Written by Sara Tasker


Under the influence

Like many women, Sara Tasker runs a successful blog and Instagram account that pays the bills and allows her to be creative. Are we right to be cynical about any products she mentions? Maybe a bit, she tells us.

All photos by Sara Tasker.

All photos by Sara Tasker.

Hello, my name is Sara and I am an influencer. I am probably influencing you right now, even as you read this.

You might not be able to tell, but gradually as you make your way through this piece, you may feel yourself increasingly compelled to don a crumpled linen apron and photograph your tea and crumpets. At least, I think that’s how it works.

I get referred to as an influencer because I have quite a lot of online followers. On Instagram, in particular (over 120k), as well as a healthy blog readership and friends in various other socially networked places. To put that into perspective, I’m no Zoella, but I sometimes get recognised in B&Q. Especially if I’m having a terrible face day.

When people ask what I do, I say vague things about photography and writing, because it’s pretty hard to explain.

I’ve tried of course – lots of times. After explaining it for 20 minutes with an ex-NHS colleague, I knew I’d pretty much failed when she exclaimed, “Oh so you’re just cheap advertising, then!”

Well, no, not least because I’m really not all that cheap. Also for every company that simply wants some straight up advertorial, there’s a more creative and exciting brief that works on much a broader, collaborative level. On some campaigns I can be writer, photographer, stylist, art director and social media co-ordinator. A lot of bites of the cherry, but a pretty full plate.

Influence is a shady business, in many respects: big corporations sneaking advertising in through the back door, presenting their products as ‘native advertising’ on channels that people are largely drawn to for their authenticity and honesty. When a big-name blogger reviews a foundation or a car, chances are they were paid to do so. Namedropping a confectionery brand or a particular type of tea? Sponsored post.

“The single biggest factor that determines success is not talent, or even quality but personality. It’s literally monetising your very existence.”

It’s pretty similar to the typical celebrity endorsements – not the TV ads, but the ‘paparazzi snaps D-lister test-driving expensive car’ variety. The aim is exposure and brand alignment: making a product seem covetable and aspirational by association with the qualities the influencer has become known for.

It’s not all so dark and sinister, though. The influencer is an extra step in the previous marketer-consumer model, siphoning off some of that rich creamy PR profit, and with scope to exert that very influence in both directions. Some influencers define themselves as ‘tastemakers’, setting the agenda for what is and isn’t being pushed, and inviting the brands they deem appropriate to collaborate.

Processed with VSCOcam with a8 presetThere’s power in it. Successful influencers now have a chance to say to brands, this is what we want, and derail the age-old agenda where the brands and media dictated this. Online success is fairly democratic; a popularity contest, voted through page views and traffic stats that represent real and organic trends. Movements in minimalism, simplicity and authenticity sprang up from bloggers and social media; it seems like the influencers knew cupcakes and bunting were done long before the retailers caught up.

But it’s both a sliding scale and a slippery slope, because influencer work is paid. Ethics and identity will always come second to feeding your family and paying essential bills, and there will so often be a tempting offer from an off-message brand.

It’s easy to judge the bloggers and YouTubers making a living this way, to label them sellouts or greedy, but it’s often a clever choice. With the demands of city living, childcare and commuting being increasingly incompatible with the conventional workplace, more and more women are creating work opportunities from their own home, using social media and the power of a personal brand.

It’s a dream come true for many of us, and when the wine fund is empty and you’re trapped under a sleeping newborn, it’s incredibly tempting to say yes to a lucrative offer from a household brand. Even more so if they want to send you nice stuff for free, and whisk you off to a champagne press launch. Lord knows I didn’t get much of that in the NHS.

‘Mummy bloggers’ (a strangely self-inflicted diminutive term for people writing and photographing their own content who happen to have offspring) are creating a new profitable niche for themselves out of the everyday domesticity they’ve been saddled with. Because, for all that it’s the 21st century and no woman should need to stay home and raise sprogs, many of us still do.

“In a world where we’re all shouting to be heard, I’m fortunate enough to have an audience, and it dawned on me that no amount of money should control the way I speak to it.”

When maternity leave ends, the cocktail of guilt and the cost of childcare – in addition to the ever-present pay gap that, in the main, still renders the father’s take-home packet that much more lucrative – means many women consider leaving full-time employment. With tough choices and an extra mouth to feed, we’re all looking for ways to earn extra cash from home.

Enter the growth of online creatives. You might cringe at my choice of term, but it’s hard to find another that’s sufficiently encompassing: photographers, writers, bakers, cooks, crafters, knitters, illustrators, bloggers… and nearly all of them, women. It’s a whole new world of choice, and the single biggest factor that determines success is not talent, or even quality but personality. It’s literally monetising your very existence.

It’s tricky ground to navigate, and I’ve done my share of ill-advised sponsored work. When the fourth redraft came back saying, “We need you to mention the product EVEN MORE IN EVERY SENTENCE PLEASE,” I finally understood what my voice was truly worth. In a world where we’re all shouting to be heard, I’m fortunate enough to have an audience, and it dawned on me that no amount of money should control the way I speak to it.

Processed with VSCOcam with a9 presetThese days I’m choosy about who I say yes to, and I’m motivated by my own feelings and interest instead of the rewards. I’ve found other ways to support myself via my blog that feel more in-keeping with my ethics and beliefs: mentoring other online creatives, running workshops and taking on more creative work for myself.

That’s perhaps the ultimate advantage to this line of work. Grow a big enough following and you can dabble in all sorts of things – and promptly withdraw and try a different approach if it’s not the right fit. Combined with the shed-loads of free booty, it’s easy to see why women working this way are often slightly reviled, as it seems a bit too jammy; it grates against our national puritanical work ethic a bit. But of course, the aim was never meant to be to work as much as possible, but simply as savvily as we can. Wasn’t it? Don’t let me influence you, now.

See more of Sara’s work at meandorla.co.uk

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Written by Sara Tasker

A photographer, blogger and dedicated napper, Sara's career highlights include getting a DM on twitter from Jon Ronson and once appearing on Radio 4 at 6am. She lives in Yorkshire with a dodgy WiFi connection.