The sponcon era is coming to an end
More creators are seeking to create and monetize their own brands, rather than promote someone else's.
If you ask someone to visualize the word "influencer" they will probably think of someone with a hyper curated persona, posting gorgeous photos from exotic locations, they’ll also usually picture someone posting sponsored content.
We’ve all seen sponsored content around the Internet whether it’s gummy bear hair care vitamins or luxury bags or travel destinations. Often these photos or videos are accompanied with the hashtag #spon, or #ad, and most of the time it's not labeled at all.
Since the earliest days of the influencer industry, online creators have relied on advertising deals to earn a living. In the 00s, the first generation of mommy bloggers did sponsored content deals for diapers and home design companies.
Brands also paid early YouTubers to feature their products in their videos and talk about them. Sponcon was especially common in the makeup and beauty industry.
Sponsored content funded the “creator economy” boom that has taken place over the past decade. But, it wasn't until the mid 2010's that sponcon really took off, and that was tied to the rise of the Instagram Influencer. Instagram had taken hold in the fashion and beauty world, and no one was faster to capitalize on this than the Kardashians.
The Kardashians ushered in the golden days of sponcon. They hawked products better than almost anyone out there, raking in millions along the way.
Thanks to the Kardashians and other reality TV stars, along with the sheer number of influencers who began monetizing through sponcon, the practice of posting about products online in exchange for money became normalized. In 2016, brands were spending more than $255 million on influencer marketing every month on Instagram alone, according to Captiv8, a company that connects influencers with brands.
Sponcon became so normalized, that some people even began faking sponsored content deals with major brands, in order to seem more successful than they were, as I reported in a 2018 article for The Atlantic.
“It's street cred,” a 19-year-old lifestyle influencer in San Diego told me at the time. “The more sponsors you have the more credibility you have."
But by 2017 backlash was already brewing. A bunch of top content creators including PewDiePie and Logan Paul were involved in scandals, and advertisers suddenly began to question who they were advertising by, leading to what's now known as the Adpocalypse.
There were also larger shifts underway. The whole influencer marketing and sponsored content world was hugely unregulated, and several top influencer marketing firms went belly up, leaving influencers in the hole for thousands of dollars.
And the organization Truth in Advertising Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping consumers protect themselves against false and deceptive marketing, sent a “legal letter” to the members of the Kardiashian family, who had become infamous for their sponsored content deals, for failure to disclose sponsored content deals.
This led to backlash and forced many creators to begin diversifying their income. Brands also realized it's far more meaningful to establish a long-term partnership with a top creator, rather than paying those people for one off posts.
Simultaneously, big tech platforms like YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and more, which creators build their livelihoods on, started rolling out more features that allowed creators to monetize their audience directly through things like tips and subscriptions.
In 2020, when the pandemic hit, many in Silicon Valley were forced to finally take digital entertainment, like what online creators provide, seriously. They recognized that the so-called "creator economy" was big business, and started to build platforms allowing creators to monetize in new and creative ways. Pushing these people further away from sponcon.
As I wrote in this story for The Atlantic, suddenly, everything an influencer did was for sale. Influencer began charging for shout outs, comments, charging small amounts for Instagram Story shares and reposts, and registering for platforms like Patreon and Cameo.
While all this was happening, backlash in the sponcon world was heating up. Many small and mid level creators started using TikTok to speak out on the pitfalls of brand deals.
Additionally, influencers who rely on sponsored content to make a living, just getting paid can be a nightmare. Several prominent influencer marketing platforms, which act as middlemen between the brands and the creators, have been accused of failing to pay influencers even after campaigns were completed
Even when they do get paid, influencers of color are paid significantly less than their white counterparts. Black influencers are frequently left out of advertising campaigns, or had their work co-opted and monetized by white influencers, some of whom earned significantly more than their POC counterparts.
And companies rarely pay on time. Many put influencers on a 90 to 180 day payment schedule, forcing creators to send follow up invoices for months just to get what they're owed.
Given all of this, it's no wonder that content creators are seeking to move away from sponcon. And many of them are thinking, why would I get paid to promote someone else's business when I could just build and promote my own?
Creator-driven brands are cropping up all over. From Addison Rae's Item Beauty line, to David Dobriks Doughbrick's pizza, the Nelk Boys Happy Dad Seltzer, and of course MrBeast's Beast Burger. These creators have used their fame and influence to actually grow their own brands.
And you don't need millions of followers to do this. A rash of new start-ups are making it easier for digital creators to launch and scale their own products. Companies like Fanjoy handle all the back end of producing merch lines, and other platforms like Pietra, which handles sourcing, order fulfillment, and eCommerce for creators and essentially allows them buy and customize white label products which they can then sell under their own name.
This doesn't mean sponcon is going away completely. As long as creators exist there will be brands looking to partner with them and reach their audiences, but it's a much smaller share of the pie. And posting sponsored content or landing a big brand deal is just not glamorized the way it was even a couple years ago.
These days, sponsored content is more of a means to an end rather than an end. The real goal is to own your own brand and create long term profit, even if you step away from social media.