What is a Social Media Influencer? A Definition Explained in Plain English for You

What is a Social Media Influencer? A Definition Explained in Plain English for You

Now that social media has become a major part of many people’s lives, our marketing strategies need to pivot. Part of this social media strategy involves paid social media ads and boosted posts. However, there’s another method that helps market goods and services on social media. This is called influencer marketing, and it involves leveraging the power of social media influencers. Which begs the question, what is a social media influencer? Let’s take a look at this term and translate it into plain English.

What is an influencer?

what is a _____?

Before we talk about social media influencers specifically, it’s important to understand what an influencer is in the first place. In a nutshell, an influencer is someone whose opinion is valued in a particular area, and who influences people to buy things as a result. Before the age of social media, there were a few traditional types of influencers.

In the modern era, celebrities are one of the oldest types of influencer. This category is relatively broad. Singers, actors, and models can all become celebrities. Remember the supermodel of the 1990’s? Once upon a time, people paid a lot of attention to people like Cindy Crawford. For a while, it seemed like everything she touched turned to gold: watch brands, fashions she wore, even Pepsi. Crawford was cool, and lots of pretty young girls wanted to be her.

Nowadays, we look to different celebrities. People like Rhianna, Kobe Bryant, and Taylor Swift capture the imagination. In addition to their main line of business, most celebrities endorse various products and services. Some, like Rhianna, even start their own line of products which are then marketed on their name. You have only to look at the local perfume counter to see this phenomenon at work, and it’s a longstanding practice.

World leaders

World leaders

While there are always limits, world leaders are a type of influencer. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not just true with political opinions. For instance, during the Obama years it was fashionable to brew your own beer. The Obama family liked to do this as a hobby, and many people also took it up. Another example is various members of the British royal family. How many people watch what they wear and run out to buy something similar? This is especially true of the younger royals, whom many see as glamorous people.

Industry/thought leaders

Especially for B2B brands, industry experts and thought leaders are an important kind of influencer. Not only do people pay attention to them for their expertise in the field, but they like to know what products they use. For instance, let’s say that your business needs to buy new machines. There’s a good chance that you will flip through a trade magazine to see what other companies are buying. Or, you’ll search for reviews from industry thought leaders. Armed with this knowledge, it’s easier to make an informed decision.

Then what is a social media influencer?

Strictly speaking, a social media influencer is someone who derives much of their influence from social media. When asking what is a social media influencer, you might want to know the types of people that can gain influence this way. The short answer is, just about anybody. Why? Because any time people talk about what they are interested in, there will be people who share those interests. Let’s take a look at the kinds of social media influencers out there.

The mom on a mission

The mom on a mission

One of the wonders of the internet is that anyone can publish content. With more moms liking to share their days online, there is a whole community of moms who engage on social media. This can be through blogs, Pinterest boards, Instagram pictures, and more. Over time, some of these moms gather a community of other moms, where they trade recipes and solutions for the latest scraped knee. Brands selling products like baby products or children’s fashion often leverage the power of these social media influencers, originally called “mom bloggers” but now are everywhere on social meida.

The globetrotter

With lockdowns and travel restrictions, this one might not seem relevant right now. However, that won’t always be the case. Many world travelers like to share their adventures on social media, both through blogs and pictures. As these people stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and engage in various activities, they get to voice their opinions on each. Because of this, travel brands love to work with influencers in this area.

The car junkie

Unless you live in an area that has good public transportation, there’s a good chance your family has a car. Plenty of people, from auto mechanics to the person who loves a sweet ride, create content in the automotive space. Mechanics attract fellow mechanics to their social media channels, but they also get the DIY guys (and girls). Likewise, people who have a car-centered hobby gather together on social media.

The Gen Z entertainers

You’ve heard of Charli D’Amelio, right? From dancing on TikTok to showing how to best play the popular video games on YouTube, a whole new generation of social media celebrities have emerged who are great at entertaining younger generations.

What do the examples above have in common? They’re all regular people who share things they’re passionate about. Keep in mind, though, that some of the more traditional influencers are also social media influencers. When talking about what is a social media influencer, and how to work with them, you can treat both types the same way.

What does a social media influencer do?

What does a social media influencer do?

Part of understanding what is a social media influencer is defining what they do. Social media influencers have two things in common: they create content, build community in social media, and over time people listen to what they have to say. From here, however, there is a significant difference on how they accomplish this goal.

Social media influencers are content creators

First and foremost, the answer to what are social media influencers is, at the heart of it “they are content creators,” because you can’t yield influence in social media without content. This covers a large variety of activities, from blogging to video production and photography. No matter what they create, however, their content is of a certain quality and relevance to their audience. Otherwise, not many people would consume it. Furthermore, the content is focused on a particular niche. If it wasn’t, then they would have a harder time building a sphere of influence. Focus is also important to building trust with an audience over time.

Do they work full time at influencer work?

Some social media influencers make a lot of money doing what they love. After all, some can command high prices for their sponsored content. Typically, this is very high-quality content made by people who have a large number of followers. On the other hand, some other influencers have a full-time job of some sort. These people don’t command as high of a price for a post, don’t want to spend all their time creating content, or have just started out. In the middle, there are the people who make part-time money with sponsored content, but they don’t want to work a formal job. The big example of this is moms who share their secrets with other moms. These can also be service providers like fitness instructors or entrepreneurs in business who use social media to promote their work and grow their influence organically over time.

How many followers do you need to be a social media influencer?

How many followers do you need to be a social media influencer?

When asking “what is a social media influencer,” many of us answer, “someone with a zillion followers.” However, this isn’t entirely true. Some influencers do have a lot of followers, but you don’t need a huge number to become an influencer or to get a sponsorship. In fact, the most recent trend is working with “nano influencers.” By definition, this is someone who has 1,000 up to 10,000 followers. Brands are learning that they have a very high engagement rate, which is what makes them valuable.

What types of influencers exist in social media?

Generally, influencers are classified in two categories.

First, there’s classification by the number of followers they have. Designations range from “nano influencers” with 1,000-10,000 all the way to “celebrities” with a million or more. This has been the most popular way of looking at influencers and has been promoted by influencer marketing agencies as well as the marketing industry as a whole.

Second, we talk about influencers with brand affinity, as I highlight in The Age of Influence. This means the amount of affinity and commitment to a given brand. Levels range from employees and customers who are literally invested in the brand all the way to those who lack any brand affinity at all.

How does an influencer get paid?

How does an influencer get paid?

Brands have a wide variety of ways to pay influencers. The method chosen depends on the influencer, the intended content type, length of campaign, and size of their following. With that said, there’s a number of ways that brands can pay influencers.

Gifting product

This is the way that most brands reward nano influencers, because it’s a low-cost option. However, it has another advantage for influencers of all types: letting them experience your product on an extended schedule. That’s especially valuable for product demo or review posts.

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing is one of the oldest ways to do influencer marketing. In this compensation method, influencers get a commission on each sale that directly results from their work. This method has some advantages. For one thing, the brands only pay for results. From the influencer’s perspective, affiliate agreements allow for a bigger payout if they do a good job. At the same time, there are disadvantages. Chief among these is the fact that affiliate marketing can’t be done effectively with all platforms. Secondly, there’s the chance that an influencer won’t get paid much if the content performs poorly.

Pay per post/set of posts

Paying per post is a flat rate method of cash compensation, and it’s just what you think. Here, brands and influencers agree on the price of services. Price depends on a lot of factors, such as the number of followers and how much work is involved to create the content. Also, some influencers have a flat rate that they charge most brands. Make sure that the flat rate makes sense for your brand.

This is especially tricky because in social media there is no one standard market price. Check out my post on Instagram influencer calculators to see how difficult it is to put a price on an influencer!

Brand ambassador contracts

Finally, we have the brand ambassador contract. These are similar to a salaried employee contract in that they pay out a fixed amount each year in return for being a brand ambassador. Generally speaking, this is the most expensive way to purchase influencer marketing services. However, if you want a long term relationship with an influencer, the cost can be worth it. And it allows you to both test a relationship for a year and then decide, after looking at the metrics, whether or not you want to continue.

How to find a social media influencer?

How to find a social media influencer?

When you think about it, finding the right social media influencer is the hardest part of beginning an influencer campaign. After all, there are a lot of people out there who have become social media influencers, and you need to find the right one. Fortunately, it isn’t something that you must do without help. Here are some resources to try.

Look in your backyard

Your own customers, employees, and suppliers are often the best influencers out there. Part of the answer to what is a social media influencer can simply be “anyone with brand affinity and a social following.” To that end, see who is already interested in your brand, and find out who is an influencer among them.

Mine social media

One of the easiest ways to find social media influencers is to look at the social profiles belonging to your company and its competitors. Suitable influencers are those who have interest in your industry, and part of that interest typically includes following industry profiles. If you find someone with a lot of social media followers on your pages, check them out to see if anyone is an influencer.

Use discovery tools

In response to the influencer marketing trend, there are a lot of tools available. These include influencer discovery tools, as well as collaboration and support applications. I have a lengthy list of these resources on my site.

How to work with social media influencers?

Working with social media influencers can be done a variety of ways. Some brands choose a one-off post, while others prefer long term collaborations. However, no matter how long you want to work with an influencer, there are some secrets for success.

Check out this video below for some more context as to defining working with influencers from a marketing perspective:

YouTube video

Show your appreciation

No matter the kind of influencer, it’s important that you show that they are valued. Influencers can bring you lots of customers, but they also can put you on blast for bad behavior. For instance, there is a beauty influencer who made her displeasure known after being snubbed at an industry event. Short of that, though, an influencer who feels disrespected probably won’t work with you again.

Give them creative freedom

While every brand must protect itself from bad behavior and poor taste, you’re hiring an influencer for a reason. That reason is the influence he or she has, but it’s also the quality of the content they produce. Make sure that you give influencers enough creative freedom that their followers will enjoy what they’ve made. In addition, giving them freedom prevents the content from seeming “canned” or inauthentic.

Ultimately, the answer to “what is a social media influencer” is someone who is influential on social media. Some of them monetize that influence, and others don’t. However, either way they are an important resource for your business and its marketing goals. For further advice, make sure you read my definitive guide to influencer marketing, The Age of Influence. You can also download a free preview copy here.

Free Preview of My Definitive Book on Influencer Marketing
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Neal Schaffer
Neal Schaffer

Neal Schaffer is a leading authority on helping businesses through their digital transformation of sales and marketing through consulting, training, and helping enterprises large and small develop and execute on social media marketing strategy, influencer marketing, and social selling initiatives. President of the social media agency PDCA Social, Neal also teaches digital media to executives at Rutgers University, the Irish Management Institute (Ireland), and the University of Jyvaskyla (Finland). Fluent in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, Neal is a popular keynote speaker and has been invited to speak about digital media on four continents in a dozen countries. He is also the author of 3 books on social media, including Maximize Your Social (Wiley), and in late 2019 will publish his 4th book, The Business of Influence (HarperCollins), on educating the market on the why and how every business should leverage the potential of influencer marketing. Neal resides in Irvine, California but also frequently travels to Japan.

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  1. Thankyou you explained everything about the social media influencers very nicely it helped me a lot. Your blog contains useful information which I was looking for for a long time. Keep writing these types of blogs.

  2. Thankyou. Please do guide me ,i want to get myself certified to be a social media influencer. I have 2500 followers as of now all organic

    • Hi Neeta, unfortunately there is no “official” certification to become a social media influencer. What is important is in building a strong community and consistently serving them what what they are interested in and supporting them. You can then find ways to naturally mention brands in your content, tag them, and hopefully begin some mutually beneficial conversations!

  3. Very nice and useful Article. I recommend uses to read the Books of Sir Neal Schaffer. It’s very useful

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