Being an Influencer and Being Influential Are Not the Same Thing

Being an Influencer and Being Influential Are Not the Same Thing

The targets of many aspiring artists and models have shifted since the rise of social media, and not necessarily for the better.

Ask any teacher of children, and they will tell you that kids aspire to be YouTubers, streamers, or top social media personalities. This is repugnant to so many people and completely alien, but I don't feel that way at all. YouTubers and streamers are the new Hollywood. Where once they might have been a subset of niche celebrities, now their merge without conventional stardom is almost complete, with top YouTubers on ordinary television and media more and more. Some of the most famous modern music stars got their start on the video platform. The days of saying "you can't make a career out of that" are demonstrably gone, too. However, I think there is a problem hidden within this refocus of rising stars, and I see it most often in photography, videography, and modeling. 

Social media success ought not to be the goal, but rather the vehicle towards the goal. The distinction in goals can be uncovered in whether one wants to be an "influencer" or "influential." An influencer is somebody who has a large following, good interaction rates, and perhaps even strong conversion numbers for sales through sponsored content. The issue is: they are themselves a vehicle for brands. Their image and direction is usually highly malleable based on rates and opportunities provided, and it leaves them a little lacking in substance. That isn't to say that all influencers are vapid marketing tools, but rather that is where somebody who wants to be an influencer will inevitably end up.

Contrast that with somebody who wants to be truly influential. That is, they want to make a difference in whichever industry they choose, they want to have a strong identity, and they want to teach others what they know and are passionate about. Success as either an influencer or influential figure can look strikingly similar on the face of things, but scratch below the surface and where one hollows out, the other goes deeper. In my time fully embedded in this industry in numerous capacities, I've seen a wealth of influencers, but only a few who are truly influential. The former tend to look to score free stuff from brands in exchange for endless glowing praise on all platforms. The latter are selective in who they work with and promote by extension. 

In truth, I think the paradigm shift of marketing agencies from influencer to those who are genuinely influential in their fields is already well underway. Even just five years ago I would see people unscrupulously promoting products for brands I was quite sure they didn't use when a camera wasn't looking at them. Now, it appears that the goal of brands is longer-term partnerships of substance between two entities with genuine commonalities and respect for one another, though perhaps that's wishful thinking on my part.

So, what I want to put to anyone setting their sights on a successful career is to aim not for that coveted influencer title, but rather emanating influence as a direct result of your worth and value being recognized and appreciated by your community, be that locally or in a global field. I see myself as neither influencer nor influential to any meaningful degree, but I know which one I'm working toward.

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27 Comments

Rayann Elzein's picture

If only being an influencer wasn't a thing at all haha!

Rob Mitchell's picture

It only is if you let yourself be influenced.

Scott Choucino's picture

Great article !!!

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Rule #1, if it's presented by an influencer, don't buy.

Michael Holst's picture

Eh. I think that's the same as saying "if you see an ad for a product, don't buy". Clearly people just need to take ads with a grain of salt. Understand that what you see people promoting on social media is usually strategically placed.

Can the product still be good? Sure.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Far from it, at least for the way I shop. To me influencers are more like these football, basketball and boxing players from the 70's and 80's, still in ads paid to sell anything from insurance to waffle makers and saying "I guaranty it". Will I buy a pair of Adidas for $1000 if I was a fan of sports? Nope, may be they will convince you if you allow them, but not working with me.

Michael Holst's picture

More power to you but I think you've missed my point. I'm just saying that the use of an "influencer" doesn't automatically mean that the product they are pushing is bad. It just means there were media dollars spent to send you a message.

Maybe you're not interested in a $1000 pair of Adidas. You're likely not the demographic for them anyways.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Not judging the product, but the process to bring my attention to it is so unimpressive and kind of defeat the point. May be I overthink, but just like for those funny insurance commercial, it's quite insulting to the client how much they have been massively spending, all of them and how much they return to the client when in need. It's a joke. That's when advertising becomes stupid. Clearly they scream at the client that there are no significant differences between all providers, just try to be louder than the competition. Is it even advertising anymore? I don't need the noise from flaky influencers, I guess that's what I am trying to say.
Regarding a $1000 Adidas, no, I am not their demographic, but my kids are. So my kids would have to spend that $ out of pocket. My son wouldn't mind if I did, his athletic, but he minds if the $ has to come from him. Sorry demographics if I block you any day I want, but someone will fall for it I'm sure.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I'm of two minds about influencers. Clearly they are finding a market, at least some of them are successful. But, it doesn't make sense to me to see an 'ad' for L'Oreal in one post and Pantene in another. It seems like no loyalty. I don't see the endorsement value to the companies.

Michael Holst's picture

Influencers are not always ambassadors.

It's mostly for increased reach and impressions for the company while lowering the overall CPM of their digital media campaigns. Most brands aren't actually that concerned with the loyalty of their "influencers". Think of it this way, a brand will pay a lot of money to have a commercial on TV or an ad in a magazine. Those insertions will likely be along side their direct competitors because the publications are selling the space, not a direct endorsement/partnership.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I agree with the idea of publication not selling endorsement, but, most magazines won’t put makeup ads back to back. You’re also unlikely to see two different camera brands advertised during the Olympics.
I’d also suggest that the aspirational nature of most influencer’s shtick is closer to endorsement than not. Not sure by how much, but closer. I think the very nature of influencer advertising is more than a simple impression.

Michael Holst's picture

It can totally mean more than the impression level. Many advertisers will track conversions by digital tactic but most of the time especially with the more recent push industry trend of using "micro-influencers", influence isn't as important than the target audience. It's not too hard to curate a collection of instagram profiles that are likely to give good reach and exposure to a campaign.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I dig the idea / use of micro-influencer’s more than what we stared off talking about.
I have a more authentic feeling towards their comments and thoughts. Anecdotal as that may be.
I understand you work in or with the advertising industry, I’d love to hear some of your thoughts in depth.

Michael Holst's picture

I actually get more worried about the use of micro-influencers because it becomes harder for the market to tell if something is an ad. Plus, often times it's cheaper for an advertiser to send product to a large number of profiles with a smaller following (in exchange for a post or two) than it is to schedule a post with a prestigious influencer.

The majority of posts from larger influencers are ads whereas the micro-influencer might only have a sponsored post on occasion. So the ad blends in with organic content better.

I want ads to look like ads and have them easy to spot. And this is coming form someone who lives in that world.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I couldn’t agree more with the premise that ads should look like ads. This space is drastically under regulated, or under enforced. The #ad is not enough for me. I’m also REALLY put off by influencers incorporating their family, including children and pets, into their posts. There are laws designed to protect these children and animals that aren’t being enforced. At least for the large part.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

So since you seem to specialize in this, tech question. If someone clicks on random ads of random products they'll never use each time from a very different market, can the bots figure it out or can this be very costly to advertisers and ultimately the social media sites down the road. Asking for a friend...

Michael Holst's picture

You aren't even making a blip on their radar. If you don't convert (move deeper into the marketing/sales funnel) you might eventually be dropped from an audience. Many "banner ad" campaigns are going to cost between $4–$15 per 1,000 impressions. So you aren't really costing the advertiser anything by clicking since they are paying to have you see it not necessarily to have you click it.

If anything you're doing the same thing as standing in front of a random billboard you saw on the street every day thinking you're somehow screwing over the advertiser. They're still reaching the intended audience.

You're just asking to see more of their ads which I don't know why you'd want that. You're actually making the Advertising Agency look better because you're increasing their ad performance. Still, like on the most tiny of scales. Keep in mind that an advertiser will spread their media dollars across many tactics.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

So, it's all about flooding the space in hope to get something. That's really sounding sad in reality. But I trust you. In fact I have seen in my tests exactly what you describe, more and more of a variety of advertising. I'm not much of someone who wants to be totally framed by bots when it comes to my life and privacy, so keeping them from understanding my specific needs to me isn't a bad thing and dropping me from an audience is actually freeing me from their framing in my view and opens fresh horizons. Yeah, I get it that I can't get technically out of their grip ever. Did a few tests today and I'm getting massively targeted by the specific industries I have been clicking on, insurances, local dealer ship and colleges from different states. The car dealership is actually leading me to other local dealers which leads me to think that there is a level of superficial and return on investment for the advertiser has limited guaranty, but I get it they get more exposure to more people randomly. I'll do more tests in the future when I get a chance but it seem I have strong power to send the bots to go fetch for what I want (don't want) despite all the data they have already collected on me. But there are also advertisers I haven't clicked on and for those, it's weird, because they are products I already have. Those keep showing up. I've got to think about all that stuff. Clicks do matter, now I know. They may not relate to the specific advertiser, but the genre, very clearly which is not news, but definitely certain.

Michael Holst's picture

"Clicks do matter, now I know. They may not relate to the specific advertiser, but the genre, very clearly which is not news, but definitely certain."

Eh. I think you're focusing too much on clicks and not the big picture. A click is just a sign of interest but isn't the conversion (if they're doing their job) really cares about the most. No one has you specifically singled out since you're just a tiny part of a much larger target audience. A click only does so much and honestly, many good campaigns don't need you to click to find out if they're successful in getting an audience to convert. Remember they aren't worrying about YOU specifically, they're seeing how the audience interacts and optimizing for success. Even if you're trying to mess up the system by clicking on ads that aren't relevant you are just a small margin of error because it's been shown to work as a whole.

You're very much correct on your assumption that you cannot pull yourself away from the data pool. If you have a credit card, carry your phone (powered on) around with you, surf the web, have an account with certain businesses, steam content online. You are a part of a much larger picture and there's no way that you on your own can really fight it. It would take sweeping legislation and regulation to really change how all of this works.

You seem curious about how you're targeted so I suggest you take a look into some of the companies that make it possible. To name just a few... Centro, Zeta Global, Place IQ, Valassis, Adtaxi, DynAdmic, Vertical Scope, Advangelists, Simplify.... They will all have blogs that talk about capabilities and might help give you a better picture of what's going on behind the scenes.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Yep it's really a sad industry! Micro targeting, border spying on people.This industry may be legal, but an industry that specifically target the daily habits of NORMAL people to levels most victims can't even comprehend. This is looking like people are just $ value and nothing else and forced modified habits are in great fashion. This is way in line with rising cost of phones under the pretext that the camera is better with each new phone. The contradiction comes when statistics show people want longer lasting batteries way before a better camera. The camera quality "need" is is still up but the only way to sell more and persuade the client they need better cameras is to come constantly with new ones. What sells the most today? the fact that the batteries are now totally sealed not the need for a new camera, but convince someone that a 2 and a half year old phone is an antique and they'll be convinced that the new camera is worth it. So now, a $800 phone is worth a $30 battery when really it's not, and most likely the camera won't fail first. So people take more pictures each year but what's hard to find is what percent of phone owners take more than 5 to ten pictures a week. That stat alone is well hidden somewhere. I found somewhere that 15% of people actually use their phone for camera on regular basis, but I like to find 3 or more sources to feel comfortable with stats, but I can't find those. https://www.fastcompany.com/3068820/a-shocking-number-of-people-still-us...

Michael Holst's picture

While I understand you point of view. I'd like to point out that "So now, a $800 phone is worth a $30 battery when really it's not" is subjective because in reality, what something is "worth" is what the market is willing to pay for it. If they're able to make a profit with that price point that's what it's worth.

"This is looking like people are just $ value and nothing else and forced modified habits are in great fashion."

It's not necessarily the people that are of value. I'd say it's more about data and how accurate the targeting is.

Also, it's always been this way. It's been the rule since before digital advertising was even a thing. We buy magazine ads based on their readers. We buy a billboard insertion because average person driving by is a certain Geo. We buy commercial spots on network TV because the network does studies on who their viewers are.

The biggest control you have over every advertiser is how you spend your money.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

To me you have a very distorted view of the past. Buying a magazine or viewing a billboard never could tell what color phone or other product or specific model of camera a person was looking to purchase unless the magazine was about a specific brand which is a minuscule market. But it would work for a company that has a one single product in one single color. The only comparative way to force people to give specifics would have been to sell a subscription and force the person to fill a long questionnaire before any new copy would be released to their address in the mail. 0% percent of the population would allow that. I don't see how collecting extremely specific info on people searching the web can be comparable with printed advertising, clearly two different apples.
Phone market is no longer growing in the past few years and people keep their phone longer, if they can. I have personally never heard one person changing phone because of a new camera. People clearly are not willing to pay more, but have been forced to and I have never met a person asking to have a non removable battery on their phone, have you? This is clearly not what people want or are willing to pay, more forced to pay. My son never understood why I wouldn't buy the fastest, newest phone until he had to get his own as his current one is aging. He hasn't changed it yet and is hoping to get a deal during Thanksgiving sales. Clearly he wants to buy, but clearly his purchase will be price driven because now it's his $ involved and has a better understanding.
Any way, thanks for all the replies.

Michael Holst's picture

"To me you have a very distorted view of the past."

Maybe you just don't quite understand media.

"I don't see how collecting extremely specific info on people searching the web can be comparable with printed advertising, clearly two different apples."

You're comparing the wrong ends of the campaign. Search info informs the future media buys. That search info becomes a part of demographic data. Traditional data (while maybe not as granular) has always depended upon it.

Digital allows us to measure media performance. You're missing the point we will buy media in the exact same way. We use demographic info. Traditional media targets the same way but generally, to a more broad audience.

It has always mattered where the media is placed. Having a Guns & Ammo ad in a fashion magazine would probably not be as successful as putting it in a hunting magazine. Right?

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Twice I went to the doctor this year for different conditions and twice I received phone calls related to my health conditions from third party service vendors. You really don't think I get where demographic data is standing today? You're still sell media? you're behind, they go direct.

I have clients who have been hiring me for the past 20+ years who keep trying to reduce their "traditional advertising" cost only to comeback to rely on it. I don't know, may be they get more results via traditional rather than harassment target techniques. And I understand that you cannot say that the micro target becomes repulsive and annoying, but to me it is.

Michael Holst's picture

I guess you're an expert and I have no idea what I'm talking about.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I was going to say that to you but I refrain from it. Good job.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

And look at what happened when the US beer giants got sold one after the other by Goliaths companies. Craft beer, a product that's even more expensive exploded. I think people like to be aware of brands and what is out there but being pushed into it by constant beating and attempt at controlling their habits is not attractive. People like to discover and have a sense of controlling what they want to do or purchase, it's actually very natural.