Redefining “Influencer”: How Today’s Creators Rise to the Top

While businesses scramble to recalculate marketing strategies and social media is at an all-time high, is the influencer persona going extinct?

Netflix’s latest season of Black Mirror dives into the tricky realm of influence.

At the birth of YouTube in 2005, few would have predicted that it would pave the path to one day reach billions of people and in turn create a new kind of celebrity culture. From the depths of the platform crawled forth such personalities as Jenna Marbles, iJustine, and PewDiePie who made names for themselves solely based on showing their personalities to the world with all-or -nothing flair. In many ways, they were more affordable and likable precursors to the Kardashian Klan. But then a change came.

As YouTube grew so did its social media counterparts. The world saw the likes of Xanga, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram come, and many of them go. And with the social media evolution, there came new, clearer ways to score popularity and social reach. Friends, follows, likes: the higher these numbers, the greater (the assumed) influence. But now in 2017 that one can buy social currency with literal currency, how does one distinguish between actual and apparitional influence?

And, with such a saturated market and ever-changing algorithms, is the Age of the Digital Influencer dying?

Beyonce’s pregnancy announcement is currently the most popular photo in Instagram history with over 11 million likes.

First one must define influencer. With over 123 million followers, Selena Gomez is the most followed individual on Instagram. But is she a musician/actor or an influencer? Of course, you’d say she’s all three. Celebrities have always been and will continue to be social media magnets. But is it still possible to follow in the footsteps YouTube’s of Smosh (c.2005), Nigahiga (c.2006), and even late bloomers like whinderssonnunes (c. 2013) who didn’t celebrity slide into their subscribers? It appears as though that kind of Internet fame is getting harder to obtain from the masses.

OT (original talent) channels account for 48% of the 50 top subscribed YouTube pages, the latest of these were founded in 2013. Compare this to the top 50 Instagram (c. 2010) accounts where OT’s make up exactly 0% of that list. Instead, the list is filled with actors, musicians, athletes, and models. Professional poker player Dan Bilzerian with 22.6 million followers (compared to the over 24 million you need to break into the top 50 accounts) is the most popular non-celebrity account to date. He has the followship, the likes, and the comments, but not necessarily the influence. At least not the influence that leads to successful brand marketing. Meaning while people might flock to his page to witness his latest exploits, just like the world was unable to look away from the infamous Rob Kardashian melt down, his viewers aren’t looking for his recommendations for products or companies (mostly because they couldn’t even dream of the amount of money Bilzerian blows through). So if you can rack up the likes, but not get your fans to go a step further and invest their money in what you’re pitching, do you actually have influence?

Social Media Personality and Life Style Guru, Justine Ezarik, iJustine, and Brian Solis, Principal Analyst and author of “X: The Experience When Business Meets Design — Altimeter Group, both spoke to this at the 2017 VidCon during an influencer-focused panel.

“I wouldn’t call myself an influencer, I personally don’t like that word,” disclosed Ezarik, “…I have never bought followers ever and that’s hard because a lot of people are doing that or they’re paying companies thousands and thousands of dollars to make them famous and, you know I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing.”
“You get out of it what you put into it, these are relationships,” Solis advised companies, “…Think about what you want to have happen afterwards, what does success look like for everybody involved?”

Defining that success is what defines an influencer. No longer can it be measured by the number of hearts or thumbs up in the corner of the screen. Influencers are now defined by the loyalty of fan base — one that can take some creators over a decade to build. Just ask Crystal Coons, plus size model, blogger, and now designer. Starting as a fashion/beauty blogger in 2000, Coons built her popularity to Instagram and most recently YouTube. Although she only has 124K followers, small compared to the millions on the top 50 list, her fanbase was loyal enough that she was able to launch her own fashion line which just had a successful debut during New York’s Fashion Week.

That’s right, that just happened, in 2017, after 17 years of her building her brand. This timeline points to why top “influencers” breaking ground weren’t established until after 2013. Building an authentic brand and fan base proved a decade long feat in 2000 when the world had only just begun to explore the Internet’s depths. Now in 2017 with billions upon billions of content to choose from, trying to become a break out sensation is akin to finding a specific grain of sand on the beach. With that sort of time consuming monotony most influencer hopefuls, especially those looking for their 15 minutes of fame by buying likes and followers, often drop out of the race.

With this line of logic, influencers are not necessarily a breed facing extinction, but merely evolution. The Darwinism of the modern age is slowly killing (either by squashing their confidence or draining their bank accounts) those who are attempting to gain social media fame by old fashion standards. Now those who might not break the “Top 50” channels, but who have a small, but strong group of followers who are willing to keep up with their guru’s lives and purchases every day for 17 years hold true influence. And now that the youngest generation alive has literally never known a world without computers, social media is playing a part in their future plans like it never has before.

Tube Clicker recently published a survey revealing that being a YouTube Star is currently the most coveted occupation for children aged 6–17. When considering the career timeline they’re setting themselves up for, it’s a good thing they’re dreaming so young. This way they can all have stable careers by age 30.