It’s time to address the elephant in the room: Influencers don’t really influence anything or anyone!

Who are these people “influencing”?

Earlier this week a major shitstorm hit the Internet, when a boutique hotel owner posted a screenshot of an email he received from a travel blogger and “influencer”, asking for a free stay (in the period of Valentine’s day no less!) in return for “coverage” and promotion to her (80k) followers. He posted a very sarcastic and direct reply, rejecting the request. He did not name the blogger, and even hid her details from the screenshot, yet somehow, this blew out of proportions, with her getting “shamed” and “outed” (how, exactly? One has to wonder…) and posting a viral video that only made things worse.

I can go into many details about what is wrong in the way she approached the hotel, the mistakes both parties made, and about the things that are actually awesome about the parties’ behavior. In fact, to me it appears like a well-orchestrated “crisis” that benefits all from the virality of the matter. However, this is neither the time nor the place for an influencer outreach “how-to” post.

This post is about something else altogether. It’s about the very concept of “influence” and the fundamental difference between “influence” and “thought leadership”.

I think it’s time we addressed the elephant in the room: Who really are these “influencers” and who do they “influence”, if at all?

The concept of an “influencer” is pretty clear. An Individual who can reach many people through various communication channels and can therefore, potentially, influence them to like or dislike, to adopt or ban, to buy or skip buying, products and services.

The more people the “influencer” can reach (read: the more “followers” they have), the better, stronger and more of an “influence” he or she has.

There is a whole marketing strategy called “influencer marketing” or “influencer outreach”. There is even a concept called “micro influencer” to describe people with less following who are still considered “important” in their niche.

But let’s consider a few of questions:

1. What do numbers of followers mean in an age where buying likes and follows and YouTube video watches is easier than ever? Social media works harder and harder to monetize, encouraging people to pay for their content to be seen and to gain followers, like and views. The higher the relevance of the people you wish to engage (quality “real” followers, people who are genuinely interested in the content you offer), the more expensive it is to get to them and harder you have to work on your content to make it better and more interesting. So, how can we tell if the 80k followers this influencer claims to have are even real, or relevant to the brand she offers to promote? For all we know, these could be fake followers, bots, people who happened to be interested in one specific piece of content and therefore followed her, but who are not interested in all of her other content… numbers mean nothing.

2. What does “coverage” even mean in a culture of multiple social media and new trends born daily? Does a blog post on a dedicated website count more or less than a Facebook post? Does a snap story count more or less than an Instagram story? Does a YouTube video count more or less than a Vimeo one or a Live Facebook session? The promise of exposure, while very much alluring to brands, has to be carefully checked, monitored and measured. The bottom line is after all, profit.

3. Speaking of measuring and monitoring — how can you really tell that new business was generated by a particular collaboration with a specific influencer? I know — affiliate links, special discount codes. The means are clear. But are they accurate? And do people fall for them? Affiliate links are something most people nowadays can spot and often shy away from (as they do from “promotional content”). Laws all over the world require that people the use the word “Advertisement” or state when content is “sponsored” or “in collaboration with”, which makes the consumer doubt the authenticity of the recommendation. After all, if someone is offered free products or services, it is highly unlikely that they will then write badly or not recommend said products or services. This point was recently clarified by the editor of Godsavethepoints.com in an excellent post.

The bottom line, from a business and financial point of view is simple: These influencers have no way to prove they “influence” — neither in quantity nor in quality — and brands have to be very realistic about what they stand to gain from such collaborations, if at all. They could increase awareness and exposure (but to whom, exactly?), they could potentially generate more sales (but how can you clearly prove it’s from this specific collaboration?), they could also sustain damage if they choose to work with an “influencer” who happens to be involved in a scandal (see Loreal and the hijab wearing “model”).

Let’s face it, the concept of becoming an influencer is mostly appealing as a “job” to younger people who don’t have many other options. When you look at the beauty segment, for instance, you can clearly see that the biggest YouTube channels with millions of followers, are usually ones that were built with hard work over years and years… and… the YouTubers are actually refusing collabs and sponsored content. Most of the time they pay for the products on their own, full price and they state so.

But, since Instagram and Snap, more and more “web influencers” popped out, especially in the lifestyle (beauty, fashion, travel) niche and in Technology (consumer electronics) and they have been enjoying the gullibility of brands that think they can actually generate real business by working with them.

There is (always has been) an alternative — It’s called “Genuine Thought Leadership”.

Thought Leaders are about expertise

The concept of “thought leadership” is completely different than “influencing” anything or anyone. In fact, I would argue it’s the exact opposite. Because while influencers are about follower numbers, thought leaders are about expertise and knowledge.

Thought leaders are people who care about their niche and industry for real and enough to invest time and money in becoming experts. They work in the industry, they learn all the time, they make it a point to generate quality and authentic content, not for their own profit or someone else’s profit, but for the purpose of educating others about something they’re passionate about.

I love to travel (who doesn’t!) but I can’t say I am passionate about hotels, airline food or the quality of towels in a B&B. I am, however, passionate about storytelling, community development and marketing. Get the difference?

To quote from a Facebook post I put up when this whole mess started:

Business wise, a brand would benefit more from working with a thought leader, who has 5000 real and engaged followers, who could become real and paying 5000 customers, than a buzzword thrower with 20k-50k followers (or more) who are only following thanks to herd behavior and who are not likely to pay for a product or a service. Real thought leaders *care* and make a point to be knowledgeable about the topics they cover.

As a brand, you better think long and hard about your marketing strategy when it comes to collaborations, campaigns and paid promotions.

You would be better off identifying and working with real thought leaders but what you really need to do is develop your own brand authority and thought leadership.

In other words, don’t think about numbers and individual sales you may or may not generate at a specific point in time. Instead, think of how you can develop genuine added value in the long term for your community.