10.06.2020

The role of social media influencers in the camera market.



I spent eight years working in an advertising agency that specialized in "retail marketing". Now we'd probably call that B-to-C; business-to-consumer advertising. When I was working directly in the industry, as opposed to my current indirect role, we didn't have anything resembling social media and the closest we had to social media "influencers" were the hoary celebrity endorsers. Usually well known sports figures or television personalities who would pitch products and services on TV and in print ads. The idea that someone whose only accomplishment was being alive and documenting their homogeneous existence on a free video channel on the internet would have been mostly unthinkable. But here we are. 

We now have a family of women who are famous they shop, apply make-up and workout, and they are becoming social media billionaires (the Kardashians). We have a desperately under-qualified, sociopathic, social media expert as the president of the wealthiest country on the planet (though seemingly, not for long), and we have a bunch of people in their twenties making seven figure incomes because they are good at telling their personal stories on YouTube; and also getting all gushy and drool-y about products that are sent to them to "review." There is even an elementary school boy who  pulls down millions each year reviewing toys for other children. 

But I have to think hard to understand whether or not social media influencers in the camera and photography space have done more harm than good for the industry; and for their audiences. 

Advertising strategies for camera companies were relatively easy before the web rolled around. There was a handful of national and international magazines devoted to photography and nearly every ardent photographer subscribed to one or more monthly publications (or read them on the newsstands). They ranged from a magazine that started out as a local trade publication for professionals in NYC (Photo District News -- raise you hand if you remember when they used to be tabloid sized and printed on newsprint!) to wide ranging, glossy, general interest publications like Modern Photography and Popular Photography. All more or less relegated to oblivion now by the ever-encroaching web.

If there is an apt analogy to the print age then Digital Photography Review's website is the working combination of Modern Photography and Popular Photography with a little bit of Darkroom Photography thrown in for good measure. The critical focus across each of these media is the reviewing of product, the advertising of the same product, and a conduit with which to link buyer and seller. Now it's the ubiquitous "link" while in the days of old it was the endless advertisements in the back pages of every issue. 

In the magazine age there were few alternatives for advertisers beyond printed ads in targeted publications with a flourish of trade show excitement thrown in for good measure. I suppose the influencers at the time were the top tier photographers of the age. Mostly the editorial ones whose credit lines graced widely published photo stories in large scale, prestigious magazines. But it was a different era and many photographers worked across two or three different camera systems at a time. Every assignment might be different. The tools changed with the job and the publication. This made it more difficult for anyone to commit to a single brand. Photographers as influencers were much more gear promiscuous. 

Now we have people who are called influencers, ambassadors, explorers of the light, and other silly titles. 

Instead of shooting for big magazines and then using the awesome quality of their real work as leverage for their camera company clients the new horde of influencers rarely shoot anything for real world clients and are proudly pursuing careers in.....testing and touting cameras. And lenses. And gadgets. And presets. And t-shirts. And baseball caps with logos. Tony and Chelsea strive to be the Kardashian family of photography. All of them got into their influencer niche not because they loved being out photographing but because, for a long while, it was easy money. 

Wouldn't it be super cool if every "influencer" in the camera space was judged by his or her actual work first? Imagine going to a YouTube channel and having the first thing you see be a giant gallery of the influencer's work. Imagine that the work turned out to be was soulless and vapid and not particularly well done. Would you still "highly value" their recommendation of the 25th or 26th camera they have reviewed this year? 

Imagine a reviewer whose whole life revolves around reviewing. Certainly they should be able to sharpen their reviewing stick and really nail well produced and entertaining reviews but... would the value be there for you as the viewer? As a dedicated camera user? Is it enough for you that they talk a good game? Can you trust someone to really judge the handling of a camera if all the handling is done at a sponsor's junket? Would you rather hear from someone who buys the camera with their own funds and uses it daily for months or years until its operation becomes second nature before they write about it or discuss it? Is it enough for their audiences to listen to a regurgitation of the press release and the owner's manual?

Certainly it's the frothiness and the studied earnestness of the influencers that helps us come to think of our recently bought photo gear as quickly becoming obsolete, antiquated and less than capable. Surely it's their smug appreciation of that new menu item or seventh function button that drives us to want to buy and use a new camera just to have access to a control feature we never needed in any of our past photo adventures. 

In one sense the camera market, under constant pressure from the influencers, is becoming tribal and divided as never before. Even though camera sales are dropping like a bag of lead feathers every time a new model launches the appended comments on every vlog and website are strictly demarcated between ardent fans and hate filled detractors. One camp certain that this or that new camera will bring them closer to photo heaven while people in other camera tribes protest with loud conviction that the same camera is a tool of Satan and riddled with booby traps and  crippling failures that will bring nothing but sadness and rent cloth to the bewitched adopters. 

Why am I writing this now; today? Because I just saw a flurry of reviews for a Hasselblad product across nearly twenty YouTube channels by "reviewers" who rarely stray from talking about Canon/Nikon/Sony and who've never, as far as I can see, used or even flirted with medium format digital cameras before this bunched up flurry of reviews.  And I'm baffled. Or cynical.

It's enough to make me grudgingly believe that an old school review site like DPR has merit. Not enough depth but a lot more value than some dingus fussing around with brand after brand after brand, week after week. 

I understand that a unified marketing platform no longer exists on which a camera maker can place a year long buy of ad space and have any chance of hitting 50 or 60 % of all targeted buyers. But I wonder just how influential the social influencers are in moving brands that won't move at all by themselves. 

Or said another way, where are the Pentax influencers? Have the influencers saved Profoto? Do we need the shallow and transient information the vloggers are sharing or do we just visit their channels because we're bored. It's kind of sad.

Hold that thought. 

Circling back, let's have a zoom workshop. right....

Above somewhere in the post I wondered if the influencers do more harm than good for the industry. Think about this for a minute, in the stock market there used to be people who encouraged investors to buy and sell frequently. Jump on a hot tip. Sell in a moment of anxiety. In each sale or purchase the agent or broker made a bit of money. A monetization of their suspect advice. This was called "churn." Some brokers would work their audience (fans?) hard and in the end the investor would lose a good part of their net worth and either change their overall investment strategy or run out of money. 

A good Sony Vlogger works for Sony by churning Sony users (same with Nikon, Panasonic, Canon, etc.) and manipulates them to become dissatisfied with the very camera the influencers themselves recommended only a few months before. The audience capitulates to the sales pitch couched as informational/editorial content, sells their old camera at a loss and pays a premium for a new camera that may or may not be even fractionally better than the one it's replacing. Eventually the buyers catch on and stop buying altogether. Or they realize they've been "marks" who are systematically beggared by a relentless wringing of their financial sponges. And they remember that this is just a hobby and that everything they liked about the hobby seemed much more fun before the gear churn set in. They might decide that their phone is good enough and exit the hobby altogether. Sony (or other manufacturers) in concert with their influencers could have churned away what might have been a long term source of well paced income; if only the product cycles and the churn weren't so relentless. 

We're trained, I think, to regard those YouTube channels in the same way we do television channels. We know where the commercials begin and end on TV but we fail to understand that most photo/video blogs are one big commercial all the way through. And we trust our influencers because we mistake them for educational experts instead of understanding that they are just salespeople priming the overflowing pumps for the camera makers. It's an odd construct and one that leaves me cold.



19 comments:

ODL Designs said...

This is a serious question Kirk. Do you really think the average person is that easy to manipulate?

As a follow on question, if they were, how easy have you found it to manipulate them?

The Truth is, much of this content is merely entertainment, with product placement. The content might be more specific, but what do the sports analysts on ESPN ready do for the game? Nothing. They just as noise, fluff feathers, get people all worked up and sell more stuff.

The commercial world is just that, commercial, and we would all do well to not confuse areas of life that bring satisfaction, meaning etc. With commerce.

The problem today, as I see it, is that we are too quick to assume the worst of the "other", to assume that, unlike us, they do to little thinking, and don't even know their own mind. As I see it, most people think a great deal, they simply have different priorities... And yes, that also goes for supporters of your current president.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Yes.

Gordon R. Brown said...

Excellent commentary about the influencers.

A New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, often features well-written sentences published in the Times in his weekly newsletter. I wish this one of yours could be featured:

"Or they realize they've been 'marks' who are systematically beggared by a relentless wringing of their financial sponges."

Robert Roaldi said...

This line you write sticks out "In one sense the camera market, under constant pressure from the influencers, is becoming tribal and divided as never before."

Not just the camera market. How's that for irony, social media is dividing people, not bringing them together.

Phil Stiles said...

What I love about your blog, Kirk, is the social commentary. This one is a classic.

Ronman said...

To ODL I say yes, there are too many who are easily persuaded, and by all outward displays seem adhere to a disposition of desperately looking for the next hero, savior or just another who has the voice to say what they themselves have not the ability or courage to say. But here's the curious part, "the rub" shall we say, when pressed to explain, express, clarify or substantiate their opinion, or simply provide reason for believing what they choose to believe, they can't. And yes, from my own experiences this includes most if not all of the current president's supporters. Go figure. Let's think on that for awhile.

Stephen said...

The paraphrasing of the famous "Jerry Maguire" line says it all: "Show me the photographs".

Gary said...

Kirk, you nailed the current situation in which conflicts of interest are no big deal and the conflicted unashamedly profit (like our president). Don't you miss Herbert Keppler of the pre-"influencer" days?

bishopsmead said...

One of your classic posts, your analysis is spot on as usual - thank you.

I remember as a youngster looking forward to listening to a weekly BBC radio broadcast "Letter from America" by Alistair Cooke (which ran to approaching 3000 broadcasts over 58 years all read by the author). This was how we Brits began to learn about America after the war, and the American way of life; forget Hollywood films, this was the real world which had substance, colour, smells and taste and one to which we could relate. Your writing tugs at the heart strings in the same way, whether it is about swimming, gear, work or your personal life. Thank you for all that you write, and for all of the images that you post, they all have "substance" "colour" "smell" and "taste".

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

ODL, in my experience from the last 40 years in business I find that most people are as lazy in their thinking as they are out of shape physically. They just won't put in the time to think things through. They also fear their own judgement. They are quite malleable although someone like me, writing as you say mostly for entertainment, has a bit of an ethical obligation to not manipulate people in any malicious way. I only wish all writers felt the same.

As to people with opposite opinions, politically, during this stressful time the evidence of one side being absolutely correct and the other side being unreservedly evil is plainly obvious even to the most casual observer. Unless they are drinking a Big Gulp(tm) size serving of The Kool Aide.

Ken said...

Most interesting thoughts, thank you for sharing them.

I guess, if we trust our influencers, they've succeeded in influencing. I agree with you there seems to be too much drive to get us to churn our gear. They have to work even harder to sell more cameras in this pandemic, just to keep the industry alive. And yet, as you point out, it might kill the camera industry in the long term.

As for the tribalism, I think it comes from a natural desire to get affirmation from others that the right choice has been made, especially when it involves spending lots of money, almost always the case with cameras. Why wouldn't I want to feel that I had spent my money well?

Anonymous said...

Kirk

I think you have overlooked another side of the Influencer die, influence over the manufacturers. Think back to “lens reviews” and all the complaints about vignetting, curvature of field, and the lack of sharpness in the corners wide open. Now look at the size and weight of all of the newest lenses.

Coincidence? I think not.

Even the champion of small super high quality lenses, Leica, has been pulled into the trap.

PaulB

Jeff said...

Thanks for the insightful, well written post. I'm glad that you are blogging again.

I was one of the great unwashed mass of hobbyists who rode the upgrade train for a long time. Yes it was fun and yes, upgrading never improved my photos at all. If anything the increasing complexity of cameras has made them worse, and has made photography not as much fun.

Now that the camera makers seem to be trying to make up for crashing sales volume by pushing people to buy expensive full frame mirrorless cameras and very expensive full frame lenses the upgrade game has gotten too expensive for me to play.

It will be very interesting to see how this strategy works for them over the next few years and how many people will actually buy the Zs and Rs and Ss.

Anonymous said...

Although it doesn't touch upon photographic equipment, The Social Dilemma is a recent documentary which illustrates how the very techniques used by social media to keep users engaged, can also lead to users being lead down whatever rabbit holes they are appear to be interested in.

As for new gadgets, it's my belief that people want to believe that Santa Claus exists, that the newest camera, phone or [insert name of gadget here] is finally The One. And if nothing else, social media has made it easier than ever for the shopper to connect with others who will affirm the validity these hopes and desires.

Jeff in Colorado

Rewster said...

Kirk, apparently you are one of those you describe who are politically sure that "the other side [is] unreservedly evil" in the way you describe our current President. I can't stand his tweets and much of his personal habits, but I see nothing evil in most of the policy decisions of the administration. I disagree with your liberal views but don't describe them as evil, even though I believe they will harm the nation. To use an old fashioned saying, you sound like the pot calling the kettle black.

On the subject of social media and influencers I would suggest that many of us have always understood that they are simply selling themselves as well as the product and have no use for them. You may give them too much credit. I am a hobbyist and buy new gear when it is apparent that it will serve me better, not because it is new. The internet simply increases the scope of my knowledge that there is the new gear, not that it always will make me a better photographer.

Mitch said...

Note to self: Find a way to monetize a YouTube channel, blog, vlog and Insta page by doing reviews of the reviewers.

I think things are headed the way taken long ago by Music Television (MTV) which no longer has music on television.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Rewster, my politics aren't contextual nor is my understanding of ethics. Evil is evil. HItler was evil. No one would argue that. That you are able to overlook all the disgusting things and self serving grabs the current president has made doesn't give you moral or ethical equivalence with people who can see right through their own agendas to clearly see the effects of this particular manifestation of evil. I get that you might have personal beliefs that require you to believe that some imagined positive things this administration delivers are critical to some aspect of your own philosophy. That, as a whole, doesn't make you correct. Not by a long shot.

If you can't see how absolutely awful Donald Trump has been and still is then you have either disregarded all information or it's to your personal advangtage for him to damage everyone else.

Sorry, we won't agree to disagree on this one. The stakes are just too high.

ODL Designs said...

Kirk, you assume too much. Could it not be possible that your source of information is just as faulty, or riddled with misinformation as your opponents? What happens when they decide you are as evil as you claim they are?

What clued me in to the state of your democracy was actually nothing to do with Trump, but the behavior of his opponents. The steady stream of mis-information to misdirect voters has been relentless. As a simple example, it is becoming more clear that the Obama administration worked hand in hand with the DNC to attempt to influence the 2016 election. This is clear from the documents being released through the entire episode, and also by their almost frantic attempts to have no real discussion on the matter.

As a Brit who strongly believes in our democratic institutions, whether they elect Tony Blair, or Boris Johnson... Justin Trudeau or Stephen Harper, any subversion or attempt to undo the belief in a fair and democratic election is playing with the worst type of fire. If a population no longer believes in their system of representation it can quickly degenerate into much of the mess the world is in. Toss in a strong belief they are dealing with individuals that are "evil" and you could very well see people taking up arms.

Unfortunately we seem to have the worst type of careerist politicians today, those that will sacrifice anything on the alter of their political success. This includes your Democratic Candidates.

What I have found in my discussions is those that express such a visceral hatred of the other, as you have in your commentary and posts (I see calling someone evil as possibly one of the worst accusations) often have very little real knowledge of events, but are full of emotionally charged propaganda.

Sorry to use such strong language, but I am surprised at how you see a simple election between a corrupt and self serving careerist duo (Biden/Harris) and an egotistic businessman alongside a born again christian (Trump/Pence). It certainly isn't a great choice, but to describe it as a choice between good and evil to be horrific.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

ODL, You and I agree on so much concerning photography and business but we are on opposite sides of a cultural fence. In fairness I'm leaving your comment up but I am warning right now that it's my blog and I'll post my opinions and observations but won't allow this to become a propaganda site for an administration that is hell bent on ruining the lives of too many people here in the U.S.A.

Your mistake was to start with, "Kirk, you assume too much." I assume nothing and read widely. I rarely post anything political but these are extraordinary times. Not just times of status quo and business as usual.

In the future I'll moderate the crap out of any comment that is in support of Donald Trump or his administration. No apologies and no false exercises in trying to find some mythic and irrational equivalence between public servants and sociopathic monsters.

Wanna disseminate an opposite point of view? Start a blog.