What really is an influencer? It is portrayed as the occupation of a growing number of people who spend their time doing something they love, and showing these activities to the world through social media. As such, being an influencer is stereotypically characterized as the dream job of many millennials. After all, what could be better than doing stuff you enjoy, posting a few pictures (which they’re probably doing anyway) and getting paid for it?
The brand-influencer-consumer relationship is a little more complex than that, however. It is the culmination of developments in advertising and technology that have been ongoing over the last century.
Despite being created before the term was coined, there is a strong argument to say that the first influencer was none other than Santa Claus. While there are more historical versions of the man, Santa was conceived in the current popular image in 1931 by Coca Cola. Santa has since transcended that brand and is now used to influence the sales of toys and gifts around the world.
But how can Santa be an called influencer? Well, his image of the red-suited jolly man was made specifically with that goal in mind – to attach emotional weight to a product and thereby influence its sales. Coke is nothing more than a sweet drink, but it becomes far more meaningful when Santa uses it as a vehicle for spreading joy and Christmas cheer.
As more brands established themselves in the modern influencer market, advertising campaigns evolved and celebrities were turned to for their influence. Consumers already had an emotional attachment to these famous people, and brands realized they could use the celebrity endorsements to quickly gain trust and recognition amongst their fans.
It wasn’t until the advent of social media that influencer became a job all on its own.
Yes, celebrities still promote products on their social channels. But now people with no outside fame can also do just that. In fact, these so-called micro-influencers are often more highly valued than traditional celebs.
Everyday people can operate within a niche and build a passionate following that is also interested in that niche. This relationship has the potential to be far more powerful in influencing those individuals, than some unrelated celebrity does.
An endorsement of protein powder from your favorite fitness expert who “likes” some of the comments you leave on their photos feels trustworthy. This idea is legitimized by the concept of an influencer score, which measures the “quality” of a following. Effectively, a person with 100,000 followers, 50,000 of whom regularly interact, is more valuable and influential than someone with 500,000 followers, but only 20,000 of whom seem to like and comment habitually.
The rise of influencers has not been without some controversy. How morally sound is it to “authentically” promote products to trusting fans, while receiving some healthy compensation from the marketing teams of those very products?
It’s true that an influencer may genuinely believe in the products they are pushing. Also, legislation has been passed by the Federal Trade Commission that requires the disclosure of paid promotions with #ad or #sponsor, in an effort to reduce the prevalence of misleading and manipulative posts — although the consequences of not doing so are unclear.
However, with the value of micro-influencers ever growing, and their role in brands’ marketing strategies, contracts and product development increasing, where do we draw the line between heartfelt recommendations and corporately manufactured abuses of trust?