What People Still Just Don't Get About 'Social Influencers'

Just because an Instagram star has a million followers doesn’t make them special or particularly influential

"Influencers sounded like a great idea," tweeted Digiday. "Until we started throwing money at them."

Last week, an interview with an anonymous social media executive began making the rounds on Twitter. Social media influencers, it argued, are being paid too much money, resulting in bitter relationships between them, agencies, and brands. The executive insinuates that brands are being misled by influencers, that they don’t have talent or longevity, and he/she even goes so far as to say that influencers are “disappearing.” “Rest in peace, influencers,” declared Gawker. “Long live the next thing.”

In the words of Beyoncé, hold up.

The statements of this social media executive (and of Gawker) couldn’t be further from reality -- social media influencers aren’t going to “disappear” anytime soon. (In fact, micro-influencers are rising in number on Instagram.) And if you believe that they are and you work in media, you should maybe consider another career path. Brushing off the significance of social media influencers doesn’t make you look funny or edgy -- it makes you look like you don’t understand the Internet.

To many, an “influencer” is an undeserved title bestowed upon a young person with a large social media following. Take a deeper look, though, and you’ll realize that these social stars are more than their follower count. They’re creators. Artists. Filmmakers. Photographers. Entrepreneurs. They have spent years cultivating organic audiences, starting in college dorms and childhood bedrooms with a basic webcam. They have built relationships with their viewers, who know their favorite lipstick color, apps, and bands -- recommendations given without the expectation of compensation. Unlike mainstream celebrities, it’s that I-feel-like-I’m-hanging-out-with-my-cool-friend-after-school feeling that makes the connection feel authentic. Because of this, the relationship between the brand and influencer has to actually make sense. And when it comes to selecting an influencer to market a product, it’s usually about more than just asking a CEO’s kid who they like (which is something that actually happened, according to the executive in the Digiday profile).

Influencers can be miscast. But instead of blaming the influencer for failing to produce results, maybe brands should ask themselves why they chose that influencer in the first place. If the strategy is “Oh, my kid likes this guy,” that’s simply poor judgment -- and that’s on you. It’s 2016. Just because an Instagram star has a million followers doesn’t make them special or particularly influential, in the same way that a news site’s million Twitter followers don't guarantee millions of page views every time that account tweets a link. A writer who gets hired by a media outlet because they have a large social media following isn’t necessarily guaranteed to produce amazing work.

When making these decisions, brands need to be using data analytics, and they need to be asking smarter questions. They need to look beyond reach and ask not how many followers someone has, but who those followers are -- what are their demographics? How old are they? What languages do they speak? What countries are they from? How many of the followers are paid? Are they active?

It’s indisputable that influencers should be paid — they earn their money. The bubbling issue is, well, how much? Inspired by the Digiday piece and the existing “Who Pays Writers,” former Tumblr creative strategist and Femsplain founder Amber Discko created a brilliant crowd-sourced list of who’s actually paying influencers. “The real problem is that this is a fairly new form of advertising, and with that comes a lack of transparency around what it’s all worth,” Discko explained to The Financial Diet.

Discko is right. For many brands, this whole social media influencer thing is new. But that doesn’t mean we should all be mad that a teenager is getting paid thousands of dollars. As Vine creator development strategist Jeremy Cabalona points out:

Brands, do your homework. Open the conversation. Start being transparent -- and this applies to both the brand and the influencer. Let’s help each other out.

At the end of the day, as in most industries, talent rises. As an influencer grows in popularity, so will his or her worth. This is not a new concept! The influencers who fail to offer value beyond followers will become less relevant, and the influencers who understand marketing, relationships, and engagement will succeed. They are the ones who will get the shampoo ads, the Times Square billboards, and the car commercials. And they’ll deserve every dime.

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