The term “influencer” may seem like a fairly new addition to our lexicon, but first uses date back to the 1660s. Still, its application to social media—relatively new in its own right—is a more recent phenomenon.
While the “very first” commercial influencer may be lost somewhere in the annals of history, product packaging and magazine adverts of yesteryear provide a breadcrumb trail that tracks the early evolution of influencer marketing. From Aunt Jemima, to the Marlboro Man, to Santa Claus, fictitious characters have offered tried and true ways to establish a personalized connection between products and consumers. Eventually, these influential spokespersons led to the modern social media influencer—someone who has built a sizable following across one or more social media channels.
Along with differences in size and reach, the channels, content formats, and categories will also shape the influencer definition to varying degrees. Throughout the evolution of social media, its variety of platforms have continually changed in response to user behavior and expectations. Whether it’s YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, or Twitch, these social media channels offer influencers different ways to create, publish, and consume content, as well as engage an audience.
Thus, the influencer definition is subject to change with the ever-changing social media scene, and all variables must be taken into consideration when defining social media influencers.
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Today, asking for the definition of an influencer—or even influencer marketing—could result in a myriad of different answers. However, at their core, influencers are social media personalities with loyal audiences that they earned by sharing content that inspires, entertains, informs, and connects them with their followers. This direct line of communication empowers influencers to generate social conversations, drive engagement, and ultimately, set trends amongst a receptive and socially savvy audience.
Social media influencers are generally categorized by two main tiers—micro- and macro-influencers. While micro-influencers have followings between 10,000 to 50,000, macro-influencers boast audiences between 500,000 to 1 million. But these categories can be broken down even further to encompass the wide range of social media influencers:
Each influencer tier has their own advantages and disadvantages for businesses depending on the goals of a particular initiative or campaign. For example, macro- and mega-influencers are able to reach very wide audiences in a single post, while nano- and micro-influencers can sometimes help campaigns reach more niche audiences. Further, mid-tier influencers represent a middle ground option. For a comprehensive guide to influencer tiers, check out our Standard Terminology In Influencer Marketing (STIM).
Many influencers have a primary social media channel (where they generally have the most followers and launched their career), but often distribute their content on additional channels. An influencer doesn’t command equal influence across each platform. Some platforms are conducive to particular content formats, industries, and sponsorships over others. In general, influencers can be defined by social channel in the following ways:
Also known as “Instagrammers,” this group of influencers creates highly visual content, captioned by short-form written content. This channel is also becoming more popular and versatile for video content, with the launch of Instagram Stories and IGTV. Influencers in lifestyle, fitness, beauty, and travel tend to perform best on this channel as it lends itself well to visual inspiration and quick tips.
YouTubers, also known as “YouTube Creators,” focus exclusively on creating long-form video content. Functioning more like the entertainment industry, this platform works well for narrative storylines, pranks, how-to guides, unboxing videos, personal vlogging, and television-style content. Comedy, beauty, technology, auto, and lifestyle are just a few categories that resonate well with YouTube’s vast audience.
Bloggers created the first outlet for influencers to reach a mass audience online. Bloggers produce long-form written and visual content in a narrative format. Foodies, lifestyle experts, fashion gurus, and mommy bloggers are often found among the top blogs.
Facebook has traditionally been less popular with influencers, but it has armed its platform with creator resources to amplify both written, photographic, and video content. Influencers in the lifestyle, comedy, and gaming industries are just a few that perform well on this channel.
Twitch broadcasters primarily use it as a platform to livestream their gaming, but Twitch has expanded beyond gamers to include cooks and artists to name a few. This channel specializes in timely, highly engaging, livestreamed content.
Famous for its novel disappearing pictures and videos, Snapchat has bordered on disappearing itself. However, the channel is still widely popular among younger demographics within the music, art, comedy, and beauty categories.
Whether under a broad term such as “lifestyle blogger” or a specific industry such as “fitness Instagrammer,” most influencers fall into a set of industry buckets. Here are a few of the top categories:
Celebrity product endorsements, another form of influencer marketing, first appeared in the 18th century, where royalty was used to advertise the prestige of luxury goods. As celebrity endorsements evolved, popular figures in the arts, such as actors and musicians, as well as athletes and business people, were tapped by brands to promote a variety of products and services.
As valuable as celebrity endorsements have been to marketing, they aren’t without their limitations. Celebrities can offer massive reach, but can also sometimes appear less relatable than a social media influencer who built their following exclusively through online content. While traditional celebrities are primarily focused on building their professional career, social media influencers focus exclusively on building relationships, engagement, and trust with their fans through social media.
Blogs surfacing as early as the late-1990s were some of the first ways that everyday people communicated and interacted with each other online. So-called “mommy bloggers” emerged as go-to resources for mothers on the internet and as a result, and are some of the first recognized social media influencers.
More influencers appeared as social media grew to include social networks like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, where experts in areas such as cooking, fitness, makeup, how-to, gaming, and others, lent their powerful voices to the social sphere. Today, influencers have become so popular that some have even larger online followings than traditional celebrities. In many ways, influencers are becoming celebrities.
Brands recognizing the potential of influencer marketing have tapped online creators to help grow their social media presence, raise brand awareness, and sell a variety of products and services. This reckoning has helped grow the influencer marketing industry, which is projected to reach $5-10 billion by 2020.
As Millennials and Gen Z move away from traditional modes of entertainment, how they learn about and choose their products is changing as well. With 70% of teenage Millennials on YouTube preferring YouTube Creators over celebrities, and 85% of Gen Z learning about new products through social media, influencer marketing is offering relevant solutions to an evolving commercial world.
Though still in its infancy, influencer marketing has not only displayed its effectiveness over the last several years but also its adaptability to social, cultural, and business trends. In response, platforms like Instagram and YouTube are incorporating more influencer-friendly advertising options to service the booming industry.
While the dictionary definition of an influencer has remained fairly consistent over the years, social media has given influencers more opportunities for extending their appeal, reach, and impact. The potential to broadcast 24/7, 365 days a year and the ability to interact directly with their followers enables today’s online influencers to connect with audiences like never before.
As influencers have demonstrated the value of relating and connecting with their followers, celebrities in music, film, sports, and more, have taken to social media to share directly with their audiences as well. In this way, the line between what defines an influencer and what defines a celebrity is blurring.
Along with its social and commercial value, the influencer definition continues to evolve. Yet, finding the right influencer—whether nano, micro, macro, mega, or celebrity—remains paramount for brands looking to effectively execute influencer marketing.