How To Have Influence in a World of Influencers

Rebecca Harrelson, Strategist at Carrot

In 1968, Andy Warhol predicted modern fame with his quip “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” (Source) The Scottish artist Momus gave Warhol a corollary with the declaration, “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people.” (Source) If they both only knew how true this would turn out to be. Enter the “Influencer” — the hottest buzz word in advertising right now.

When you think about “influencers” for a marketing campaign or partnership, it’s all about trying to find an opening in a world where ad blockers exist and attention spans have closed to mere seconds. Due to this, brands are trying to find a way to “spray it, not say it” (as one of my clients likes to say) — get out the message without it coming from the brand so that people will actually listen. Somewhere between Gen X and Millennials, we stopped trusting brands and their celebrity endorsers, started skipping advertisements (thanks DVR) and all around started floating through a world where we rely on our peers to tell us what’s good and what’s not. But now, those “peers” aren’t people we actually know, but people we follow because their social media life is aspirational. Gone were the celebrities and athletes (we know they’re getting paid), and entered regular folk with great camera skills.

When you think about the lives that influencers lead, there’s a sense of jealousy (at least for me) — they get free product, post a photo or tweet, and charge brands thousands of dollars. (Honestly, how did I not know a selfie a day makes the bills go away?) How did it get to this place and how do you create influence in a world of influencers? The first step is learning how we got here.

Where It All Began

The first influencer (athlete endorsement) was in 1905 with Honus Wagner, considered to be one of the best all-around baseball players in history. Call it chance, call it luck, call it the beginning of a new advertising tree, but he befriended someone named Bud Hillerich, who began producing baseball bats in 1894 with the name “Louisville Slugger” engraved on them. Wagner, along with other players, would engrave their own names on the bats to keep track which was theirs (baseball players are very superstitious, if you didn’t know). Eleven years later history was made when Wagner was paid by Louisville Slugger to use his signature engraved on bats sold in stores. (Source)

Now, this is not the first of record “celebrity endorsement” but it is the first where the endorser was seen as an “influencer.” Wagner was popular, and was a wizard with the bat. By the time Louisville Slugger paid Wagner for the rights to his engraved name, he was already a three-time National League Batting Champion and a two-time National League RBI leader. You could say his “influence” over bats was extremely high.


Then advertising took a familiar turn. Brands started using celebrities, in the form of movie stars, to get their message out. This was entirely due to reach. Believability in a brand or product attribute wasn’t a necessity, but reach — that was. In today’s world this is known as “brand awareness.” So how did we get from athletes and celebrities to everyday people? For some brands, awareness wasn’t the end goal — sales were. After all, brands can’t exist if they’re not selling product. Reach was no longer the end-all, be-all desire — engagement was.

The Rise of the Social Influencer

While celebrities and athletes may have huge fan bases and recognition, there came a point in our lives, mainly beginning with the millennials, that consumers started sitting back and thinking “Hmm. Does Jennifer Lopez actually dye her hair with that box color from Walmart?” Since our generations are much more experienced, and logical, the answer was “NO FREAKIN’ WAY!” Thus began the cycle of not trusting advertising, or for that matter, the celebrity endorsers. We needed a way to connect with brands that felt authentic, personal, believable. This is how the Social Influencer came to be. Social Influencers are just that — they have large social followings, whether that be on YouTube, Instagram or Twitter, they have fans and followers that brands need to expand their message (i.e. followers that don’t follow the brand but are interested in the product category), and they have the engagement rates that brands could no longer sustain due to social platform algorithms.

Put simply, everyone knows people. The people you know know other people. Sooner or later, everyone in the world could be tied to everyone else in the world through our relationships. Ever heard of the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon? It started as a running joke in Hollywood that at some point in time, you would be connected to Kevin Bacon based on who you had been in a movie with. This came to expand to everyday people, that any two people on earth were connected by 6 or fewer acquaintances. I recently found out that I am only 2 acquaintances away from Jackson Avery, i.e. Jesse Williams, from Grey’s Anatomy (*insert me squealing upon finding out here*). Social influencers have these connections but the most important thing social influencers have that brands lost is authenticity of their content. When a brand has a marketing message, we think they’re “just trying to sell us something.” But when a social influencer posts about a brand or product, we see this is as an “insider tip” from a knowing source, whom we trust because she/he looks and acts fabulous on social media.


One of my favorite books is “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, written in 2000. He found anecdote after anecdote to show how small groups of well connected people, sometimes even individuals, could drive visible social change (and this was all before social media even existed!). The irony of it all was the shoe, you probably associate with your grandparents, Hushpuppies, making a major comeback based on a small group of Greenwich Village scenesters. Now, Gladwell never uses the word “influencers.” He instead breaks it down into three groups:

  • Connectors — those with particularly large networks
  • Mavens — those with particularly specialized knowledge
  • Salesmen — those adept at being persuasive

In the world we know, 15 years later, these three groups roll up into our buzzword as influencers — they have large networks, they have specialized knowledge and they can persuade others to purchase products they use.

The real power belongs to those with the most connections (reach) and those with the best connections (engagement). And those two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

Are You For Reach or Are You For Engagement?

At this point in advertising, 81% of companies have deployed some type of influencer campaign and are happy with the results. (Source) But they find the hardest part is actually choosing their influencers. Do they want reach of a brand message (lots of followers from their influencer)? Or do they want engagement to push purchase consideration (lots of likes and double taps and comments)? Navigating these business decisions with the influencer market can get tricky.

What’s the difference between reach and engagement, and why does it matter? Let’s take Colgate Optic White’s YouTube influencer campaign as a case study. To promote their new Express White toothpaste, they used YouTube and influencers as the core of their media and creative campaign. They knew that the millennial audience they were trying to reach looked to YouTube for tutorials, but also knew that their chosen influencers needed the ability to direct their own narrative to continue the authenticity of their own brand (yes, influencers consider themselves a brand too). The end goal was to drive purchase consideration — and it did, by 10.8%. However, where the campaign really succeeded was in brand awareness and interest. Brand awareness grew by 13% but brand interest grew by 1,116% (Source). Why the discrepancy? Most consumers who regularly brush their teeth probably already know about the big brands in toothpaste, with Colgate being one of them (this is brand awareness). But by using an influencer campaign, those consumers who, while still being aware of the brand, now were “interested” in the brand. “Brand Interest” is defined as organic searches related to the brand, based on aggregate search volume of related keywords of those who saw the influencer content and those who didn’t. The difference in the results of search behavior between the two groups demonstrates the impact of the campaign. (Source)


So you may be asking, why was it considered highly successful if purchase consideration only grew by 10% when interest grew by over 1000%? Now, I can’t say for sure, but if they were happy with these results, then I would suspect that they wanted pure awareness (aka reach) in a world where millennials often think about toothpaste only twice a day (if that). Basically, wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ that when it came time to buy toothpaste, this brand interest (googling about the brand) would convert into cold, hard purchase consideration cash.

However, it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. If you’re launching a new product, brand awareness and interest is important, but you still need the engagement factor to convert to sales. How can you connect reach with engagement? It all starts with the right influencer strategy.

Your Strategy, Not Influencers, Rules the Campaign

Consumers are smart. We know that. And just like they turned on celebrities, they are certain to turn on influencers as well, especially if they can’t see credibility in the messaging. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do an influencer activation, it just means you need to be strategic. There needs to be a direct connection between the social influencer and the authenticity of their content for your brand.

Carrot has a long history of shaking up the market, and we didn’t forget that when a client came to us for an influencer strategy. This client was launching, not only a new brand under their umbrella, but a completely new product line targeted at millennials. Instead of just giving them a campaign strategy, we gave them an influencer strategic partnership strategy. That’s right, we took influencers from a campaign approach and signed them up for nine months of dedicated content. We didn’t approach the influencers as “here’s some product, post an Instagram for us,” but instead wanted to bring them into the family and have them work for the brand with a longer commitment. We knew that if their loyal followers saw a post from a brand they had never seen before, they would figure out that the influencer was being paid and the post would fall on deaf ears — lack of authenticity. However, if they saw the influencer posting multiple times over a 9–12 month period, they would interpret these posts about this specific brand as a real passion point for the influencer (“She must really love this product line!”).

We knew we made the right decision when competitors started launching similar long term partnerships. L’Oréal Paris announced less than a month ago the formation of their “L’Oréal League” — a network of 15 influencers taking part in a year-long partnership. “It’s a real departure from how we were working in the past with influencers. [Before] it was on a campaign-by-campaign basis,” said Kristen Comings, vice president of integrated consumer communications at L’Oréal Paris. “We took learnings from a lot of those interactions… and what worked best is to really have a deep relationship with them, which for us meant forming a year-long partnership.” (Source)

In Summary

Don’t be afraid to launch an influencer strategy — yes, a lot of other people are doing it too, but the key is to be smart about it. Don’t exchange goods for reach, and cash for engagement. Your influencer strategy is completely dependent on the campaign, budget and brand. Building relationships is the biggest part of the puzzle, not only between the influencer and their fans, but your team and your chosen influencers. So when you engage them on your next project — there’s a level of credibility from all parties. Your consumers will thank you (and so will your accounting department).