The Instagram grid of Amber Atherton bears many of the hallmarks of the modern influencer: 14,000 followers, a status-confirming blue tick from her Made In Chelsea days, a glossy mosaic of brunch snaps, mirror selfies and geotags from her jet-set tech-founder lifestyle between London, New York and San Francisco.
Which makes her latest venture, Zyper, a marketing platform that purposely eschews influencer culture, all the more surprising. But Atherton, 28, is serious about bringing an end to sponsored posts and follower counts, she tells me from her company’s sleek Bay Area-based HQ.
“Anybody can buy 10,000 followers in 10 minutes and use a photo-editing app to create great content and anybody can accept $100 to write a post about toothpaste,” says the former reality TV star, who’s spoken about the “silly money” she was offered to promote products during her stint on the E4 show.
The idea behind her start-up is simple: mistrust of influencers is growing and young consumers are increasingly more influenced by their peers than celebrity endorsements, so Zyper uses a secret algorithm to connect brands with their true “superfans” as opposed to paid-for influencers, says Atherton, who coded as a child and founded jewellery start-up, MyFlashTrash, at 17.
California-based Zyper recently completed Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator programme, which has nurtured companies from Dropbox to Airbnb, and has raised more than $8.5 million (£6.5 million) of investment since launching in 2016. Dior, Topshop and Kellogg’s are among its 50-plus high-profile clients so far.
Zyper’s “superfan” concept goes beyond identifying public ambassadors for a brand, Atherton explains. This year, her main drive is using Zyper to build “interest-based communities”.
The benefits are twofold: brands gain customer insights through using their top one per cent of fans as a focus group and fans gain a community of likeminded individuals. Within Boden’s Zyper community, for example, there are micro-groups for stripe-lovers, while Venice-based fans of sustainably-minded Toms shoes now meet for regular litter-picks on the beach thanks to Zyper’s geotag-based algorithm.
These “chat-based spaces” will be the future of social media, Atherton predicts, recalling a conversation she overheard at a dinner for tech founders in New York last month. “I keep deleting Instagram off my phone because every time I open the app, I buy something,” the person said. For Atherton, the comment was reflective of a wider feeling. “Instagram isn’t a social network any more, it’s a highly addictive e-commerce company,” she wrote on Twitter last month.
Atherton doesn’t see a disappearance of Instagram altogether (for now) but believes its role will continue to transform: “I think we might look back and be like, ‘I can’t believe I shared so much public data’,” referencing her own change in Insta-approach since leaving Chelsea. She now uses her Instagram as “more of a LinkedIn page” and predicts people will spend “less time” on the site as its commercial side grows. She also expects a move towards “darker chat-based spaces”, with each being “super-specific”.
Similar niche platforms exist already but while Facebook groups are dying out with the app and Reddit is “very male-heavy”, Zyper is designed to be a “new home for community”, whether it’s dads in their forties talking about hair loss or Gen Z sneaker tribes. To ensure this exclusive-group feel, Zyper’s algorithm uses machine learning to scan each user’s social media images, captions and geotags to find “hyper-local tribes of people”, while the platform’s Instagram account has been kept private: each of its 300-plus daily follow requests is manually accepted or declined to retain a “quality” feel.
What’s it like being a female founder in the tech industry? Atherton says she’s “used to that dynamic now” but has made it a mission put her money where her mouth is, investing in several female-led companies, and making a point of telling girls who message her that you don’t have to be “technical” to be a tech founder in Silicon Valley.
She’s a long way from Chelsea now.
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