Are online influencers now the mainstream media?


James Deakin

So I just came back from the Singapore Motor Show. This was my first official international media trip since the lockdown. And boy has so much changed.

The biggest change I noticed was that our media group was now made up of 50 percent from the traditional motoring media – newspapers, magazines, websites and TV – while the other 50 percent were made up of social media influencers who (with the exception of one vlogger) had no experience with cars and had never been to a motor show before. Now I don’t mean that to come across as judgey or gate-keeperish, it is simply an observation that I wanted to expound on. After all, whether I agree or not, many consider me to be more an influencer than a traditional media guy these days, so if anything, I feel I’m perfectly placed to make an objective and balanced observation about this new shift.

The dynamics in the group was great, so I’m not throwing shade at anyone here. There were, however, whispers back home to the tune of – why did they send this person and that person. “Hindi naman media yan.” “They don’t know anything about cars and have no formal training as reporters or writers.” And this is what got me thinking about writing this article and answer the question of whether we have reached a tipping point where social media influencers have become the mainstream media, while the established institutions became fringe?

If you’re asking me personally, I think we have, but not in the way that the newbies are driving the oldies out to extinction. I just think that we have hit a very important intersection in the road, and if traditional media wants to maintain their positions, at least for this transitional period, they need to define their roles a lot better. In other words, they don’t get to make the rules anymore and gate keep. It is a free for all.

The world is spinning faster than it ever has before, and they need to adjust. Not the other way around.
Basically, there’s a place for everyone. But only if everyone knows their place. And one of the biggest things that mainstream media needs to accept is that the world is speaking a different language now and traditional brands need to find “translators” to get their message across. And that is where influencers hold a game-changing advantage over traditional media. For example, a skilled influencer can say more in a 15-second reel or a single meme than a trained journalist can say in 800 words.

That may sound harsh or even offensive to a trained journalist that spent years honing their craft, but it's true; it’s not a dig at anyone, it is just the reality of how we consume information these days. And the biggest disadvantage that mediums like TV, newspaper or magazine have in this new media landscape is that they come with very clear limitations in how they can get a story out (four to six minute produced TV segment, 6-800 word articles, long lead times for publishing etc.) not to mention the added layers of dealing with regulatory bodies, editors and stockholders that need to monitor the language used.
While the influencer, on the other hand, has the equivalent of a blank canvas and endless supply of brushes and paint to get their story across. So it’s like turning up to a knife fight with a fully automatic assault weapon.

Take the example of one social media influencer on our trip, Roxy Delevin, also known as 330 Roxy. Even before my official story about the show had been published, she had already garnered almost half a million views on her social media about the same Subaru event that we were all in. These were made up of reels, IG stories, Facebook posts, TikTok and YouTube shorts, and all were posted while we were still on the trip.

Now I know that paints a grim picture for us traditional guys, but the good news here for mainstream journalists is that, while someone like 330 Roxy can certainly drum up the interest in a product or event better than most media could, when it comes to the second biggest investment most people make in their life, the buyer will still want to validate all that information with someone who does have the years of experience and knowledge about cars before putting down that down payment and committing to those monthlies. So you can see how we still need each other.

So in short, the influencer is much, much better at breaking through the noise, while the trained and experienced mainstream journalist will have a better chance of turning that noise into a sale. And that is the perfect balance for me. When we work together instead of competing, it is the difference between rowing and sailing.