What is an Influencer? Deciphering the Social Media Phenomenon

What is an Influencer? Deciphering the Social Media Phenomenon

If you have set foot anywhere near a social media site, you are likely at least somewhat familiar with the term “influencer.” Knowing exactly what that entails, what it means, and what it looks like in action is not always an easy task. Different platforms might have different definitions, and actual practices may differ from niche to niche. 

Understanding what an influencer is is vital in today’s social media and business landscape, whether you are looking to break into the influencer market yourself, are considering diving into influencer marketing, or have begun working with influencers and want more background. 

I have put together a guide to help understand and navigate influencer culture, particularly as it pertains to influencer marketing and social media, and how the two intertwine. 

Let’s dive in. 

The Rise of Influencer Culture

Even a decade ago, you might be hard pressed to truly define or easily spot a social media influencer. Celebrities might have initially been called influencers, even in the absence of social media platforms; after all, haircuts, hairstyles, and even dietary choices of well-known celebrities have long been the subject of envy and imitation. Influencer culture, then, is something of a sister to celebrity culture, and what better way to boost micro – influencers and mega influencers alike than the rise of social media? 

Influencer marketing as it is seen and known today truly began with the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and shortly thereafter Instagram, as well as blog posts (remember mommy bloggers?) and personal or branded websites. An influencer, at the outset, was a social media user with many followers, who had a knack for influencing the buying patterns or behavior of others. In other contexts, this person might be called a thought leader, key opinion leader (KOL), or simply a trendsetter. 

As social media platforms grew, so too did the “industry experts” we now know as influencers. What once may have started as an organic sharing of a preferred brand, product, or service has morphed into being sponsored via free product in return for a mention, or today’s influencer marketing practices as we know them, involving long-term contracts, product placement, and dedicated ad acknowledgments. 

While in the early 2010s, it may have been considered rare to come across an influencer, in 2024, 93% of marketing teams have utilized an influencer for a marketing campaign. In 2010 and before, social platforms were not dominated by powerful influencers and brands; they were platforms to stay in touch with friends and family and share snippets of life. Today, social channels are enormous, and influencers are virtually everywhere. 

Defining the Term “Influencer”

As the term suggests, an influencer’s job and purpose is to wield influence in order to encourage followers to make purchases for a specific brand or company. An influencer is part social media marketing aficionado and part celebrity; they function as industry experts in their niche, and aim to influence their followers to make purchasing decisions. 

The Basic Definition

An influencer, put simply, is an individual with a significant following (assuming they are not fake followers) on social media platforms. Social influencers have the ability to influence their audience, not only in purchasing decisions, but also in their thoughts, behaviors, and opinions. An influencer is viewed as a trust voice within their niche or industry, and their social media posts are a source of considerable focus. 

Key Characteristics of Influencers

There are a few key characteristics necessary to become a successful, influencing content creator. Two of the most important traits are authenticity and relatability; if your audience does not think you are being authentic and do not relate to you, any piece of content you create is going to fall short of its goal to influence decision-making and behavior. 

Consistent content creation and audience engagement are also important for the social media content developed by influencers. Consistency is one of the best ways to build trust, and engagement ensures that your audience feels seen and heard and comes back for more. 

Influencers do not typically create online content in a broad brushstroke. Instead, they fulfill a specific niche or passion, and tie their campaigns to those niches and passions. Someone who is passionate about health, for instance, might exist within the broader niche of health and wellness, and a smaller niche of herbalism. 

Influencers are also able to develop a strong personal brand and distinct style, in order to drive conversations and spur trends. Influencers by their nature need to set themselves apart and stand out. 

Types of Influencers

Types of influencers are generally separated into categories based on their audience size. Although follower counts do not necessarily equal influence, in influencer marketing, audience size is an easy and convenient way to classify potential influence. The most common categories are nano – influencers, micro – influencers, macro – influencers, mega – influencers, and celebrities. I will go into greater detail on these types below. 

Nano and Micro-Influencers

Nano influencer

This grouping reaches a narrow audience, but because these are smaller followings, they are often more highly engaged. This grouping typically boasts from 1,000 to 100,000 followers. Often, smaller influencers like these are focused on specific or narrower niches or even local communities. They may also be perceived as authentic more than larger influencers. 

Aerie is one of the many brands focusing on smaller-scale content: by using smaller influencers to demonstrate a fit check, followers can avoid cheesy product reviews and highly curated content, in favor of real customers who genuinely have an affinity for the brand. 

Macro-Influencers

Macro-influencers have larger followings, of between 100,000 and 1 million followers, across multiple platforms. These influencers reach a wider audience, certainly, because they have both a broader appeal and reach, but it may be harder to get more authentic real life slices. 

Macro-influencers typically deliver more professionalized content creation and brand partnerships over the long-term versus a one-time campaign. These influencers may be household names only for those who are familiar with influencer marketing practices in general. 

A shining example of a macro-influencer partnership is the collaboration with influencer Chrissa Sparkles, who partnered with Joybird in the wake of the Barbie movie. 

Mega-Influencers and Celebrities

Mega-Influencers and Celebrities

Mega-influencers and celebrities are the influencers with the largest number of followers. They boast massive followings of 1 million or more, and are recognized in the mainstream rather than only being recognized within a certain niche. These influencers have the highest reach, but typically have much lower engagement rates, making them less than ideal for some campaigns. 

Mega-influencers and celebrities are usually used for large-scale brand awareness campaigns. The nature of this level of influencer is often more closely aligned with standard advertising, wherein the goal is exposure rather than loyalty or engagement. 

Dunkin Donuts relied on celebrities to announce new drinks and complete a marketing campaign when it brought together Ben Affleck and Ice Spice. This is an example of a collaborative effort, as new menu items were created as part of the campaign, and new fans were brought into the fold. 

Platforms and Content Formats

Social media channels as a whole are the primary means through which influencers function, but not all channels are created equally, and not all are as thoroughly receptive to influencer marketing campaigns. I have pulled together the most common platforms currently used for influencer marketing, including simple posts, affiliate links, and more. 

Instagram

Instagram is the original influencer platform, and remains the platform with the vast majority of influencer marketers. Instagram is prized for its influencer marketing abilities because it focuses on visual storytelling through images and short videos. The most popular content formats used on Instagram include posts, Stories, Reels, and IGTV. 

Instagram is also prized for its contribution to influencer marketing, because it uses hashtags and geotags for discoverability. This means that if you use these hashtags, you will have a greater chance of being discovered. 

YouTube

YouTube is considered the go-to in the influencer marketing industry for long-form video content. Relevant influencers can use the platform to deliver vlogs, tutorials, reviews, and entertainment, all of which are the most common videos on YouTube. 

YouTube also offers the potential for ad revenue and brand sponsorships. Given the popularity of the platform, this is certainly not something to sleep on. SEO and keyword optimization further aids YouTube as a valuable add to your series of platforms for influencer marketing. 

TikTok

Tiktok

Comparatively, TikTok is a newcomer to the scene, but it has made a huge name for itself. TikTok delivers short-form video content set to music or trendy audio and visuals. TikTok’s potential for viral videos is unparalleled, and the many challenges, dances, and memes make it an easy platform to get started on. 

TikTok boasts a unique algorithm for easy content discovery, and focuses a great deal of its energy and attention in discovery rather than on maintaining an existing audience. TikTok’s popularity means that it has become an increasingly popular influencer marketing hub. 

Other Platforms

There are four additional platforms that you should be on, but that may not yield as great a return . These include Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogs. I will go into greater detail on each of these below to indicate how they are best used. 

Further Reading: The 21 Top Influencer Marketing Platforms

Facebook

Facebook has older demographics and is great for community building. Facebook can be used to target local people, and can be utilized to create an entire community around a brand or product. 

Twitter

YouTube video

Twitter offers real-time conversations and thought leadership. Its nature as a text-driven platform means that it is often a favorite of writers and content creators, and it is a valuable addition to any social media management practices. 

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is a platform designed for B2B influencers rather than influencers within your own sphere. Professional networking is also common on LinkedIn, making it an excellent site  to use to build expertise and trust. 

Further Reading: Who are LinkedIn Influencers – and How to Become One

Blogs

Although their heyday may have passed to some degree, blogs remain an important part of any marketing campaign. Blogs allow users to go in-depth into content, and more fully employ SEO practices to further drive traffic. 

The Business of Influence

Influence may have once been tossed around as a word to describe a child’s sway over another kid, but it has become a giant of a word in its own right. Influencing an audience can help bring in plenty of revenue for brands and companies, so any time you are looking at potential influencers, keep this in mind. 

Monetization Strategies for Influencers

YouTube video

Monetization is not necessarily a straightforward process: there are partnerships to consider, affiliate marketing codes to think about, and even bringing in ad revenue. All of these can successfully be used to monetize your influence. 

First, look into sponsored posts and partnerships. Partnerships and sponsored posts are both great, because they help ease into influencer marketing, and do not cost a great deal of money. In these posts, or relationships, influencers will either deliver a recommendation and encourage others to buy, or encourage brand loyalty. 

Affiliate marketing and product recommendations also go hand in hand: you typically are given an affiliate code on the onset of the campaign, and you are able to earn some money back based on the amount of items sold through your campaign. 

Creating and selling your own products and services is another common monetization strategy. These can be as simple or as complex as you would like. 

YouTube and blog content offer Ad revenue services to help further streamline your monetization process. Through these programs, you can limit some of the time you are spending at your desk. 

Influencer Marketing Campaigns for Brands

There are different types of campaigns that can be used for influencer marketing. Awareness campaigns, engagement campaigns, and conversion campaigns can all use influencer marketing to give them a boost and bolster the conversations being had around them. 

Setting campaign goals and KPIs is important, because it helps you evaluate what it is that you are doing well and where you need some assistance or need to make some changes. 

Selecting an influencer can feel daunting and with good reason: there are so many out there! That being said, the first step in developing an influencer selection process is in fine-tuning your outreach process. Run your outreach materials by others to fine-tune them and make sure you are delivering compelling and interesting proposals. 

Finally, as you wrap up your outreach and finish your campaign, measure its success and evaluate your ROI. Any ads you take out or influencer marketing materials you bring in will need to be evaluated against the amount of time and money you spent on the campaign. 

Further Rerading: 10 Steps to Creating a Successful Influencer Marketing Campaign

Steps to Becoming an Influencer

Now that you know exactly what an influencer is, and why it might be an appealing prospect, I have put together the basic steps to become an influencer, yourself. 

Finding Your Niche and Developing Your Personal Brand

Source

Influencers are, first and foremost, their own personal brands. Build your brand effectively by identifying your passion, expertise, and unique perspective, and researching your target audience and any competition you may have. From there, you can continue to refine your personal brand and aesthetic, to create a logo, series of colors, and general theme that you prefer. 

FUrther Reading: How to Become an Influencer (in Any Industry) in 13 Easy Steps

Creating Quality and Engaging Content

Create high-quality content that can’t help but engage. Influencer relationships are built on engagement and being heard, after all, so make sure you are investing in equipment and editing practices that will yield the best bang for your buck. A consistent posting schedule can also help keep you top of mind, as new and existing followers will know what to expect from you and when. 

Audience engagement is essential, and engaging with your audience via comments and DMs is a simple, straightforward way to keep those lines of communication open. You want your audience to feel seen and heard, so make sure you are seeing and hearing whenever possible. 

Collaborate with other creators within your niche to help maintain interest, share a larger audience, and get some practice under your belt. Content is not always going to strike gold, so make sure you are prepared to stay the course and carry on with the occasional tweak and shift to make sure your campaign is performing as it should. 

Growing Your Following

Growing a following is integral to growth; after all, your following is how you are classified among your peers. Optimize your profile and your bio for improved discoverability. This will help direct more people to your work or page, and show them who you are, what you look like, and what your goals are. 

Use relevant hashtags to help direct audiences to your pages, and participate in any trends currently making the rounds to further wrangle new followers. Although getting followers this way may not be as organic as some would prefer, it is a great way to weed out what does and does not work. 

Promoting your content across multiple platforms is an excellent way to grow your following. You may have a follower on Instagram, for instance, who is not familiar with your posts on Twitter. By cross promoting, you can make sure that your influencer marketing efforts are consistently performing well with your own audience. 

Finally, do not be afraid of paid promotions. Although many might initially see paid promotions as a cop-out or something similar, paid promotions can successfully drive new people to your page and, combined with your existing quality content, encourage them to stay. 

Further Reading: The 13 Influencer Marketing Trends You Need to Know in 2024

Conclusion

Influencers, while they may not have existed in any significant way a mere 14 years ago, have come a long way and are ubiquitous in the social media space. Understanding what influencers are, how they operate, and how they might benefit you is essential to complete social media marketing campaigns alongside influencers without issue. 

Have you worked with influencers? Are you an influencer, yourself? Let me know in the comments! 

Hero Photo by Ave Calvar on Unsplash

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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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2 Comments

  1. I like this article. To become a great influencer, we must understand proper personal branding. Developments in content technology, such as the presence of AI, make it easier for us to produce a lot of content. However, the content produced must still be of high quality and provide meaningful value.

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