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The Disabled Influencers Making Their Mark On Social Media

February 26, 2021

“You have to work hard on being your true self, and believe in the brands you promote.”

Words of advice from 32-year-old disabled influencer Tess Daly from Sheffield, who uses her 200,000-plus followers on Instagram to promote her beauty tutorials and advertise beauty brands.

Electric wheelchair-user Tess, who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), has worked on social marketing campaigns for the likes of Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing, as well as various make-up brands.

She still cringes at the term “social influencer”, but says that she wishes there were more people like her when she was growing up.

“So many people with disabilities have told me that I’ve given them the confidence, not only to embrace their disability, but to also pursue their own love of make-up,” she says.

Tess is one of a growing number of disabled influencers who work with Martyn Sibley and his digital marketing agency Purple Goat, which he launched at the beginning of lockdown last year.

Martyn, who was also born with SMA, started the agency as part of his mission for a fully inclusive world.

“I believe by helping big businesses make more profit through including disabled consumers via disabled influencers, we’ll get true inclusion quicker,” he says. “With this model it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Purple Goat has worked with more than 75 influencers so far, but Martyn is keen to point out that they’re not a talent agency with people on their books.

“We work for the client and find the right influencer for each campaign,” he explains.

Taking the plunge

Around 14.1 million people in the UK have some sort of disability, and with those sorts of numbers comes serious spending power. According to disability charity Scope, the so-called “purple pound” is worth approximately £273bn every year.

But while disabled people make up around 22% of the UK population, this is not reflected when it comes to advertising. Up-to-date figures are hard to come by, but research from Lloyds Banking Group in 2016 showed that disabled people featured in just 0.06% of advertising.

This was the main driver behind Martyn launching Purple Goat. He thinks the world of marketing and advertising is now becoming a lot more socially aware, and is ready for disruption.

“I believe it’s partly the way public opinion has improved around diversity and inclusion,” he says. “Brands have been fearful of getting disability wrong, but they’re now fearful of being called out for doing nothing.”

Tess has certainly seen a pick-up in social media work. Up until last year, it was something she did as a sideline, but towards the end of 2020 she took the plunge to become a full-time influencer, and now works with an agent to manage her workload.

It wasn’t as easy as people may think, she says. “You can’t just wake up one day and decide you want to become a social influencer.”

‘Demanding to be seen’

Last year London-based luxury shoe brand Kurt Geiger started working with Northern Irish amputee model and influencer Bernadette Hagans.

The company’s chief executive, Neil Clifford, thinks that the rise in disabled influencers is down to the public’s change of mood.

“The boom in social media has given a voice to those who have previously been under-represented in the public eye and they are, quite rightly, demanding to be seen and heard,” he says. “People expect businesses to utilise their influence to counter inequality and many brands are reacting to this need.”

Twenty-six-year-old Pippa Stacey from York works in the charity sector, and blogs about living with chronic illness. Pippa, who lives with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, has also worked with Purple Goat doing social media campaigns for brands such as Tesco.

“Influencer marketing is about so much more than just the hard sell. It’s about supporting a positive image of the brand and their values, of which inclusivity should be central in this day and age,” she says. captionPippa Stacey: “My content outperformed the non-disabled influencers”

Inclusivity on the part of big brands shouldn’t just be a tick box exercise, something they feel compelled to do to avoid criticism, she says.

“Having an ongoing relationship with disabled influencers, and taking the time to understand their platform. and their audience, can help brands construct the most effective campaigns in a socially conscious way.”

Listen and seek out

Authenticity is “the essence of a brand”, according to Dr Annmarie Hanlon, a lecturer in digital marketing at Cranfield School of Management.

“Without it they’re simply a shell with no substance. In our online world where consumers can check, verify and confirm details in minutes, it’s essential that brands remain true to themselves and present their authentic self.”

She adds: “Disabled influencers need a connection with the brand they’re promoting for it to be meaningful. Having a spokesperson that’s living with a disability adds another layer of trust and credibility for the brand.”

Caroline Casey is the founder of the Valuable 500, a worldwide initiative that encourages companies to push the needs of disabled people at board level.

She also believes that things are changing and that big companies are realising that it makes commercial sense, not just to listen to disabled customers, but to actively seek them out.

“Brands can now see the opportunity for innovation as well as growth and talent for an $8 trillion (£5.7tn) market,” she says, referring to the estimated spending power of disabled people globally.

“It’s not just about being seen to be doing good. It makes good business sense to expand your market.”

It’s a view shared by Laura Johnson, the co-founder of Zebedee Management, an agency that represents disabled models and influencers.

The agency manages Bernadette Hagans, who worked with Kurt Geiger, as well as Ellie Goldstein, the Essex model who was born with Down’s syndrome, and whose picture last year became Gucci Beauty’s most liked Instagram post.

Laura says they’ve seen a huge rise in brands keen to use disabled influencers to reach different markets.

“Where brands were once afraid they might come across as tokenistic for having a disabled model or influencer as part of their marketing, there’s a realisation now that disabled influencers really can influence. It makes simple commercial sense.”

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