The rise and rise of the social media influencer

Wednesday March 18 2020

The Murayas - DJ Mo (Samuel Muraya) and his wife Size 8 (Linet Masiro). They are effective social media influencers. PHOTO | COURTESY


What’s in a name? Loads of money, it seems. Especially if it has influence on social media.

Kenyans online were quick to react when The Murayas (DJ Mo and Size 8) announced their extravagant Valentine’s dinner plan dubbed “Dine with the Murrays”.

Scores of social media users were taken aback by the price tag, which stood at Sh7,000 for individuals and Sh10,000 for couples.

“I don’t know why people think the event is expensive because the fee includes all the activities and the four-course meal. We want to make Valentine’s Day different from what people have been doing,” said DJ Mo in an interview with a local radio station.

In the same fashion, late in 2019, plus-size vlogger Joan Munyi, also known as Yummy Mummy, was slammed for inviting 50 of her followers to celebrate her baby shower.



The attendees were to pay a tidy sum of Sh1,000. Some wondered why she planned her own baby shower, while others questioned why strangers had to pay such a sum for such an intimate occasion.

On her Instagram stories after the issue blew up, she explained that the fee was largely meant to accommodate those who would be attending the event with refreshments and food.

This is not uncommon, but social media users expressed that it was exploitative of her to do so.

The two scenarios share one thing in common: people are still interested in attending the events, regardless of what some have to say about the price tag or importance of attending.

There are factors that play into this appeal that go beyond events and into reputable brands created by a new kind of celebrity, one who is for the people, by the people and one of the people: the social media influencer.

The rise of the social media influencer is arguably one of the hallmarks of the 2010s.

What started as an avenue to connect with friends and loved ones and share your achievements, sorrows and general views on life and politics quickly became a ship in the sea that is consumerism in the digital age.


Globally, the US-based marketing agency Mediakix estimated in 2018 that the influencer industry would be valued at $5-10 billion dollars (about Sh1 trillion) by 2023, based on the average advertising spend on influencers across three major social networks - Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Clout that was previously reserved for career entertainers and politicians became more accessible to everyday people, who do not necessarily have to be outstanding in any other field other than being themselves.

Every shared moment became a subject of awe to close friends, then friends of friends, building up to legions of strangers who gravitated to this person and their interests or perceived expertise in a particular field.

Then came the brands. While celebrity endorsement of a brand is still a common marketing ploy, adapting to the consumers need to relate to the brand and see themselves using it through this tastemaker’s eyes meant that brands had to identify the cream of the kawaida crop and shower them with money and products to communicate to the customer at a more intimate level-a modern take on word-of-mouth marketing.

It sounds beneficial all around, right? Everybody wins. The consumer admires the influencer and trusts their opinion on brand x.

Consumer A buys brand x’s product and tells their friends. The marketing feels organic, and the influencer evidently has a very strong pull on the consumer’s perception.


But how and why does this work? Influencing is not a novel concept, of course, but the increased popularity of social media networks has led to the mushrooming of macro, micro and even nano influencers, whose personal value extends to that of the brand they are selling.

The model is almost entirely based on trust between the influencer and the consumer, and it appears to be very effective.

This is something that Alternative Agency, based in Nairobi, says it capitalised on from day one. “Our first campaign back in 2013 for a company selling small pieces of land at very affordable rates. An effective Twitter campaign managed to sell out the entire product in three weeks,” says Akil Ahmed, the managing director of the agency.

He goes on to explain how some clients are still sceptical of the value of paying someone to speak about their product directly to the audience, despite its apparent success rate as a strategy.

A 2019 report by Kenyan data science company Odipo Dev said that most Kenyans preferred to follow traditional media influencers like Akothee, Mike Sonko and Uhuru Kenyatta over those in specialty categories such as lifestyle.

However, a more recent survey the same company released on February 18, 2020 highlighted their growing social importance.

Using lifestyle content creator Natalie Tewa as an example, the report says that her compounded interactions on Instagram stood at 1.6 million, far outperforming even those of traditional media outlets by a mile.


When asked whom they would trust to recommend products to them, only 14 per cent of consumers voted in favour of influencers, versus 53 per cent preferring brand advertisements online and 33 percent trusting their friends online.

In their report, Odipo Dev attributed this decline in trust to the influencers themselves, alleging that they “bartered their credibility for advertising dollars”.

This is to say that over time, influencers tend to endorse too many brands at once, with some either advertising brands that are in direct competition or that they have never used in their daily lives.

It is because of this, they add, that consumers have resorted to trusting their own opinions on a brand or those of their close friends versus the social media influencer.

This begs the question on who is really to blame for this fatigue - the brand, the agency or the influencer?

“I believe that influencers are just another consumer touchpoint. The same careful analysis given in media acquisition should be extended to influencer marketing,” Ahmed explains.

“Basically, the detail involved in choosing a partnering radio programme, Out-Of-Home location, or an elaborate digital buying plan, should be used to choose influencers for a particular brand,” he adds.


A key reason this trust is fostered is the relatability of the influencer to the consumer and their everyday decisions and aspirations, especially in the lifestyle space.

The content they post, branded or not, taps into the daily life of the consumer.

They see themselves in the people they follow, with some of their fan bases growing with them and noting how far they have come since their first post, hoping the same outcome will be achieved if they follow the template set by the influencer.

“Trust and relatability seem like probable variables because they likely influence our choices in people whose behaviour we model; we gain socio-cultural competence and define our own narratives by observing and imitating the behaviour of 'models' from the media whom we see as demonstrating desired behaviour,” explains Veronica Wanyee, a final year student of Psychology at the United States International University.

Psychologists have attempted to explain the development of this trust using the scopes of informational social influence and the feeling of a personal connection with the influencer.

Rajiv Jhangiani and Hammond Tarry, in their book Principles of Social Psychology, define informational social influence as “the change in opinions or behaviour that occurs when we conform to people who we believe have accurate information”.

This could explain the reason influencers from traditional media fair better in popularity polls in the country.


Reporters, lawyers and scientists are examples of people with opinions the public would deem trustworthy, as they carry expertise in fields that the general public may not.

They further explain that this influence is typically the end result of social comparison, which is “the process of comparing our opinions with those of others to gain an accurate appraisal of the validity of an opinion or behaviour”.

Based on their findings, conformity as a result of informational social influence then leads to a private acceptance of the facts laid out by the influencer – your opinion on a product is thus affected by the influencer’s perception of its quality.

No good thing can thrive without critique, of course, which takes us back to cases like those of Yummy Mummy and The Murayas.

Another case that comes to mind is Joanna Kinuthia, who quit her 9-5 job to pursue content creation full time, and has since developed her own successful cosmetics brand.

While her following supported her, evidenced by the many positive comments under the YouTube video where she announced this life change, a fellow vlogger went on to make a video that discouraged others from taking the same route.

The immediate assumption of the latter was that her followers would abandon their stable jobs offline for YouTube careers that are still relatively unstable.

The issue is one that is not isolated, as many American vloggers have followed the same route and gotten criticised for it.


In January 2020, online magazine Mashable covered a story on how vloggers were quitting their jobs to focus on influencing, which displeased a few of their followers because their relatability was now no more.

The respondents felt that a more realistic approach to content creation, where viewers get to see the downside of full-time influencing would bring things into perspective and restore the relatability that made them successful.

“On a more pessimistic note, it's possible that we use celebrity for social comparison,” Veronica says.

“On one hand, online influencers provide upward comparisons by exposing the audience to lavish lifestyles which form a set of goals. On the other, the audience may be rooting for the celebrity's moral or even economic downfall, which would provide a sense of emotional security or "boost their ego" through downward comparison,” she adds.

To see how this social comparison presents itself in the Kenyan media sphere, as influencing reaches its zenith as a career option or source of income in Kenya, studies show that the trust that previously defined this relationship has gradually begun to wane.

Conversations on influencers deciding which contracts to take on board often revolve around a “personal brand”, with some claiming that taking on contracts that do not align with the persona they are familiar with dissuades them from engaging with the influencer, then referred to as a ‘billboard’.


According to the Odipo Dev report, 2018 was a bad year for influencer rhetoric, with 46 per cent of the 22,000 online mentions assessed being negative comments about the career, which then affects the consumers purchasing habits based on influencer recommendations.

In Ahmed’s view, agencies should also assess the brand audience to ensure the influencers approached fit the bill for the job.

“Know your consumer deeply; research on who influences them and even know who influences the influencers. This should be collaborative. As long as those measures aren’t taken, no influencers will be stupid enough to turn down money,” he says.

That said, with consumers being bombarded by influencer marketing ploys in the form of hashtags, endorsements and conversations that turn into full-blown advertisements, understanding how it works to their advantage as well as the influencer’s is essential if the industry stands to last.

With viable case studies from around the world already giving us sufficient information on the good, the bad and the ugly of having one of us connect with a brand at such an intimate level, and having them share intimate parts of their lives to help resolve our own conflicts, Kenyans should be well-equipped to see influencers as beneficial to them rather than greedy everyday people.