For anyone who hasn’t been following it, influencer marketing seemed to come out of nowhere. In 2010, most people would have laughed if you’d told them someone could make a good living off of their Facebook account.
Today, influencers are no joke. Every social media platform – even LinkedIn – has these individuals who, by cultivating a large following and developing a personal brand, can now make a full-time living by posting gym selfies or road trip tweets. To some people, it may not seem fair that some 22-year-old can earn a multi-six-figure income from his Instagram account.
But many brands have woken up to this new reality. Most influencers primarily earn a living by promoting products and services in a particular niche: beauty, fashion, health and fitness, travel, and even finance. Millions of people follow these individuals in order to hear their opinions on topics and products within their particular niche.
What makes this work?
Influencers achieve success by building massive followings. Companies pay influencers for access to those audiences. But companies wouldn’t continue to pay if this new kind of advertising wasn’t working out. It must be because it continues to grow, year after year.
Influencer marketing is similar to celebrity marketing, but in most cases, it feels more personal. This is the key. Influencer marketing works for the same reason that word of mouth still drives everything from podcast subscriptions to plumbing businesses to book buying habits.
Inundated by a sea of choices, most people don’t have the time or energy to research every buying decision they make. Instead, they rely on the advice of friends and family and people they trust. Even for businesses not traditionally considered word-of-mouth businesses, trusted recommendations play an important role in conversion.
People trust real people. Individuals they know, or whom they feel like they know. Young people, especially, trust influencers (a lot more than they do corporations). The Greatest Generation trusted household names like Budweiser and Maxwell House, but Gen Z doesn’t work like that.
Yes, a 23-year-old really does trust some guy she met on TikTok more than a brand that’s been around for 95 years.
How this works on social media
Many social media users (of every generation) just scroll past posts from brands. As soon as they see that it’s not a post by a person, they skip it.
I’ll give a personal example. I’m a serious runner. Not only do I run almost every day, I read books and watch videos about the sport. But to be honest, if I’m on social media I’m probably just going to scroll past a post from Nike or Adidas, unless it’s a post featuring one of my favorite elite runners. And to be even more honest, I’d rather just follow my favorite runners in the first place. I want to hear from them more than from their sponsors.
For most of the runners I care about, I know exactly who sponsors them. It doesn’t bother me when they plug those sponsors, in fact I like it. Sometimes I even rely on those recommendations. Hoka’s sponsorship of Sage Canaday almost certainly influenced my decision to start running in Hokas (along with recommendations from friends and family members).
Elite runners may cross over into mini-celebrity status. (Although, I follow Canaday for his advice on training, not because of his racing career.) But what about random college students with a million TikTok followers? Why would young people care about their opinions?
Besides, isn’t social media a false picture of reality?
Sure, many influencers really don’t live the perfect lives their Instagram accounts portray. Most social media users cultivate an image of a lifestyle that is more perfect than their actual lives.
But it feels authentic to their followers. Or at least more authentic than scripted posts reviewed by a board.
Many of the most successful influencers are able to connect with a portion of their following on a level that feels personal – or at least more personal than the relationship between a brand and its consumers.
But followers have never met influencers. How could the relationship feel personal?
If you consistently listen to a podcast, or a radio show, you may have noticed that over time you begin to feel that you know the host(s). You come to like and trust and perhaps even to feel affection (or at least affinity) for the voice(s) you have brought inside your head. In short, you feel as though you have a connection with a person whom you have never met. (It can even happen if you watch enough seasons of a television show depicting fictional characters.)
I first discovered Hokas from watching Sage Canaday’s YouTube channel. When I eventually bought my first pair, I consciously reflected on his promotion of them. Years of watching his videos meant that I trusted his opinion on running shoes.
Influencers are able to cultivate a level of trust and intimacy with their followers that brands cannot (or at least they are more adept at it than brands). This is because influencers are real people, even if they have a fake image on social media. Since influencers can build trusted bonds with their followers more adroitly than brands, it makes sense for brands to partner with influencers.
A post by Nike about a new line of running shoes may not turn many heads. But millions of people might go out of their way to hear Eliud Kipchoge’s opinion on the new shoe line.
If you create relationships with influencers who then promote your company, you may reach thousands of people you never would have otherwise.