Even before COVID-19 hit, the fitness and wellness industries were abuzz with the growing presence of social media influencers…for better or for worse. BFS sat down with three multi-faceted wellness professionals–Liz Barnet Simmons, Aly Teich, and Lindsay Mcclelland–to discuss how influencers work, and the role and responsibility of social media in the wellness world and beyond.
HOW DOES BEING AN “INFLUENCER” WORK?
The majority of influencers (outside of celebrities) exist on social media channels such as Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube. These platforms have bred a new generation of celebrities and influencers on all different levels. There are people who are influencers in a particular industry such as fitness, beauty, or fashion, and people who are more general. There is also a split of people who never set out to be influencers, but grew an audience because people found them interesting, entertaining, informative, or educational. A lot of these people were also experts in their own field and used social media platforms as a way to further educate people – so their careers are not dependent on their social media following. Many of these influencers, however, have now figured out a way to monetize their audience through brand partnerships, selling, and creating products to make a living. Then there are the influencers (many these days) who intentionally set out to be influencers and seem to calculate every move to grow their audience and appease their followers. Often the majority of their content is sponsored, as that’s how you make money if your career is just being an Influencer, you essentially become a walking billboard. —Aly Teich
An influencer is anyone who has influence or expertise that they share online. There are different types of influencers and it typically comes down to the number of followers they have:
* Micro-influencer: Fewer followers, but typically a really authentic following as they’re usually influencers that know their audience personally or have a specific topic that really resonates with their followers. I put most fitness instructors in this category, but mommy bloggers with under 15K followers also fit into this category.
* Macro-Influencers: These types of influencers have a large number of followers, and many make a living from being an influencer.
* Mega-Influencers: Celebrity influencers – both that have become celebrities from being an influencer and those who rose to fame through reality TV, Hollywood, etc. –Lindsay Mcclelland
These days I think the world “influencer” can almost sound like a dirty word; as if they always have ulterior motives or don’t have consumers’ best interests in mind. But I definitely think there are different categories (or “levels”) of social media influencer: someone who has a certain number of social media followers (let’s call it 10,000 or less), but actually has clout, is a trusted source, and may even be a subject matter expert in a local area (like a popular NYC-based trainer or group fitness instructor). I think once you grow your following above 10,000, the paid opportunities start to pop up. In the fitness world, this may lead to brand sponsorships or modeling campaigns.Then you have the “uber-influencers,” whose followers are in the several hundred thousands (or more); there, it appears as if almost every post is a paid advertisement or part of a campaign, and their influencing is so full-time, they may have dedicated staff managing their social media (and managers/agents at the helm of their career). In terms of the fitness world, it can sometimes seem like the more followers you have, the less legitimate credentials or experience you have, in exchange for an admirable face or figure. –Liz Barnet Simmons
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF AN INFLUENCER, AND MORE BROADLY, SOCIAL MEDIA, WHEN IT COMES TO BUSINESSES, ESPECIALLY THOSE IN THE WELLNESS INDUSTRY?
Influencer marketing can be a powerful tool for both businesses and brands, as the endorsement or partnership feels more organic, personal, and relatable than traditional advertising. By partnering with influencers, you are getting a direct line into their audience base who already trust and follow them and their recommendations.
However, I feel strongly that it is not only a brand’s responsibility, but also just better for your business, to work with influencers that are true brand fans, can truly speak to your brand, product, or business, and who reflect your values. Too often I see brands working with influencers with large platforms for “the reach” and it’s just so obvious that it’s a paid partnership – which takes the point away of creating more organic connections with consumers. Additionally, it can really work against your brand to work with influencers who don’t reflect your values as your current customer base will see right through it and you put your relationship with them at risk. Lastly, there is power in macro and mid-sized influencers and they tend to work with less brands and have a deeper and more personal connection with their audience. –Aly Teich
Influencers are a marketing tool that businesses can use to increase brand awareness and generate content that the brands can use in their own marketing efforts. Typically influencer-generated content has a more authentic feel and can perform better than staged photoshoots. Influencers can also act as a sounding board for businesses, allowing them to test out different messages or even products before they launch to see how their audience responds to it. In this fitness world, this could look like hosting a virtual class for a group of influencers and getting feedback on the class while also having them promote your studio to their network.
I believe that social media is a great way for studios and instructors to show their personality and connect with clients and potential clients. Especially now, where many consumers are turning to social media to find their workouts, it can be a tool to “tease” classes and give potential clients a taste of what your studio experience is like. For instructors, it’s a really helpful tool to communicate your class schedule and crowdsource things you might want to teach during class (get requests, etc.). Now is also a really unique time where studios can use social media to grow a more global following since many are offering live-streaming and hybrid classes. –Lindsay Mcclelland
Depending on the size and reach of your fitness business, working with influencers who can create a real connection with current and potential clients is the sweet spot. The idea of taking your favorite workout class alongside your favorite social media influencer (and receive a swag back of sponsored goodies, to boot) definitely still has its allure. Boutique fitness is in large part about being part of a community, and an effective influencer fosters the idea of inclusiveness and being part of something.
Like it, love it, or hate it, social media is here to stay (although it’s always evolving). Social media influencers can help “guerilla market” a brand to untapped clientele, enough to pique their interest to try. With so many unique fitness methodologies, social media is a great way to showcase and distinguish “what to expect” out of a particular studio or brand experience. –Liz Barnet Simmons
IS THERE A LEVEL OF RESPONSIBILITY WHEN IT COMES TO BEING AN INFLUENCER AND/OR USING SOCIAL MEDIA IN BUSINESS?
I believe that the larger your audience the larger your responsibility is. Technically, sure, is it everyone’s right to do whatever they want with their own platform? Of course. However, is only using your platform for personal gain right? No. It’s the same as our individual responsibility to wear masks, examine our white privilege, and support our Black brothers and sisters.
So if you have a platform that you have benefitted from – monetarily or otherwise, to me, the flip side of that is a responsibility to use that platform for good. I genuinely believe that anyone with a platform that is not using it to benefit others or for good – should not have a platform.
And there has never been a more urgent time for each of us to step up and do our part to create a more just world, and yes, I do believe the responsibility falls heavier on influencers as they have the power to create so much change and educate so many people.
As someone who has never shied away from speaking up and out on pretty much any topic, I appreciate that I am more practiced at being polarizing and receiving backlash and losing followers – and no matter how practiced I have become, it’s never fun or comfortable. So I appreciate this is a tough moment for people who are less practiced at it, but to me, it’s just not an excuse – especially right now. As I always say, I will go to zero followers before I go silent. As someone with a sizable platform, I believe it is my duty and responsibility to use it for good and to help people and the world. I’m not in it for popularity – in fact, that is not “influencing at all” – that is just self aggrandizing. And there has NEVER been a moment in our history that has called for action and accountability from ALL of us – especially influencers. So if you have signed up for this job, to me, speaking up and out and taking a stand is just part of the job requirement.
I know this is a tough moment where so many brands and businesses feel under attack or feel like there is no winning. It’s a delicate dance of saying enough, not saying enough, doing the right thing, being diverse enough. It’s complex and uncomfortable, I get it. However, I truly believe it is our responsibility to push through that discomfort and step up to what this moment is asking of us. Similar to influencers who stay quiet as not to lose followers, the same is true for businesses that toe the safe line as not to polarize their customer base or not “get political”. But it’s just not acceptable to me. If you are in the business of helping people, it must be ALL people. This is not politics, it’s human rights….period. –Aly Teich
Given their visibility and entrenchment, what level of responsibility should influencers take, if any, to do things like highlight racial/social justice initiatives, call out abuses, teach people properly? If you have a voice, I think you should use it. We’ve seen this really come to light lately and it’s really incredible to see the power that social media has to push a movement forward. With that said, it’s also really important to do your research and make sure that what you’re sharing is factually accurate. Social media makes sharing so easy, which is why we have such a problem with fake news. As an influencer, you are a mini-news source so it’s also your responsibility to make sure you are posting the truth and that you understand the impact of what you’re sharing. –Lindsay Mcclelland
The thing about social media influencers is that they typically have a brand identity with which their followers resonate: HIIT training guru, budget-friendly paleo cooking expert, yoga instructor with a side of crystals & tarot cards. Too often, when an influencer’s brand is SO specific, the moment they vere away from their usual script, followers tend to balk. (It almost seems like the bigger the following, the more “on-brand” you have to be.)
Being a true influencer is a curious thing; it’s almost like you’re playing a character. If you go out of character, you’re suddenly not as believable. I’m not sure the exact threshold where this occurs, but up-and-coming influencers might consider incorporating more “realness” into their account and persona right from the start. Otherwise, if you’re something who exclusively posts about fitness, and then all of a sudden start sharing your thoughts about racial injustice, there will be some serious cognitive dissonance.
Additionally, if an influencer does choose to take on the responsibility of social justice crusader, it has to be for more than the week it’s the current trending topic – otherwise it seems exploitative. It needs to be woven into their narratives over time, and with care. How can they talk about it in an authentic way? Perhaps in the case of fitness and racial injustice, highlighting fellow fitness professionals who are persons of color, and partnering with them on campaigns. This is definitely a new and deliciate challenge for social media (although it perhaps shouldn’t be); people are passing judgment on whether you say something or stay silent (and their preferences go in both directions). Both influencers and brands should be prepared to lose followers over their positions. –Liz Barnet Simmons
TO FOLLOW OR NOT TO FOLLOW, THAT IS THE QUESTION
In terms of figuring out who to follow, ask yourself: what am I hoping to get out of my relationship with social media? Do I genuinely want to learn something? To be exposed to new ideas or viewpoints? Or do I just want to look at pictures of delicious food or hot muscled bodies? (Any of the above is fine!) Do I prefer “real,” unposed, unscripted content, or do I like a well-curated feed? Check out if anyone you know and whose opinion you trust follows this account. Does the account seem to only post sponsored content? Do they interact genuinely with followers? Keep in mind that following an account just because it’s popular might leave you disappointed, or worse – feeling bad about yourself, or resentment toward the influencer. Manage your own expectations, and if you find yourself “hate following” anyone… go find the “unfollow” button ASAP. –Liz Barnet Simmons
How can consumers weed out who/what is a good account to follow and listen to when there is so much NOISE? My advice to consumers is to follow accounts that speak to you and your interests. You want to make sure that influencer is providing you with some value, whether it’s workouts, inspiration, information, etc. I also prefer to follow accounts that feel more authentic and that have a person on the other side. React to stories, send a DM, if they take the time to respond and connect with you, you’ll probably want to keep following them. –Lindsay Mcclelland
Aly Teich is a writer, wellness-industry consultant, and activist. Follow her on IG @alyteich.
Liz Barnet Simmons is a Fitness & Food Coach and Consultant. Follow her on IG @lizbarnetsimmons.
Lindsay Mcclelland is the head of social media and influencer marketing for FitGrid. Follow her on IG @lovinglifeontherun.