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22.03.16 / Influencer marketing – why the term is being misused. A lot.

Influencer marketing. Influencer relations. Social influencers. Influencers (minus any modifiers). These words are used increasingly often in marketing circles. And for good reason: a shift to social distribution models for content and increased visibility (note, not necessarily trust) of peer recommendation has led to a renewed focus for the ‘benefit’ of brands. McKinsey reports that social recommendations drive, on average, 26% of purchases across all product categories. This can be somewhat puzzling for those who innocently ask questions such as “why is person X being labelled as an influencer?”, or “Is Influence a fixed commodity, then?”, or “How do you quantify influence?”.

How have we got to this point, where the term ‘influencer’ is so revered, and yet the definition, identification and activation of, is so muddy? Well, first, the issue shares some similarities with that of “viral” (read past thoughts on what is a viral?). Secondly, it is best to start with a definition (my school Economics teachers would be delighted by this lifelong slavish adherence to essay structure):

Capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something, or the effect itself.”

In practice, however, it is increasingly being used as a cover-all for “person with high public profile or claim to fame”.

Yet this is only one type of influence (and in some cases, not even be influence, based on the definition above). Typically, in a social network sense, influence will be broken into the ability to elicit action (shares, clicks etc), the ability to shape message adoption, the ability to reach large numbers who passively endorse (likes etc), the ability to connect disparate groups thus driving diffusion of information, or the ability to access other key influencers (second degree of influence).

The one thing which doesn’t meet that influence definition is reach (commonly follower counts) – the raw ability to put a message in front of lots of people. That’s not to say it isn’t important: clearly given two people who can generate action at the same rate, one would pick the person who gets to more eyeballs.

But influence of any of the types above also has to be set in context of those you are seeking to reach – is the ‘influencer’ influential with that group? My personal twitter account has 3000+ followers, of whom the vast majority are engaged with me around marketing. Yet I frequently tweet about Oxford United. I am undoubtedly not influential at selling tickets for Oxford United, given (by my estimate) approximately four of my followers live in the Oxford area (even we season ticket holders struggle to envisage one travelling too far to enjoy League Two’s finest action).

So, why has the term been so widely adopted as a shorthand for something which it doesn’t really cover? It’s difficult to quantifiably identify. One explanation is the merging (and subsequent confusion) of old and new. There’s been a shift to digital and social distribution models (e.g. Uber, Buzzfeed), which has created businesses of different types with fundamentally different methods to those which have gone before. The adoption of terminology from the new world to relabel elements of an older marketing and communications model, helps those struggling to either understand, or demonstrate their relevance to it.

It may also be a blending of disciplinary backgrounds and terminology, as marketers converge. Those from more traditional publicity or brand backgrounds have used influencers in the role of tastemaker, or celebrity – the more traditional equivalents they traded in. But that ignores that the fundamental model has changed – in very, very few cases will “buying” one influencer do what is needed, unless one has a) a niche product with certain dominant influencers or b) a handful of celebs on a scale which makes them effective (e.g. Kim K). Otherwise one needs to use multiple (true) influencers, and utilise a network effect (albeit not as many as one might think – if you consider this case study around the popularity illusion study, which says the changes in the property of a network allows some ideas to spread but not others, rather than content).

So, can we, Canute like, turn back the tides of imprecise linguistic adoption? No.

But we can always reject the idea there is any such thing as a general, all-purpose influencer, predicated solely on having a lot of online reach.

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