The End of Influencers on Instagram
Creators are tired of being at the mercy of platforms. What would it take to own their relationship with their audience?
CAITLIN COVINGTON NEVER wanted to be an Instagram influencer—that is, just an Instagram influencer. She always identified as a blogger, and she held on to that even as blog readership slowly declined and Instagram began to crowd out any other type of content creation.
Caitlin has been blogging about her personal style and life since 2012 and is one of the pioneers of the industry, a fashion and lifestyle blogger who rose to fame based on her aspirational aesthetic and girl-next-door wholesomeness. It’s hard to convey her magnetism without sounding like a creepy magazine writer describing a young ingenue primarily by her looks, but Caitlin’s Disney princess beauty, her long bouncy dark hair, and her big eyes are the first things you notice when you look at her feed. When you think of an influencer, you probably think of someone like Caitlin.
In the mid-2010s, Instagram exploded as a content machine, and old-school bloggers like Caitlin were lured over to the platform as a way to grow their brand and audience. By 2021, though, Instagram content had swallowed much of the blogger industry that came before it. Influencers have told me that many brands will pay only for Instagram content and look only at Instagram numbers when determining an influencer’s rate, or they will pay premiums for Instagram. Slowly, blogs and other types of content began to fall by the wayside, until many influencers found themselves spending the majority of their workdays on Instagram. Without realizing it, they had given up something crucial. Instead of owning their business on their own platform, they now were subject to the whims of a corporation they couldn’t control, one that didn’t seem to care much about them.
“Instagram is definitely frustrating. I feel like they keep changing things, and they’re pushing Reels so heavily and people don’t want to see Reels,” Caitlin said. “They want pictures. Engagement and views are so low across the board. I feel like all of my friends I’ve talked to that are bloggers say that Instagram isn’t showing their content to anyone. So it is tough, and I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket.”
The tides turned around 2016, when she suspected Instagram changed the feed from showing photos chronologically to using an algorithm to determine which posts showed up in followers’ feeds. Caitlin’s engagement began to plummet.
Over time, she began to realize that she wasn’t the problem. The issue, she said, was that Instagram was implementing changes that she felt were benefiting only the company, not the influencers who were sharing content.
Caitlin has tried not to focus on Instagram as her only means of content creation. She never slowed down on her blog, which she has always found more fulfilling than posting on Instagram. Caitlin has also experimented with TikTok and Reels, which she enjoys. But she knows her audience doesn’t really like them, and she’s just playing into what Instagram wants. Instagram has tried to downplay how much the algorithm controls an influencer’s success. In a June 2021 blog post, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri wrote that the existence of an almighty algorithm is one of the biggest misconceptions about the platform. He claimed that each individual user is able to tailor their own experience and pick which creators they want to see. “How you use Instagram heavily influences the things you see and don’t see,” he wrote. “You help improve the experience simply by interacting with the profiles and posts you enjoy.”
I have spoken with several influencers over the years who feel differently. They believe that Instagram does reward certain behavior from creators. For example, influencers tell me over and over that the platform rewards creators who spend more time on the app, whether they are posting stories, responding to messages, or liking other posts. They believe their time on the app directly correlates to how many people see their posts. If they are on Instagram all day, their engagement shoots up. If they take a break, it tanks. Though this is only anecdotal evidence, it has come up so often that creators clearly believe it’s true regardless of the company line.
Caitlin’s manager, Kirstin, believes that the only way to really have a long-term career in the industry is to own your income streams and diversify them, whether that’s through a podcast, a brand, a newsletter, or a blog. Even if her clients are killing it on every single platform, she tells her them that they need to look elsewhere and find something they can own outright. It’s just too risky to rely entirely on another company.
“You never know what’s going to happen with any platforms,” she said. “Any single one of them at any given time can have an algorithm change and totally mess up your business.”
Kirstin is also a huge advocate of old-school blogging. She’s had clients come to her and tell her that they plan to give up their blog, or clients who have never had a blog telling her they don’t really see the point of starting one. She always disagrees.
“There’s the only place you get to have complete control of your audience,” she said. “And that is a precious, precious thing that you should never give up.”
In early 2022, I surveyed approximately 20 influencers on the current state of their careers. Most of them said they are working to make sure their businesses remain under their control. These influencers have varied ambitions and plans. One said her goal was to build up the brand she’d created to the point that she could scale “back on the number of sponsored campaigns I do annually,” another planned to try out video content, and a third hoped to soon make her podcast her main source of income. Yet another said she was simply hoping to “leverage [her] experience and audience as an influencer to create a more solid business.”
That’s not to say that these influencers all want to quit being influencers. Far from it. They are all extremely proud of what they have built and all enjoy what they do. That’s why they want to pursue these other projects. They finally recognize their worth and have the confidence to not rely so much on another company for their success.
“As influencers realize the importance of their roles in marketing and advertising, and the impact they have, fees will increase and influencers will move into selling their own products and services more, versus only advertising other brands,” one predicted.
One put it simply: “I think we’re all getting a little tired of being at the mercy of social media algorithms and want to take control of our content and livelihoods.”
There’s someone who agrees with them: Mosseri. In a 2022 TED Talk, he expressed his view that while the platforms had most of the control over how content was disseminated over the past decade, he believes the next decade will be one in which power will go back to individual creators. According to Mosseri, Instagram is ready to give the power of the internet back to the people who built it.
“What if we imagine a world where creators actually own their relationship with their audience—they didn’t rent it, they owned it—and where all of us were invested in their success?” he said.
Still, Caitlin doesn’t want to be an influencer forever. While she’s proud of herself and she loves her work, being an influencer takes a lot more out of her than a more normal job would. Caitlin can’t work just eight hours a day and then focus on her family life. Her life is her work, and in order to be a success, she has to let people into her personal world. After so many years of showing herself fully to the masses online, she is growing tired. She knows it’s not sustainable. She can’t do it for the rest of her life.
She’s not thinking of nuking her accounts or anything. But she doesn’t want to be tied to showing her life to make a living. Caitlin could hop on Instagram from time to time and show little bits and pieces of her life but not make herself the focus of her livelihood. “I don’t want to always kill myself to be so present on Instagram,” she said.
Couldn’t she just stop showing the personal side of her life and keep her accounts strictly fashion or lifestyle? Some may say yes. Caitlin doesn’t think so. In her experience, the only way to truly be a successful influencer is to be able to meld the personal and the professional. Caitlin has come to the conclusion that there’s no way to have the success she does and still keep herself out of it. She knows what the people want. She just doesn’t know how much longer she will be able to provide it for them. And if she’s not doing her best, if she’s doing the job only halfway, she doesn’t think she will be able to continue.
Like many other influencers, Caitlin is thinking of diversifying. Her goal is to create a product. The product could be launched off her success as an influencer, and she could use her platform to get it up and running. Her current idea is a line of hair products that contain only “clean” and natural ingredients but still work as well as traditional hair products.
Once she can launch the brand, Caitlin would like to hire a team to promote it organically and run the brand daily. Then, slowly, she can start to phase herself out. She can stop posting on Instagram Stories as much. She can share less and less of herself. She may pop onto Instagram or the blog from time to time, especially in support of her brand, but she won’t be reliant on sharing herself to make an income anymore. Her brand and her business will no longer be her, it will be her company. That is the goal.