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They have cut the royal purse strings and need a new source of income monetising their social media followers could be their first step

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex were never going to be king and queen of the United Kingdom. And now they have been relieved of their royal responsibilities, a new empire stretches before them, limitless, lucrative and theirs for the taking: the kingdom of sponsored content.

Thanks to the intense interest in their love story on social media, Prince Harry and Meghan have been dabbling in the influencer space for as long as they have been a couple. Before marrying Harry, Meghan ran the lifestyle/fashion blog The Tig, which gave her one foot in the world of influencers (the name given to the broad church of people who create and often monetise original content on social media). So perhaps it is no surprise that, in April last year, @SussexRoyal broke Instagrams record for the fastest one million followers (less than six hours). Now it has 11 million and is the couples platform of choice for personal announcements including the one they made on 8 January, revealing their intention to step back from royal duties (1.85m likes).

Now that the royal purse strings have been cut, how will they make a living? Monetising their celebrity through brand partnerships, sponsorship deals and social media seems the most likely path. Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for Netflix, summed it up when asked if he would be open to working with them: Who wouldnt be interested?

But not everyone is so sure. Although they have stepped down from their duties, they will still be answerable to the Firm, says Stephen Bates, the Guardians royal correspondent from 2000 to 2012 and author of Royalty Inc: Britains Best-Known Brand. Clearly, they are still royal, but they cant profit from their association and their association, via their name, is chiefly what they have, he says. All this stuff about huge marketing opportunities, and people talking up their brand and how much it will earn them Obviously their celebrity will carry them so far but in a year or twos time, what are they going to do?

Perhaps Batess outlook says less about Harry and Meghansprospects than the gulf between regal precedent and the current influencer economy. With the Sunday Times forecasting influencing to be worth 8bn globally this year, the sky is the limit when it comes to how much someone can make from their social media followers.

The Obamas, who have signed a deal with Netflix, have been pointed to as role models for Harry and Meghans new life. There is a key difference, though, because part of the reason the former Potus and Flotus were able to secure such lucrative opportunities post-White House was their impressive careers, demonstrable passions and interests.

Obama wasnt a hereditary president or worse, a hereditary presidents younger brother, says Bates. Though Netflix would surely throw money at a real-life The Crown, Bates points out that through the 90s, a glut of royal documentaries produced by Prince Edwards television production company caused headaches for the palace. I can see a lot of parties with Harry standing in the corner and people saying: Theres the bloke who used to be in the royal family, says Bates.

Influencers can be traced back to the 00s and socialite Paris Hilton. Hilton may have been famous for doing nothing but she made a lot of money doing it, selling everything from handbags to hair extensions. While she was a pioneer, her one-time best friend Kim Kardashian perfected this. Famous for a sex tape, she monetised this through strategic alignments and business savvy to become one of the most famous and, though you may hate to hear it, most powerful women in the world.

This is the upper echelon of influencing, where Harry and Meghan will hope to be coming in joining the Kardashian-Jenner clan, models Gigi and Bella Hadid, pop stars Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande, and the other most-followed people on Instagram. At this level, there is little to distinguish them from other celebrities.

Clockwise from top left: Selena Gomez, Harry and Meghan, PewDiePie, Grumpy Cat, Paris Hilton in 2002 and Barack and Michelle Obama. Composite: Selena Gomez/Instagram/EPA/ WireImage/Barack Obama/Twitter/MediaPunch/Rex Shutterstock

Theyre not any different, says Sara Flanagan, who set up the digital talent books at the global modelling agency IMG in Sydney, and now works as a media consultant in London. And while Harry and Meghan are world-famous, influencers dont always rely on mainstream name recognition. YouTuber Tana Mongeau has 5.2 million followers and is thought to make up to five figures a month, but is barely known beyond the digital world.

Yet even influencers with much smaller followings can make surprising amounts of money. In 2015, Essena ONeill, an Australian Instagrammer, exposed how artificial influencers posts can be and claimed to be able to make 1,000 for sharing a single post with her 612,000 followers. Those figures scale up, and down: so-called micro-influencers, with followings in the thousands, can still make money if they can prove to brands that their fans are engaged with what they post, to the point that these followers may buy something they are promoting. While at IMG, Flanagan even monetised a dog with an Instagram account: Sporte the Frenchie! I got him a magazine cover, and a deal with Dyson, she says.

So what do influencers do for the money? Deals can be as small as a one-off payment for a single post on Instagram. This is what we typically think of as sponsored content, or spon and tends to be the more tawdry end of the spectrum. Or they can be hugely lucrative, prestigious partnerships where a brand might ask an influencer to design a product, or front a social media campaign.

The idea is that the brand can target an engaged audience the influencers social media followers more directly than it could with a general ad campaign and with the endorsement of someone they trust. For the influencer, a deal of this type gives them credibility to get more.

Many deals are struck directly, so the finer points and figures are speculative. But this world is not entirely unregulated. The Competition and Markets Authority in the UK and the Federal Trade Commission in the US are responsible for ensuring that paid-for posts and any commercial interests are properly disclosed (using hashtags including #ad or #spon). Both authorities tend to target those with large followings to set an example.

But how much do these partnerships make for the brand? The companies and influencers measure this, but for commercial reasons keep the answer to themselves.

Last year an Instagram influencer with a following of nearly three million complained that she could not shift 36 T-shirts, prompting schadenfreude and speculation that the influencer bubble was about to burst. But the reality is that influencer marketing is no more or less precarious than any other form of marketing and, in its most professional guise, is increasingly hard to distinguish. The Sunday Times recognised this last year when, for the first time, it ranked the UKs 100 biggest digital powerbrokers, with YouTuber PewDiePie (one of the few recognisable names) at the top.

In the past five years, an entire industry has emerged to facilitate the influencer economy. There are now ways to buy social media followers, or to artificially inflate your impact so you can get sponsorship, and agencies to broker deals between influencers and brands.

At that structural level, it seems influencing is too big to fail unless, of course, the platforms on which it trades change significantly. The vast majority of influencers depend on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, the gaming platform Twitch and, to a lesser extent, Twitter for their livelihoods, leaving them vulnerable. Changes to the algorithm, whether real or rumoured, can cause platform-wide panic.

So where do Harry and Meghan fit in? In the short-term they could absolutely clean up, says Flanagan. They could be doing single posts for sums in the hundreds of thousands. But it would be very foolish of them, and very short-term.

Harry Hugo, co-founder of The Goat influencer marketing agency, is left a little breathless by the possibilities for Harry and Meghan. In a few years time, he says, he can picture the couple working on a documentary about breaking away from the royal family. Or a classic brand endorsement with a brand like this isnt the right brand, but a brand like Coca-Cola.

It isnt the right brand? Id never rule anything out, says Hugo. But Id highly doubt it.

Because more important than money to the long-term success of the Duke and Duchess of Sussexs influencing will be integrity and authenticity, both regarded as north stars that can make or break an influencers success. So, enjoyable as it may be to picture, there will be no time spent paying their dues on the Instagram coalface with sponsored posts about detox teas and blue-light teeth-whitening kits for Harry and Meghan. They will be able to name their price with the worlds biggest brands: Amazon, Netflix and Disney are names already in the mix.

The strange world of influencers: (clockwise from top left) detox tea, a cat advertising a vacuum cleaner, Tana Mongeau, Harry and Meghan, a dog (also advertising a vacuum cleaner) and Essena ONeill. Composite: Instagram/Getty/EPA/AFP/

Flanagan predicts that Harry and Meghan (and, lets not forget, a probably sizeable team) will move slowly, in search of high-value deals, and only a few of them, and giving a fair percentage of it back to the community and charity work.

Meghan has already indicated what Sussex Royal might come to stand for with her royal engagements: pushing diversity in Vogue, a capsule wardrobe to support women returning to work, and feminist advocacy through the UN. Elaine Lui, a presenter for the Canadian television network CTV and a blogger for LaineyGossip.com, suggests Meghan could follow Angelina Jolie in combining serious philanthropic work with fashion and beauty endorsements. Harrys charitable interest in sustainable travel, meanwhile, may present opportunities to monetise in future.

Even product lines are not out of the question, says Flanagan, pointing to the Prince of Waless Duchy Originals range of organic foods for Meghan in particular. Theres no doubt that she has the Midas touch.

The style of Finlay & Co sunglasses that Meghan wore to the Toronto Invictus Games in September 2017 the first official event she and Harry attended together account for 80% of the brands total sales. Meghans impact on these often little-known, ethical and independent brands by design, Flanagan says came to be known as the Markle Sparkle. Now freed up, she will be able to dust a little over herself.

Before Meghan was a royal, she was an influencer, says Flanagan. What will be new is these hurdles theyre going to have to get over as far as being royal, and not being seen to cheapen the royal brand.

This may prove a difficult line to tread. Taking that Coke dollar (for instance) risks cheapening not only their brand, but also the royal familys and no one wants to be called on to explain their Instagram activity to their grandma.

The Firm has a track record of coming down hard on members seen to be exploiting their association, says Bates. Sophie, Countess of Wessex, got her fingers very badly burned for seeming to be selling access to royals in the News of the Worlds fake sheikh sting of 2001. Marion Crawford the beloved long-time Nanny Crawfie to the Queen and her sister, Princesss Margaret, when they were children was cut off by the royal family for publishing her memoirs after her retirement in 1950. They were incredibly anodyne, as you can imagine all about these lovely little girls and what wonderful children they were but, as Princess Margaret said: She ratted, says Bates. The poor old woman was incredibly hurt. And she was just an employee.

Bates paints a dark picture of the fate that befalls rudderless royals, left to court celebrity friends who match them in status but probably outstrip them in worth. Prince Andrew is an awful warning in this, because he lost his purpose in life.

For now, the public speaking circuit is an obviously lucrative path for them both. Lui says Harry will have his pick of boards to sit on, and could potentially head a companys philanthropic arm. She sees particular opportunity in North America, liberated from the institutions and traditions that make royalty distinct from celebrity.

The importance of royalty to Harry and Meghans popularity has been overstated, says Lui. If anything, the Duke and Duchess are even more famous and intriguing to people now than they were six months ago. Princess Diana was also without a title, she says and it didnt stop her from maintaining her status as the most famous woman in the world.

Undoubtedly, Harry and Meghan wont be free to accept every offer of #spon but nor would they want to. The revelation on Tuesday that the Queens grandson Peter Phillips plugs milk for state-owned dairy farms in China as a British royal family member is a further indication of which way the winds are blowing.

It is an influencers world, more than it is a royals. The family you were born into matters less than how many people are paying attention to you and Meghan and Harry have the world transfixed. Theres so much opportunity there, they dont need the title, says Lui. From the very moment that they revealed their relationship, they have been a worldwide obsession, and the only way that we collectively and culturally become bored by an obsession is when they become boring. And when, in the last two years, have they been boring?

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/23/royals-for-rent-will-harry-and-meghan-become-the-worlds-biggest-influencers