Five years ago, Ally Sheehan was at a birthday celebration when a friend’s father began quizzing her about the thousands of people who followed her on social media.
“I remember his dad said to me, ‘This is so crazy, you should try to monetise it’,” Ms Sheehan says.
It was the first time she ever thought about making money using social media. Not long after, brands and organisations began to approach her to ask if she’d promote them.
Half a decade later, the 26-year-old Melburnian spends a lot of her time and earns most of her income from online content creation.
She’s now got more than 53,000 followers on her Instagram account and 10,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel, where she posts content primarily about her vegan diet and travel.
Her Instagram is filled with eye-capturing images of Ms Sheehan in different, aesthetic locations, sometimes featuring products she’s been paid to promote.
She winces a little at being called an influencer but says it’s correct.
“The term influencer does sometimes get a bad rap,” she says.
“But ultimately, I want to be a good influence. I want to be like an older sister or a good friend.”
How the industry has changed from a side gig to a career
The concept of influencer marketing pre-dates the internet — celebrity endorsements or targeted giveaways are offline examples — but today the term is predominantly associated with social media users promoting ideas, products or organisations to their audience for a fee or goods.
The emergence and rise of social media as a key source of information has positioned influencers as a major form of marketing today.
In the time she’s been involved, Ms Sheehan has seen the industry mature and its participants diversify.
She says the responsibilities of influencers and expectations from their audience and clients have grown and become more sophisticated.
Marketers aren’t just looking for the superstar influencers with millions of views, but online creators with smaller, specific audiences and expertise, like herself.
“Once upon a time, they would just look for the biggest reach or the most amount of followers. That’s changed.
The Australian influencer industry is becoming professionalised in three main areas: increasing revenue; the development of skills, institutions and structures; and the mainstreaming of influencer culture, says Crystal Abidin, a digital anthropologist at Curtin University.
In 2019, a PwC report estimated that spending in the industry would reach $240 million in Australia that year. More people are joining the industry, with work for micro- and nano-influencers creating new opportunities for more and diverse types of people taking part.
“It used to be something that would be piecemeal income or a side gig,” Dr Abidin says.
“Since 2015, people have been able to make an entirely comfortable livelihood in this industry.”
Anyone can be an influencer but it takes skill to succeed
The influencer career path is increasingly an accepted, even normal option for people.
The biggest in the business, such as Australian lifestyle influencer Shani Grimmond, are household names. Even celebrities who came to fame in traditional forms of media like film or television like Will Smith are acting like influencers online.
Skills and practices once associated with influencers — like how to position a camera for selfie or video call — are now just part of regular job readiness in the digital age.
“Five years ago, if I was teaching a class, I would ask them whether they wanted to be an influencer and they would say, ‘No’,” Dr Ablin says. “But now, if I ask a class if they think about what will show up when a prospective employer searches them and sees their social media, I tell them you’re doing influencer practices.”
In saying that, you need to have a plethora of skills to be successful, Ms Sheehan says.
And she’s had to learn them all on the job.
“It feels like a 100 jobs in one sometimes. You’re coordinating with brands, you’re negotiating, reviewing contracts,” she says.
“Photography, styling, editing (if you’re doing scripted content you’re writing), directing, all of these elements yourself.”
How influencers work with marketers
Professionalisation of the industry includes influencers regularly working with teams or outsourcing aspects of content creation, Dr Abidin says.
Guyala, a Birri Gubba and Wonnarua woman, model and actor, works as an influencer on Instagram.
Photographs of her posing for the camera in clothing or with items she’s paid to post on her account are interspersed with personal and sometimes political images.
She works with a management agency that acts as a conduit to the brands and organisations that Guyala promotes.
“Before I signed, people would just [direct message] me and send me things,” she says. “Now, it’s more professional. They’ll send it to the agency, and my agent will send through a brief. I go there and pick it up, I take the photos, make sure everything matches up with the briefs and send it back to my agent.”
On the other side of the equation, marketers are also codifying expectations and standards as they spend millions on influencers.
Last month, the Australian Influencer Marketing Council (AIMCO) published its first set of guidelines for the industry.
This document contains “best practice” for everything from advertising disclosure requirements, to intellectual property rights and metrics for the success of influencers.
Head of AIMCO, Josanne Ryan, says the code was developed in consultation with more than 50 Australian marketing agencies, and that future revisions will include input from influencers as well.
“These are not only designed to protect the marketer, they’re also designed to help the influencers,” she says.
As part of building trust with their audiences, influencers are expected to be transparent about their relationships through clearly labelling what is sponsorship and what is not.
Failing to disclose relationships may be a breach of Australian Consumer Law, although no influencer has ever been pursued for a breach, according to a spokesperson from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
Ms Ryan says marketers are also more conscious of brand risk from influencer marketing. This comes as some influencers face criticism for promoting misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Perceptions of being an influencer don’t match reality
While the idea of being an influencer has been mainstreamed, creators say that, ironically, the public’s perception of the influencer doesn’t match the reality for the vast majority of them.
Like many other creative industries, the lifestyles of the top influencers who receive the most attention from mainstream media aren’t representative of the many others in the field.
Ms Sheehan reflects on the difficult aspects of what she does: undefined work-life boundaries, insecure work, unclear career path and a constantly evolving industry.
She says the independent nature of the role isn’t all bad — “it gives you freedom” — and that she’s struck up friendships with other influencers and creators, often sharing information or brainstorming what to do.
Guyala thinks some people may underestimate how much work goes into being a professional influencer.
Even after she’s created an image for a brand, the path to publishing can feel exhaustive, she says.
“I’ll send it to the agency, who will send it to the client, who will tell me which images they want. They’ll usually check over it three times before I post, checking the caption, the edit, the image and the product placement. It usually takes a week to actually post it, there are just so many steps,” she says.
Guyala still encounters people who assume that being an influencer is something you do if you’re rich, rather than something you do as a livelihood.
“A lot of people think it’s a luxury life. Even being called an influencer, you’re put into this category, you’re labelled as someone who has a lot of money and has a good life and a big house and doesn’t have that much stuff to do,” Guyala says.