There’s a Difference Between Thought Leaders and Influencers
And it’s the reason most influencers don’t change anyone’s mind
In today’s social media marketing landscape, you’ll be hard-pressed to go a day without seeing anything related to influencers. Depending on what side of the fence you’re on, you’re either a bit annoyed or totally intrigued when articles pop up on your timeline.
But why are we so divided? Why are some marketers drastically increasing their budgets for influencers, yet other leaders are publicly announcing their pessimism, like Samsung’s CMO, Younghee Lee?
Influencer marketing as it was over a century ago
Before I get to the meat of my argument, I want to take you back to when influencer marketing first came to be. Contrary to popular belief, it did not coincide with the rise in social media, and it had nothing to do with the dawn of the iPhone. In fact, it developed long before we knew what a touch screen was — heck, the internet wasn’t even a thing.
The earliest documented influencer marketer was Angelo Mariani, back in 1863. Mariani was a French chemist from the island of Corsica, who became intrigued with coca and its economic potential after reading an Italian neurologist’s paper on coca’s effects. He then developed Vin Mariani — a coca wine made from Bordeaux wine and coca leaves.
Mariani solicited testimonials from a broad range of European celebrities, including members of various royal families, politicians, artists, writers and other household names, and reprinted them in newspapers and magazines as advertisements. He claimed to have collected over four thousand such endorsements, including this one from Pope Leo.
Over time, we saw influential personalities such as Nancy Green endorse popular maple syrup brand, Aunt Jemima, back in 1890. Even Santa was recruited to promote Coca-Cola, and of course, Andy Armstrong as the Marlboro Man — both dating back decades. These people certainly aren’t what we picture when we think of an influencer today, but they were a part of this industry long before the likes of Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian.
In the early 2010s, we began to see the new wave of influencer marketing. With 100 million users in 2013, Instagram had started to solidify itself as a place for popular internet personalities to endorse brands they liked to their thousands of followers. Six years later, where are we?
Landscape of today’s influencers
Everyone and their dog (literally) is an influencer today. The term influencer is thrown around like confetti at a birthday party.
As social media has evolved, users now believe that becoming an influencer is a matter of having thousands of followers. You’ll struggle to scroll through your timeline and not see a product promoted by an influencer or brand ambassador. There are countless comments on your posts from robots saying “Great post!”, “Love this!!!”, “So cute, follow back?” Millions are trying to become an influencer on Instagram.
The industry is growing so rapidly that sponsorship dollars are flooding in from all angles. With that, there are aspiring influencers, bloggers, and content creators flocking to get in on the action. Free products, easy money, and social clout? That sure does sound enticing, I don’t blame them.
Thought leaders vs influencers
There is a divine separation between most of today’s influencers and what a true thought leader actually is.
Suppose you’re an influencer. Would you walk into an interview and upon being asked what your current profession is, claim to be an influencer? How ridiculous is that?
Do you take pride in influencing the decisions of other people? If you said yes to that question, do you understand how much of an undertaking that is? Persuading thousands of people to listen to your advice and recommendations is not something to be taken lightly. Yet, a marketer doesn’t have to do much convincing to get someone to promote their brand on Instagram — twenty bucks and a free outfit will do 99% of the time.
Warren Buffett is a renowned stock investor and an influencer in his industry — do you think he’d be quick to give his supporters a recommendation for something he didn’t actually believe in? No, of course not. Buffett is a thought leader, and he understands the outcomes and consequences of what he puts out into the universe.
Suppose there’s a 20-something female fitness model with 150,000 Instagram followers. In most of her photos, she’s posing in her workout attire in front of a mirror. Once in a while, she’ll share a workout tip or two, but offers little in the way of fitness or nutritional advice.
Is she an influencer? I’d argue not. Who and what is she influencing? What value does she provide to her audience? Why do people follow her?
In contrast, there’s a personal trainer with 80,000 followers who graduated from UCLA with a degree in kinesiology and has a certification in nutrition. Her social feed is composed of helpful fitness videos and dieting tips, and she takes the time to respond to her follower’s questions on her Instagram Story. She encourages training for general health and longevity, rather than simply aesthetics, and the brands she promotes are carefully researched and FDA approved.
Is she an influencer? I certainly think she is. She influences her follower’s decisions by providing research-backed advice and has a university degree to boot. People come to her for advice on losing weight, and she influences them by providing advice on how they can achieve their goals. When she recommends a brand to her followers, they listen.
Why thought leaders are superior
Many of you have probably heard of the influencer with 2 million followers that didn’t sell 36 shirts, but are you surprised?
Arii is an 18 year old model whose Instagram feed is essentially her wearing cute outfits, often tagging @fashionnova. Her captions typically don’t consist of much more than one to three words, and there’s nearly zero posts where she’s with someone else.
This makes being relatable difficult, which is the basis of influence. Other than fashion, what does she like? What does she do in her free time? What do her parents do? Does she have any pets or siblings?
People are influenced by those they can relate to and connect with. An overweight male with aspirations to be fit and healthy is going to be influenced by someone who lost a bunch of weight and now boasts a nice physique and glowing skin. They don’t care so much about an influencer who shows off their workout attire and impressive muscles.
The difference is that an influencer needs to be a thought leader and expert in their niche. If they’re considered a guru, it’s because other people have called them a guru — it’s not self proclamation.
If you’re a marketer in this industry and you’d like to partner with influencers, ask yourself these questions before you go any further:
- Why do people follow this person?
- What value do they provide their audience?
- What credentials do they have in their respected field?
- Are they relatable? Do they engage with their audience?
- Do they post for themselves, or do they post for others?
Try answering these questions as you analyze the profiles of potential brand partners. This will help you identify who has true influence and who is simply someone with a lot of followers.
Digital marketers know this well — a consumer searching with high intent is much more likely to take action than someone who is just passively browsing. If you follow someone who you find provides you with valuable content, it means your intent is to learn. You’re far more open to their advice and recommendations than you would be for an 18 year old model who simply posts photos of their outfits each day.
Is influencer marketing dead?
No, it’s maturing. Gone are the days when holding up a packet of detox tea and tagging a brand would lead to substantial sales. With the immense amount of noise happening constantly on social media, brands need to be very strategic in their influencer marketing strategy for it to pay off.
What worked in internet marketing in 2008, won’t fly today. So why should we expect that what worked in 2015 for influencer marketing would still work now four years later?
Evolve, adapt, innovate — otherwise take a seat on the sidelines. Identify who the true thought leaders are in your industry, and engage them in ways that genuinely influence the customers you seek to serve.