December 11, 2015 / by Laura Botham

Teen social media celebrity Essena O’Neill had a fairly large online presence, with more than 600,000 followers on Instagram and 260,000 subscribers on YouTube. She made waves last month when she very publicly opted to quit social media and exposed herself for accepting money for posts. She came out as being very unhappy with her life as a professional influencer,  posted a video explanation  of her reasoning and ultimately made her Instagram account private.

The Internet exploded with response videos and coverage posing the question: Is it social media that’s fake, or is O’Neill fake? Are influencers lying to their audiences when they’re not upfront about native advertising and sponsored posts, or are we at a point where, as consumers of social media, we should take the inclusion of advertising as a given? As her story progressed, O’Neill revealed a re-branding of sorts, complete with a new website and Vimeo channel focused on healthy living and the authentic self.


As a new generation is accumulating more purchasing power, marketers have learned that being creative with creating a personality and authenticity is the best way to reach the new consumer. Any casual user of social media can tell you that social media can be fake, but as a marketing insider, the issue goes deeper – the new consumer doesn’t want to be inundated with advertising, especially not on social media.

As consumers feel connected and personally invested in influencers, native advertising takes on more of a word-of-mouth feel. Sponsored posts have made their mark in the blogging world, and as O’Neill can attest, they’ve also made their way into networks like Instagram and YouTube.

Instagram is a hotbed for influencers and tastemakers, and with visual marketing being an exceptionally successful model for quick consumption across social platforms, it’s only natural that brands are looking to maximize their impact. Consumers are posting more beautiful and well composed photography that features products that they care about, but the model social influencer will do it in a way that seems natural for a larger audience. What hasn’t always been easy is then finding where to purchase the product. This can prove to be a bit clunky, involving some clicking around and googling before finding the online store.

A few third-party applications – such as Reward Style’s and Curalate’s Like2Buy – have made their mark on the scene and have allowed Instagram to become seamlessly shoppable. These apps offer a solution to shopping sponsored posts by providing a one-stop link, or by sending out an email to registered users when they like participating influencers’ posts.


Curalate CEO and co-founder Apu Gupta said, “Consumer behavior is rapidly shifting toward discovery via visual content. Modern marketers recognize this and are investing in becoming visual brands to align with today’s visual consumer.”

He also takes into account that the users of Instagram in particular are “an incredible audience of 400M+ people, many of whom are in lucrative demographics and who still think the platform is cool.”

Gupta continued, “Instagram’s engagement rate is 58X greater than Facebook and 120X greater than Twitter. In other words, people aren’t just on the platform, they’re consuming content. This makes it a great place to build brands and drive discovery.”

What does this mean for brands? It means that they can make their mark on a wider audience and, through the right optimization, be organically discovered by a large number of consumers, visually.

In addition to third-party apps, Instagram launched advertising of its own this year in the form of sponsored posts. Tapping into parent company Facebook’s API technology allows for targeted ads based on interests and activity. These native ads are designed to fit into the user’s feed and blend in with other posts. Armed with new “Shop Now,” “Book Now,” “Download,” “Install” and “Learn More” buttons, the ads themselves are now shoppable.

“The platform represents a great opportunity to achieve brand objectives, both organically and through inorganic methods such as advertising,” said Gupta.

Even Snapchat is entering the world of commerce as more influencers and brands are using the app for promotion. The start-up ShopStyle has gotten on board, offering a simple solution to link viewers to the store; although viewers will have to exit the app to shop, they are able to quickly discover where to buy the product.

Earlier this year Snapchat invested in Spring, a mobile shopping app, and CEO Evan Spiegel released a video that introduced “3V” advertising, or “Premium content provided by one of our editorial partners.” He said that targeted ads isn’t quite as engaging as video and “pre-rolls … get in the way of the content you want to watch. 3V advertising always appears in the context of premium or curated content.”

Both Spiegel and Gupta noted that the closing of the gap is what is helping brands to achieve success in marketing through visual media. Gupta added, “Brands today are taking remarkably compelling photography of products and lifestyles and posting it to Instagram. Those photos are a gateway to a consumer journey that leads to discovery and transactions. … When brands don’t connect pictures to products, consumers are left wanting and wondering.”

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About Laura Botham

Laura Botham writes features covering the movers and shakers in the media industry, daily updates, and Top 10 lists. She is a media researcher at Cision, specializing in Internet media. She is a freelance artist, enjoys traveling, the mountains, and can always make time for a cute animal video.