language to use and where this disclosure must be placed, only about 25% of sponsored Instagram posts are disclosed in a way that complies with the FTC’s requirements, according to Inkifi’s State of Disclosure report. While 71% of accounts surveyed were disclosing their affiliation in some way, many were burying this information below the three-line caption jump or as one lone hashtag in a sea of hashtags on the post.
The FTC has begun charging influencers for failing to disclose paid relationships or endorsements, but there’s no way the agency can monitor every post and keep up with the ever-changing world of social influencer marketing. Furthermore, many smaller influencers fly under the radar of the FTC precisely because they have fewer followers and thus are subject to less scrutiny than more famous, higher-paid influencers.
The bottom line is this: Don’t expect the people you follow on Instagram and other social media platforms to be completely transparent when telling you about a new product, restaurant, or destination. You never know when their opinions have been swayed because they got an item for free or are being paid to share it.
How to Resist the Lure of Instagram Marketing
So what can you do to be an informed consumer instead of falling prey to Instagram-fueled impulse purchases? Here are some tips for keeping your Instagram spending in check just like you would if you were buying something from a store or online retailer.
1. Identify Your Weaknesses
If you know that a certain influencer you follow makes you want to hit the “buy” button more often than not, consider taking a break from following them or from the app entirely. You can use the “mute” feature to keep yourself from seeing new posts and videos from a specific user. Try that for a week and see if your spending changes. You can always go back and unmute them in the future. If you’re feeling brave, consider a social media detox and avoid all social media for a week or two to do a hard reset of your spending.
2. Stick to a Budget
It’s OK to spend money occasionally on things you see on social media. The problem arises when you spend too much money on stuff you don’t really want, or if you’re buying stuff to get the perfect picture but don’t want it anymore after the likes have stopped flooding in.
If you enjoy looking at other people’s pictures to get an idea of how to style accessories or the best new jeans to get for spring, go ahead and build that into your monthly budget. Just make sure you create a spending plan and stick to it instead of letting your Instagram impulse purchases get away from you and sabotage other areas of your finances.
Pro Tip: If you don’t currently have a budget set up to track your spending, you can start today with Tiller. They will automatically pull all your transactions into a Google Sheet and break your spending down by categories.
3. Build Friction Into Your Purchases
You can make it harder to buy stuff impulsively by building a little friction into your purchases. Just like buying your friend’s purse required making a special trip to a store, you can make buying stuff through Instagram harder, which will help curtail some of your most impulsive purchases.
Remove your credit card information from any stored profiles, and don’t set up any of your payment information with sites like LIKEtoKNOW.it or rewardStyle. Making it harder to buy stuff will mean that you don’t shop as much on Instagram, saving yourself money and making sure that the stuff you buy is stuff you actually want.
4. Set Rules for Yourself
If you know you could never go a month without checking in on social media, or you don’t want to mute your favorite Instagram influencers, try to set some rules or parameters that will help you make better purchasing decisions.
Figure out what triggers your impulse purchases. For example, do you buy more at night when you’re scrolling through the app because you can’t sleep? Do you only purchase stuff when you’re feeling anxious or stressed? Instead of turning to social media during these times, figure out other ways to help you cope with boredom or stress that don’t involve grabbing your smartphone.
5. Reward Yourself
Once you’ve figured out what does and doesn’t work to keep you from spending money on Instagram or because of Instagram, reward yourself with an inexpensive treat for your hard work. Social media giants like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat spend hundreds of hours figuring out exactly how to make us spend more time and money on these platforms. When you’re able to wrest a little control back from them, reward yourself for making good decisions and sticking to your budget or goals. You don’t need to feel guilty about spending money if it’s money you intended to spend.
Despite what you might think after reading all this, Instagram isn’t an evil company with no benefits for our daily lives. It can help us keep in touch with far-flung loved ones, and it’s a great place to store beautiful pictures that document the best moments of our lives. It exposes us to people and places we might not ever come across on our own, and it’s contributed to important social movements such as the Me Too Movement and Black Lives Matter.
As is the case with most technology, Instagram a good servant but a bad master. As long as you’re in charge of it instead of letting it be in charge of you, there’s nothing wrong with using it to look at pictures, stay in touch with people, and browse current fashions and fun destinations from the comfort of your living room.
Have you ever bought something because you saw it on Instagram? How many people do you follow on the app? Are they all people you know personally, or are some of them celebrities or influencers?