21st Century Words: Influencer

2 min read

What (or who) is an influencer? One who influences? The word "influencer" has developed over the past several years as a viable career option: a person with so many "followers" on social media channels that they command a paycheck from brands for their stamp of approval or recommendation. Influencers range from micro to mega, but everyone has an opinion to share, and in today's social media-driven world, being an influencer has taken on a new meaning.

Why Advertise When You Can Influence?

Advertising has been around as long as there have been products to buy, and the "influencer" role is just the latest iteration. The word didn't exist yet, but there is strong evidence to claim that Santa Claus was the first influencer.

While there are more historical versions of the man, the current popular image of Santa was conceived in 1931 by Coca-Cola. The red-suited jolly man was made specifically with one goal in mind – to attach emotional weight to a product and thereby influence sales. Coke is nothing more than a soft drink, but it becomes far more meaningful when Santa uses it as a tool for spreading joy and Christmas cheer. Santa has since transcended the soft drink brand and is now used to influence the sales of toys and gifts around the world.

Real-life celebrities have long been featured in traditional print and TV advertising campaigns. Consumers already had an emotional attachment to these famous people, and brands realized they could use the celebrity endorsements to quickly gain trust and recognition with their fans.

But as social media platforms have eclipsed traditional advertising forums, a new class of celebrity has arrived. Now "influencer" has become a job all on its own.

How to Work as an Influencer

Yes, celebrities still promote products on their social channels. But now people with no outside fame can also do just that. In fact, so-called "micro-influencers" are often more highly valued by brands than traditional celebs.

Everyday people can operate within a niche and build a passionate following. This relationship has the potential to be far more powerful in influencing those individuals than some unrelated celebrity does.

For example, an endorsement of protein powder from your favorite fitness expert who “likes” some of the comments you leave on their photos feels trustworthy. Or the beauty vlogger who answers your questions in a weekly video carries more weight than a distant model.

Effectively, a person with 100,000 loyal followers who comment, interact, and trust them is more valuable and influential than a celebrity with 5 million followers, but no personal engagement.

The rise of influencers has not been without some controversy. The personal relationships built online are valuable, but when it crosses into "influencer" territory, can the personalities be trusted for opinions they're paid to have? This conundrum is why the Federal Trade Commission has stepped in to establish some rules for "influencer marketing."

Along with the word "influencer," you're likely to see words like "sponsored," "sponsor," "paid," and "ad" pop up all over your Instagram feed. As with any new industry, the rules are changing, but you can add this new definition of "influence" and "influencer" to your dictionary, because it's not going anywhere.

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