Reclaiming Influencer Culture

Influencer marketing once one of the buzziest of buzzwords has recently fallen upon hard times. Critiques of influencer marketing has ranged from the New York Times in the wake of the ill fated Fyre Festival to trade publications like Ad Age calling for an Influencer 2.0 strategy. If anything these critiques don’t go far enough. I won’t litigate whether we are at so-called “peak influencer marketing”. Rather I would offer that the entire concept of influencer marketing is broken and what we need is a reclamation and recognition of influencer culture.

Influencer Conference, the global event I started in 2010, was created with the theory that regardless of geography, race, gender, or sexual orientation there exists a set of values that unite those who were pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo. Further I determined the risk takers who were redefining norms were from the margins of society. As a result, out of those margins came fresh ideas that moved culture forward. Shared values drive culture and influence being an essential part of relationship should be viewed in that context. An attempt to think about influence(ers) without understanding closely held values and cultural norms is doomed for failure. Influencer marketing, how it is currently practiced, is a clumsy attempt to reap the benefits of influencer culture without appreciating its complexity.

When influence is understood as a culture the mentality and processes used to engage must shift dramatically. If brands have aspirations to be an authentic part of cultural conversations they have to take a step back before moving forward. Currently, marketers employ an operating system powered by the values of extraction. How do we get the most impact in the shortest time and move the most product? You can think of this as cultural gentrification. Co-opt what exist and twist it to seem as if it was yours from the beginning. Let’s accomplish this more effectively by employing data models to shape our engagement. For all the algorithms and models we have seen these campaigns fail over and over. Once you operate with an extraction mentality all decisions are viewed as transactions. Culture can’t be transactional as that model with always favor the party with more significant resources. The voices from the margin will soon find their voices silenced.

Reclaiming influencer culture requires understanding the values that fuel the voices of creators and others on the margin globally. Rather than playing the role of a cultural gentrifier brands must become cultural amplifiers. Their considerable resources (financial, logistical, etc) should be shifted to amplify marginal voices rather than co-opt them Pivoting away from an extraction model requires a pivot toward a collaborative model powered by the values of trust and love. These values are the fundamental building blocks of human relationships. They can’t be stripped down to mere data nodes that spit out results based on the score keeping metrics of likes and clicks. The cultural prime directive provides an adaptable framework that is based on a deep commitment to authentically engaging with culture. That is the only way to reclaim influencer culture from the gentrifiers. Influencer marketing may very well have peaked but we haven’t yet scratched the surface on the potential for influencer culture.