If you asked any 10-year-old what they wanted to be when they grew up, the answers used to cluster around being various types of sportsperson, performers, and if they particularly wanted to please their parents, they might say doctor, dentist, or lawyer.
However, if you asked the same question now, you’ll quickly find out two things. Firstly, that the word ‘influencer’ would occur in a lot of the ‘what I want to be when I grow up’ lists, and secondly, that not all of them are willing to wait until they ‘grow up’ to get started.
When I grow up, I want to be an ‘influencer’
Since it became obvious that not only a living can be made from a strong social media presence, but that it also opens the door to a life-changing fortune, there has been a sudden and massive rise in the amount of ‘wannabees’ picking up their phones and then posting their first raw attempts online.
Like everything though, diving in with an abundance of enthusiasm but a lack of knowledge can lead to mixed results and leave the would-be influencer short on views, cash, and confidence. There is no lack of guidance out there for the floundering influencer. However, not all of it is useful or indeed correct.
It’s not that somebody writing a ‘how-to’ about Twitter five years ago was looking to deceive anybody, it’s just that things have moved on so much in that time that what was written then will have little or no relevance now.
Luckily some things don’t change and in the somewhat brief history of social media, some constants have emerged. We’ll look at a couple of those in a minute, but before that happens we need to answer the first and most crucial question – what exactly is a social media influencer?
What is a social media influencer?
A social media influencer is somebody who has knowledge or authority in a certain niche and can use that credibility to influence the purchasing decisions of their many followers. That number of followers will vary according to the size of the niche, and the scope of the ‘influencers’ authority within it.
This is where the first of the constants becomes obvious. These people have risen to the point where they have that influence because they have offered content to an audience, usually for free. This audience has found that content valuable, useful, or entertaining enough that they have subscribed to receive more of that content.
Why do brands need influencers?
At the last count, there were over 3.5 billion people using social media. For anyone not aware of exactly how many zeros that involves, it’s about half the population of the planet.
There is a view that a large number of those people have now seen so much TV and online advertising that it’s now just background noise to them, especially those in generations Y and Z. For them, the advert is the annoying thing just before they can watch that YouTube video.
Among some age groups, it’s also a ‘well-known fact’ that a lot of the reviews of products you read online are paid for as opposed to genuine.
This vacuum created by doubt and indifference is often filled by a relationship with somebody they follow online. Through the content that person has created, authority and trust are built up that can influence purchasing decisions in the same way a close friend might.
This relationship is ripe to be utilized by brands, who wish to tap into a market that is seemingly immune to almost all advertising that isn’t from an established brand or won’t trust and endorsement from somebody they’ve never heard of.
Not all influencers are specific to one niche. Many celebrities and sportspersons have massive followings on social media because of their mainstream fame. So, while the audience of followers may be much greater, the effect of one of them promoting or mentioning an item may not have anything like the same conversion percentage as a niche-specific, non-celebrity influencer.
For instance, The Rock’s 205 million followers on Instagram (and that total is rising, so it’s probably more than that by the time you read this) may only result in say 10,000 actions (ie a sale, inquiry, or solid lead) whereas a brand might get the same result from an influencer with a 100K following, but specific to the brand’s niche.
This is where another constant shows its face – that a more targeted message will bring better results. In addition, as a celebrity influencer has a mainstream reputation and image to uphold, (as well as a series of agents and marketing people already in their employ to filter out anything potentially harmful or unprofitable), it would be unusual to see any of these influencers promoting anything but an established brand.
Different types of influencer
When you think of ‘influencers’, the first mediums that spring to mind are YouTube and Instagram. However, the concept has been in play long before the term was first used. If you consider that newspaper journalists, especially food writers and cinema critic were shepherding our opinions about certain products and brands long before the internet existed.
Before that, if a movie star or royalty were seen wearing a certain item sales would soar, so the concept that is seen as a modern phenomenon is really nothing new. However, the amount of widespread niche-specific content has only been available since the dawn of the internet and started in earnest with bloggers.
Bloggers and YouTube
Bloggers are still the most widespread (if thinly spread) form of influencers. Some are classed more by the term ‘affiliate marketer’ but that will depend usually on the balance between promotional and educational content (and to a certain extent, the eye of the beholder)
YouTube is probably the platform where the influencer was officially born when users with a large audience were offered free products or money for promoting a brand. Online reviews were likewise given products to review for free because they knew it would bring sales. After all, that reviewer would have established credibility with their audience.
The early days did bring a few moments of brilliant awkwardness where a YouTuber, so fluent and passionate about their subject, would become almost hypnotized by the prepared endorsement they had to read out at the end of their video. In time though, more seamless ways were found to integrate the promotion into the content so it didn’t seem so clunky.
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram
Followers on these platforms number in the billions and influence on any of these platforms can unlock incredible riches. Although Facebook has very obviously restricted exposure to a page’s audience to make people turn to use their advertising instead, only reaching 10% of a million people is still a strong audience.
Twitter does not have quite the same effect as Instagram because of the less visual medium, but follower numbers tend to be high so, like Facebook, any number of views lost to the algorithm will still get a big reaction.
Instagram, however, has much of the appeal formerly enjoyed by YouTube and Facebook. It’s very visual and fits well with seamless promotion, with the influencer simply using the item to create the desired effect. It was so seamless in fact that influencers on this platform now have to clearly indicate what is promotional and what is everyday content.
New kids on the block
There are always young pretenders to the bigger players but none seem to have the sticking power to establish themselves at the top level. One notable exception to that rule is TikTok. If anything this looks to have the potential to overtake one or two of the giants to become a giant itself.
Average time spent on TikTok is greater than the other platforms and it has prompted Instagram to combat the young upstart’s popularity with its ‘Reels’ feature, which closely apes TikTok’s simple formula.
One of the main appeals of TikTok currently though, is that it is still a level playing field for influencers, with the hangover from its early integration with Musical ly bringing lipsyncing and dance routine videos to a level of prominence not found on the other platforms.
Literally, anyone can make one of those types of videos, and poor production values are not frowned upon so almost anyone who’s read an influencer guide for TikTok can get started as soon as they pick up their phone.
Could you be an influencer?
As the social media audience is, as previously mentioned, around half the population of the world, the possibilities are endless. If you have a skill or passion, and a desire to transfer that into content for others, the audience is definitely out there.
The size of that audience will vary according to the niche that your skill or passion fits into, and your prominence will depend on how valuable, interesting, or entertaining the content that you create is considered by that audience.
As your audience grows, so will your authority, and as a consequence, your influence …