Standing amid the reeds and staring pensively into the distance, Jordan Bunker looks every part the moody model, dressed head to toe in black – in a direct contrast with the setting. Another image from his portfolio shows him in industrial environs, sporting a minimalist brown trench coat as he looks directly at the camera.
However, the reality for the 24-year-old is far from the glamour associated with the fashion world. In his pyjamas in bed – he’s fighting a cold – at the home he shares with his parents in Leicester, Bunker says his set-up is worlds apart from the pensive street-style glossy shots of him kitted out in designers Paul Smith, Grenson and Joseph on his Instagram page, which has amassed 17,500 followers.
“All isn’t how it is perceived on Instagram,” he says. “People assume I have a great life and everything is handed to me. I live with my parents and I work from a desk in my room; it’s not like I have a separate working space or office.”
Bunker is one of a growing army of “micro-influencers”, social media personalities with a following of between 10,000 and 100,000.
The growth of social media has resulted in the rise of the influencer who, at the top end, can make millions a year through the endorsement of products.
But these high earners are a very small minority: those like Bunker earn significantly less, while still maintaining the attention of thousands of young people.
While regularly seen dressed in on-trend menswear, Bunker is actually on a modest freelance income of about £30,000, with most stemming from social media, blog posts and guest talks.
“It’s quite a humble salary but I’m quite proud of it,” he admits. He charges between £500 and £1,000 to promote a brand on his Instagram feed or blog.
The scale of the industry is substantial and growing – market research firm Statista says the value of the global Instagram influencer market is set to reach $2.38bn in 2019 from $1.07bn in 2017.
Earlier this year, more than a dozen celebrities, including Alexa Chung and Ellie Goulding, pledged to change the way they label social media posts after the competition watchdog clamped down on the practice of stars being paid for endorsing products without disclosing they were being rewarded by the company.
The Competition and Markets Authority said it had secured formal commitments from 16 celebrities to state clearly if they have been paid, or received gifts or loans of products that they endorse.
But for the micro-influencers, the paydays enjoyed by the stars are still a long way away. With pictures on the Instagram grid of her modelling a new watch or a blow dry, Emily Lavinia is the first to put her hands up and admit her online persona doesn’t reflect reality.
“It is more glamorous and together than I probably am,” says the 28-year-old. “I actually have ‘imposter syndrome’ and don’t feel that proud. I try to air this idea that I’m incredibly confident – it helps me get to where I am and makes other people believe in you. A lot of it is smoke and mirrors.”
Looking around her one-bedroom flat in Fitzrovia in central London, she reels off items she’s been “gifted” since she started writing about tech, sex, beauty and wellness on her blog aceandboogie.com in 2017.
“There’s a Google Home, candles from brands, everything in the kitchen is gifted, there’s a big Range cooker, pink and gold crockery, cupboards with healthy food and protein powders. I get spa breaks – I can’t remember the last time I paid for a facial or to get my hair done. But I do try to be generous and give stuff to charities and friends.”
In February, she was gifted around £2,000 of products. “I feel very lucky. But I wouldn’t want anyone to think that it was just handed to me. I have worked hard for it.”
Blogging comes in addition to her other job with a skin clinic brand. She spends several hours a day updating her social media, which can usually command between £250 to £500 for a sponsored post or blog.
“If an influencer works hard, puts the hours in, does all things like networking and having a creative eye to create inspiring content, it can be lucrative,” says Edward East, chief executive and founder of influencer marketing agency Billion Dollar Boy. “Obviously, the bigger your numbers and better your engagement, the more you can earn.”
According to East, micro-influencers with around 10,000 followers can command about £250 for featuring a brand in their Instagram post, while those with 10 times as many can expect to receive about £800.
With 30,000 monthly page views, and a combined 70,000 following across all social platforms, Ana Silva O’Reilly’s “Mrs O Around The World” travel blog provides an income of about £75,000 a year – a very healthy stream in addition to her job.
“For most people, this would be a full-time salary, but I have been on a six-figure salary for 10 years as a marketing consultant. I don’t want to increase the money on the blog as I’d have to make compromises,” she says.
She is selective, she says, about the brands she works with. “I say no to 90% of the work. I work with brands that I’m a customer of.”
This includes a partnership last year with tourism board Visit California, which involved creating videos and blog posts during a three-week trip to Palm Springs, Beverly Hills and Newport Beach. Such campaigns can net her in the region of £5,000 to £10,000.
Mike Aspinall’s craft-related blog was designed to be an outlet to share his passion while studying for a chemistry degree six years ago. But “The Crafty Gentleman” gained a dedicated following and now attracts 10,000 monthly views, while his Instagram account has 4,730 followers – netting an extra £10,000 a year.
The 28-year-old, who lives in Nottingham and works in digital marketing, spends 10-15 hours on his blog every week, and works with brands on sponsored posts using their product within a craft project. He charges in the region of £250-£350 for such projects, which he usually does once to twice a month.
“People often look at bloggers and think their life is as neat and Pinterest-worthy as their content. For every one of my blog tutorials, there have been weeks of back-and-forth emails, research, planning and crafting.”
Last year, he says, he used most of his annual leave to work on various blog projects or to talk at craft events or film TV shoots. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I absolutely love it – it’s just a lot of work.”
The perception that blogging is simply pointing a camera and pressing click a few times a day is something the micro-influencers are keen to dismiss. However, the industry that has arisen out of nowhere could disappear almost as quickly as it appeared.
Lucie Greene, an analyst in consumer behaviour from New York consultancy J Walter Thompson Intelligence, said consumers were starting to get tired of these carefully curated feeds.
“We’re seeing a rising awareness of how social media use and influencer culture affects mental health, from Fomo (Fear of Missing Out), to driving compulsive, addictive consumption, to feelings of isolation. Brands are also pushing back against the murky unregulated world of influencers – big brands and groups like Unilever are starting to be openly vocal about their mistrust of influencers.”
Unilever’s chief marketing officer said last year that the consumer products giant would avoid working with influencers who had bought followers – a practice prevalent in the industry.