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There’s a lot of money up for grabs in the world of influencer marketing; the sector is reported to be worth over 13 billion. The question is: how do you make it big?

There’s no straightforward or one-size-fits-all answer to this. 

Speaking of her success, social media star Flossie Clegg points to a “casual posting approach: “I’m not strict with a theme or editing style on my Instagram – I think it’s fun to have a colorful mismatched feed!”

In the past, it’s been argued that Instagram themes are “virtually essential“ for anyone hoping to use the platform for personal branding or sales. That might have been the case once, but times have changed.

While small pockets of people started demanding less performance on social networks long before the pandemic, these ideas never really took off on a large scale. This meant players often had to dress up or lose out; until 2020’s hardships made people see the influencer community in a less relatable light. 

In this blog, we spell out the qualities today’s consumers most want to see on social media, and where demands for more substance are coming from. 

Keeping it real with Gen Z

Sometimes referred to as “Generation Real”, Gen Zs have long been aware of the pressures they feel when posting. “Finstas“, second Instagram accounts where users share personal photos to a smaller circle, have been around for a while. And TikTok, which was mainly used by teens in the early days, often acted as an escape from the easy gloss of other sites. 

The trend has since progressed. 

Compared to Q2 2020, American Gen Zs have grown 13% less likely to want their lifestyle to impress others. 

Instagram’s decision to allow likes and comments to be turned off is another sign that this kind of validation is fizzling out. 

Text-heavy meme posts, paired with unrelated or blurry pictures, have apparently grown in popularity among young Instagrammers – who are turning the platform into a space for written expression. 

It’s not that Gen Zs are dumping sites like Instagram; actually, their monthly usage has stayed consistent since 2020. They’re simply revamping how it’s used. 

When it comes to what they share on social media, 16-24s stand out for posting questions they want answering, memes/gifs, and videos they’ve made. Plus, they’re over 50% more likely to say they mainly log onto social platforms to see what’s being talked about. 

The tag #MakeInstagramCasualAgain, which has over 46k posts on the site, says it all. The push to normalize the unfiltered, meaningful moments in a person’s life is now widespread, and increasingly difficult for brands to ignore.

Gen Zs are not only a key consumer segment, they’re powerful trendsetters in the world of social media. 

If this group is a sign of where global consumer sentiment is headed, it’s likely that the polished curated self we’ve come to know won’t have the same impact it once did, which would clear a path for more diversity and self-expression in the influencer sector.

While 16-24s are more likely to agree with all of the statements in our chart, other generations aren’t miles behind. 

Across the board, there’s a group seeking less pretense and more discussion about life’s difficulties. 

That’s not to say consumers have abandoned their dreams of being aspirational, we’ve just discovered new ways to realize them. Many aim to be brave enough to ditch the gloss, and some are getting there: over a quarter have been more open about how they’re feeling online.

This has occasioned new layouts like the “photo-dump”, where social media users group random images together in a post. Past research has shown the benefits of candid (rather than posed) pictures as a way of making people seem more genuine, and it’s likely this format achieves something similar.

Life isn’t perfect and various audiences want social media to reflect that. 

Luckily, the casual posting trend offers an easy way to capture what happens behind-the-scenes.

Calls for fewer filtered faces

Documentaries like Fake Famous have highlighted people’s ability to buy followers, create fake photo shoots, and manufacture fame on social media. But Western documentaries don’t speak for the whole world.

As it happens, filters are spreading in certain parts of the world, as others turn their back on them. 

Since 2020, Europe and North America have experienced a drop in the percentage of Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok users applying filters, while MEA and APAC have witnessed significant upticks. 

In many mature markets, unedited images are often viewed as refreshing, and we’ve seen evidence of this attitude cropping up in other parts of the world. “Imperfect” virtual influencers in China have grown popular and are already challenging the nation’s beauty standards.

As a rule, people don’t like to be deceived. Around 1 in 5 social media users in 7 countries most want to see pictures that don’t use filters from the people they follow, and the stakes for professionals choosing to modify content are higher.

This year, Norway made it illegal for influencers to share retouched photos without a disclaimer, and this line of thinking is catching on among consumers.  

A quarter of internet users say influencers should make it clear when they use filters on their photos.

Every social media star will have struggled at some point. Sharing this aspect of their life doesn’t leave a blemish on an otherwise picture-perfect profile, but often brings it down to earth in the eyes of followers.

A growing number of brands work in long-term partnerships with influencers, rather than on one off-projects, which means they’re associated more closely with the content their ambassadors create. 

While editing professional posts isn’t illegal in most countries, businesses can stay ahead of future regulations by ensuring they have a strong set of guidelines that all collaborators are briefed on. 

To put it in a nutshell: untouched work adds flair in today’s age of curated perfection. 

Reality sells, and a meme is worth a thousand words

So, there’s a clear business case for cutting back on editing; but also, for embracing humor. 

These qualities promote honesty and self-care – which are both in style right now. 

A study published by the American Psychological Association shows how funny memes helped people cope with stress during lockdowns. It might have been a popular feature beforehand, but 46% say that when it comes to the accounts they follow, humor has become more important to them since the pandemic.

A tightly controlled, shiny version of ourselves doesn’t boost likability in the same way it used to. While there’s still demand for inspirational images that look good, some consumers want content to better reflect the reality of post-lockdown life and support people. 

This means luxury or fashion brands that traditionally rely on glamour shots might drive growth by adding new shades to their marketing.

Vogue Magazine’s Instagram account, for example, often scatters posts that aim to help and inspire in between the glam. It’s recently opened the floor to discussions around going grey, childbirth experiences, and feeling empowered while wearing less makeup

When trying to tap into this mood, the question should always be: what best captures me or my brand? Followers often see through attempts to seem relatable, hence the term “curated imperfection” and the sour taste it’s left in some people’s mouths. 

Authenticity isn’t an aesthetic that can be mimicked, but something brands need to get across – in whatever way they can.

Though the current formats and hashtags designed to counteract curated perfection might not be around in a few years’ time, the spontaneity and realness they’ve unleashed is set to stick around.

Investing in these qualities, both from a brand and influencer marketing perspective, will help players thrive in an online social climate where many want to see it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

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