UPDATE April 18, 2019—Celebrity influencers have been around nearly as long as there have been celebrities. The first instances of celebrity product endorsement occurred in centuries past when royalty advertised the prestige of luxury goods. A new breed of celebrity influencers evolved in the 20th Century with people leisurely following the activities of famous actors, musicians, and professional athletes. In many ways, celebrities initiated trends.
As people have moved away from traditional media and spent more time on social media, trendsetters have molded into more relatable “influencers.” It is no longer just celebrities who influence society’s tastes; social media stars play an increasingly larger role. These modern influencers are social media personalities with loyal audiences built through regular, direct communication with their followers.
Brands have been quick to notice the power of social media influencers on their target markets. A recent study by WhoSay indicates that 70% of US agency and brand marketers said they “agree” or “strongly agree” that influencer marketing budgets would increase in 2018. Spending on influencer marketing has risen rapidly over the last few years, and we predict influencer marketing to be a $5-10 billion market by 2020.
At the heart of influencer marketing are the influencers who are, well, influential. They are not mere marketing mouthpieces. Influencers are thought leaders who generate conversations, drive engagement, and set trends amongst a receptive audience, positioning them well to partner with brands on sponsored content. Influencers can break through the noise of traditional advertising and spread a brand’s message to the intended audience in an authentic, natural way.
Because influencers come across as more genuine, they can deliver brand messages in ways that advertisers can’t. The rise in the use of ad blockers has blunted the effectiveness of online advertising. Yet, ad blocking does not harm influencers as their messages make it through the cordon, and people follow them.
There is a paradigm shift occurring in how different generations spend their leisure time. Baby Boomers and Generation X have always loved their television. For years, businesses saw TV advertising as the pinnacle of marketing–the most expensive way to advertise, but generating the best results.
However, today’s teenagers are less interested in the big box in the corner of the living room. With 98% of Gen Z owning a smartphone, access to online content is literally at their fingertips. Factor in the amount of screen time nearly half of teens spend on devices daily—10 hours—and it becomes apparent why traditional TV is less relevant and practical for reaching the demographic.
As opposed to learning about new products through traditional advertising, 85% of Gen Z relies on social media. Part of this is due to the fact that a majority of Gen Z is more receptive to “real people” in ads, not just paid actors or celebrities.
Generation Z has an entirely new outlook on who they view as a celebrity. Teens like and recognize online influencers more than they do traditional celebrities. In addition, YouTube is the venue of choice for today’s teens.
ComScore and YouTube surveyed 2,940 YouTube fans about their video engagement, and when asked for their favorite video provider, 35% stated YouTube, compared to 19% who opted for traditional TV. The Millennials in the survey preferred to watch videos uploaded by people, rather than those uploaded directly by brands, companies, or institutions.
What is it about social media influencers that makes them so influential? Influencers are able to relate to their following on a more personal level, and their audience embraces this over impersonal and overtly promotional advertising.
Audiences like influencers who are authentic and who nurture a relationship with their community of followers, thus generating positive engagement. Successful influencers often boast engagement rates upwards of 2.5-5% (based on our analyses through various case studies). And brands that aim to resonate with audiences more genuinely recognize the power of social media influencers; therefore, they invest in them.
One of the reasons influencers have such outstanding rapport with their followers is because they establish expertise in niches that appeal to a hyper-targeted audience. Influencers drive the language of the niche–the jargon used regularly, the hashtags favored, the critical conversations, and the overall trends.
Followers recognize influencers’ expertise within the niche and follow their social media updates with avid interest. In turn, influencers aim to cater to the fervid interests of their followers and tailor their posts accordingly, while sticking to that which represents their own values and personality.
In addition, social media influencers act as early adopters of products that set trends within the broader consumer population. They use their social media platforms to help amplify the message. Kamiu Lee in Adweek sees a clear distinction between the aims of influencer marketing and traditional advertising: “While traditional advertising aims to attract the trendsetters, who will then attract the early majority, influencer marketing goes straight to the source, helping the innovators and early adopters tell their story directly to the masses, with the help of social media.”
The loyalty an influencer builds with his or her audience often translates into increased product sales. Below are a couple of examples of influencer trendsetting in action:
Some influencers establish sufficient influence on product lines that businesses give them the opportunity to launch their own range of products. Fashion and lifestyle blogger Emily Schuman managed this with her Cupcakes and Cashmere blog. She collaborated with BB Dakota to launch the Cupcakes and Cashmere fashion collection. BB Dakota offered her complete control over everything from patterns to pricing.
Becky Li, a top Chinese fashion influencer, explains the fervent support influencers often have from their followers. “Since our followers are our consumers, influencer brands don’t need to budget resources for marketing, allowing us to spend more time, energy and money on optimizing products. I remember this one time, before any items were for sale, we put out a post telling readers that the storefront was up, and even though we weren’t selling anything yet, it received 300,000 visits that day alone.”
Influencers enjoy a strong personal brand, regardless of whether they sell anything. They spend as much time building a brand image as many more traditional corporate brands. Any work they do to promote other brands must be congruent with their personal brand.
Businesses have to understand–an influencer’s followers care about the influencer, not about the external brand. Influencers do not accept being a brand’s puppet. To remain successful, they need to act independently and stay authentic in all their messaging. Influencers and brands who rush into partnerships without careful research risk alienating the audience and being lambasted for inauthentic or fake content.
Because many social media influencers have spent years developing trust with their followers, their endorsements can go a long way toward quickly establishing new brands. Influencers can leverage their circle of followers and fellow influencer friends to gain exposure to large audiences who are rooting for their success.
Influencers are in a position to trial a wide range of products because they are sent so much merchandise from PR reps and much of their content revolves around consumer products. Influencers are also in the position to synthesize opinions and personal anecdotes from a sea of followers. The aggregate data points from so many products and people give influencers a preternatural ability to have their finger directly on the pulse of trends. The immersive nature of the influencer lifestyles brings about a knack for identifying future desires of the market.
Today’s most popular social media influencers have instant credibility to launch a brand and grow it at breakneck speed. A few notable examples of influencers who have launched brands with mainstream success include:
Los Angeles based influencers Marianna Hewitt and Lauren Gores Ireland were both established influencers in the beauty and lifestyle spaces, with large followings across their blogs and social channels.
In early 2018, the pair launched the skincare brand Summer Fridays. Their first product, the Jet Lag Mask, has remained on Sephora’s bestseller list since being released and their subsequent new pastel-colored masks are seemingly everywhere on Instagram.
Danielle Bernstein, of the uber-popular fashion blog WeWoreWhat, is an example of an influencer who launched a niche brand, drawing on her command of street style and fashion design. Bernstein saw a gap in the market for fashionable, casual women’s overalls and created Second Skin Overalls (SSO by Danielle) with her fashion-forward audience in mind.
On the SSO by Danielle website, Danielle shares that she’s an avid overall collector and wants to provide a quality line of overalls suited to her trendsetting followers. In addition to her swimwear collaboration with Onion and denim capsule collection with Joe’s Jeans, Bernstein has established herself as a legit tastemaker in the fashion world.
Popular beauty blogger and YouTuber Huda Kattan leveraged her following by launching a cosmetics line in 2013. Within the past five years, Huda Beauty has grown to become a wildly popular international brand.
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Her brand is known for high-quality false eyelashes, eyeshadow palettes, and accessible glam makeup aesthetic. The Huda Beauty Instagram profile boasts over 35 million followers and Huda has the reputation as one of the most powerful beauty influencers alive today.
Beauty influencer Michelle Phan leveraged her many millions of YouTube followers and billions of video views into creating Ipsy, a beauty subscription box startup in 2011. Ipsy reached over one million subscribers in 2012 thanks, in no small part, to the promotion of top beauty vlogger Michelle Phan.
Though Ipsy is Phan’s brand, the company’s success (which includes raising over $100 million in venture capital) precisely illustrates how influencers can create a brand that successfully taps into the interests of their niche audience. Phan also launched the makeup line Em Cosmetics under beauty powerhouse L’Oreal in 2013.
As influencers become more mainstream, the lines between traditional media and newer forms of media are increasingly blurred. Social media influencers who are exceptionally popular may find crossover opportunities in the form of editorial coverage or guest columns in newspapers, magazine features, television news appearances, and television shows. Influencer fame is not limited to social media—these examples show that online success can be leveraged into book deals, fashion capsule collections, or other creative co-branded collaborations.
Lilly Singh, also known by her pseudonym ||Superman||, is known for her comedy videos, inspirational vlogs, and skits on YouTube. Lilly has captivated audiences who relate to her emotionally open videos, where she shares the struggles of being bisexual women of color, dealing with issues faced by the LGBTQ community, and coping with mental health. She is the New York Times’ bestselling author of the memoir How to be a Bawse and the creator of the feature film A Trip to Unicorn Island. Forbes listed her in the top 10 of the world’s highest-paid YouTubers, with a reported income of over $10.5 million in 2017. Lilly announced that she will be starring as the host of A Little Late with Lilly Singh, a late-night talk show on NBC, which will replace “Last Call with Carson Daily”; she’ll also be an executive producer of the series.
Molly Yeh rose to fame after moving from Brooklyn to a rural farm in North Dakota and establishing her food blog My Name Is Yeh in 2009. Yeh became an instant success by showcasing deeply personal recipes that reflected her Chinese and Jewish heritage.
She’s known for her beautiful natural light-filled photography and love of rainbow sprinkles. A social media darling, Yeh’s success as a food influencer translated into becoming a bestselling cookbook author with Molly on the Range and the host of Food Network’s Girl Meets Farm television show. Her huge following on Instagram has cross-pollinated with Food Network’s social media presence, allowing both influencer and established cable network to join forces to generate publicity for Molly, Girl Meets Farm, and the Food Network brand.
Tavi Gevinson rose to fame when, at 12-years-old, she launched her fashion blog Style Rookie way back in 2008. After a few years of being a fixture within New York’s fashion scene and notable fashion wunderkind, Gevinson pivoted from being a blogger into traditional media. Gevinson created Rookie in 2011, an online magazine written by and for teenage girls.
She appears periodically as a guest author and contributing editor in indie publications like Garage. The best of Rookie magazine’s archives have been anthologized as one-off prints, published by Penguin Random House. Tavi is a regular speaker within the East Coast cultural scene and has appeared at events hosted by Ted Talks, The Economist, HBO, and the Wing.
While some influencers leverage their social media stardom to launch their own ventures, some successful celebrities look to grow their social media presence to become more influential. The following examples showcase well-known celebrities who’ve transmitted the limelight from the big screen to their individual social media endeavors.
Beloved Saturday Night Live alum and late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon has been a mainstay on television for the past 20 years. He recently partnered with the fast-growing social media channel TikTok, issuing social media “challenges” and promoting the platform on The Tonight Show. His #TumbleweedChallenge generated over 8,000 video submissions, 10.4 million engagements, and a spike in TikTok mobile app downloads. This demonstrates how the reach of a network television combined with new media can fuel the growth of an up-and-coming app like TikTok.
Jessica Alba, who rose to fame as a high profile television and film actress, has stayed in the public eye due to the success of The Honest Company, a natural consumer goods brand she founded in 2012.
She has become increasingly involved in charity and political activism in recent years. Jessica has over 15 million followers on Instagram and much like an influencer, she has become a pro at leveraging her social media following to promote all of her various endeavors.
From magazine features to movies to promoting The Honest Company’s brands to sponsorships for prominent brands, Jessica is a hybrid between an A-List celebrity and mega-influencer.
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Many other recognizable movie stars and television actors regularly post sponsored content, including Hilary Duff, Selma Blair, Kate Hudson, Tia & Tamera Mowry, and John Stamos. This shift creates further overlap between the domains of celebrities and influencers.
Celebrity social media promotion has become a major part of the promotional strategies for big budget films. We predict that mainstream celebrities will be increasingly expected to promote films and TV shows via their personal social media channels. Likewise, a strong social media presence will be a selling point, especially for lesser-known performers.
To share a recent example, Will Smith is starring as the Genie in Disney’s live-action movie Aladdin. As part of the promotion efforts for this film (and others), Will Smith releases exclusive content on his personal YouTube channel. It’s telling that bonafide movie stars are leveraging social media to amplify their reach even further.
Celebrities Vs. Influencers
As more companies and brands choose digital influencers to be the face of their brands, marketers are seeing a shift in who consumers look to for the latest trends, products, and lifestyle aspirations. In 2019, approximately two-thirds of marketers are increasing their influencer marketing budgets, demonstrating the importance of brands having an influencer marketing strategy in place.
Now, entertainment celebrities who used to influence purchasing decisions with name recognition alone are taking a backseat to top social media influencers.
1. Brand Influencers Drive Purchases
Marketing with brand influencers is one of the most effective methods for driving sales. Compared to traditional celebrities, videos created by the top 25 YouTube influencers generated 3x as many views, 2x as many actions, and 12x as many comments. But beyond pure engagement, 60% of YouTube subscribers claim they’d follow advice on what to buy from their favorite YouTube creator over their favorite TV star.
Considering 84% of Millennials are likely to be influenced by user-generated content from strangers to make a purchase, the results of influencer-generated content boost purchase intent even more. Overall, influencers are more effective at influencing their followers’ buying decisions since their audience trusts them over less relatable and personable sources.
2. Social Influencers Appeal To Millennials
Because most Millennials grew up in a digital age, these young consumers are more receptive to and trusting of recommendations from social influencers. In fact, 40% of Millennials say their favorite online influencer understands them better than their real-life friends. Additionally, 33% of Millennials say they’d likely purchase a product viewed in a YouTube how-to video.
With 90% of Millennials on social media, it’s no wonder social media stars have more influence than traditional marketing strategies employing celebrities. The power of social media influencers lies within their keen sense of community and relatability rather than plain old advertising.
3. Brands Prefer To Work With Influencers Over Celebrities
Due to influencers’ authenticity when it comes to brand endorsements, brands prefer this natural fit over transactional ads from celebrities. Approximately 61% of survey respondents worked with digital influencers within the last year compared to 57% who said the same of musicians, and half who worked with TV stars and models. In addition, the largest majority (44%) believe influencers will be the best option for upcoming endorsement opportunities.
Other studies point to the same trend—a survey of over 500 marketing industry professionals found that 80% of marketing execs currently work with brand influencers in some capacity, and of the marketers polled, the majority claimed they prefer working with social media stars over collaborating with musicians, sports stars, actors, and models.
Social media influencers have incredible power to affect consumer decision-making, fueling business development by setting trends that determine what products or services the masses buy into. Traditional advertising still has a place in overall marketing strategy, particularly for businesses targeting an older clientele. However, the digital marketing landscape is shifting in favor of authenticity, which is something that influencers have to offer.
Are you ready to harness the power of social media influencers? Start with this 10-step guide to craft an impactful influencer marketing strategy.