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Living in the age of the influencer
Guy Matthews
Guy Matthews
4 min read

Living in the age of the influencer

Online influencers have become powerful partners for marketers – but this trend is just getting started. How did we get here, and what comes next?
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Back in the early days of the web, being internet famous meant little more than going viral for a few days. Today, online celebrity is big business. Online influencers promise powerful partnerships for marketers. 

While paying A-list celebrities to endorse products is nothing new, the internet enabled a new generation of special-interest content creators to build their own followings online. As their global popularity became clear, brands noticed these creators and rewarded the more influential ones with gifts and money. 

The rise of online celebrity

Social media took this concept to the next level. YouTube and Twitter’s appearance in the mid-2000s offered new platforms for content creators to develop themselves as brands and to pump merchandise for reward. Instagram’s debut in 2010 was the next critical turning point, offering an optimal platform for a new wave of influencers. They shared carefully airbrushed versions of their lives, often mixed with mentions of their favorite lifestyle-related products.

Sponsored content (sponcon) followed as a potent tool for marketers. The commercialization of social media took a new direction in 2013 when Instagram introduced paid advertisements, designed to connect brands more explicitly to influencers while exerting greater control over the message. 

Before long, influencers could share what they enjoyed, or claimed to enjoy, and directly get paid per mention. TikTok expertly jumped the sponcon bandwagon in 2016, offering influencers the opportunity to align themselves to trends in dance, fashion, and food as well as use the platform to push sponcon in new and more compelling ways. 

If you're looking for brand ambassadors to embody a product's values to perfection, then a small brigade of niche nano-influencers can be more effective than an all-out, Kardashian-led assault.

Working with online influencers

Those wanting to build a brand on social media – by far the fastest means of doing so – must first understand the emerging science of influencer marketing.

There’s the matter of how influencers are segmented. Numbers vary, but reports have classified those with between 1,000 and 10,000 followers as nano-influencers. Micro-influencers reach up to 100,000 people, while ranging up to a million followers makes you a macro-influencer. The big beasts are the mega or celebrity influencers with audiences numbering over a million. 

Mega-influencers make all the headlines. When rapper Nicki Minaj sported a pair of bejewelled pink Crocs on Instagram, her 180 million followers boosted demand by 4,900% within hours. Mega influencers like Kylie Jenner, with over 300 million Instagram devotees, can bring in as much as $1 million for a single post. 

Successful influencer marketing can be more nuanced than simply chasing the biggest fish. If you’re looking for brand ambassadors to embody a product’s values to perfection, then a small brigade of niche nano-influencers can be more effective than an all-out, Kardashian-led assault. 

Some brands look to collaborate intimately only with nano-influencers that are highly relevant to their audiences. They tap into an engaged and highly niche audience to build awareness authentically using the influencer’s carefully-crafted bond of trust. 

As computer-generated imagery improves, we're already seeing the rise of virtual influencers that exist only in software.

What comes next

The future might see the marketing sector try to gain better outcomes from influencers through tighter control through performance-based deals. New influencer platforms will also emerge based on smarter algorithms and craftier AI. As computer-generated imagery improves, we’re already seeing the rise of virtual influencers that exist only in software. These are entirely brand controlled. The companies that create them define how they look and act, and what they say. They own all of the avatar’s content, can avoid any embarrassments with the influencer going off-script, and don’t have to hand over bundles of cash for every post.

Virtual influencers such as Magazine Luiza’s Lu do Magalu have millions of followers on Instagram. Mattel is also in on the act; its computer-generated Barbie has almost 11 million subscribers on YouTube. Some synthetic celebs, such as the hyper-realistic Lil Miquela, are independent startup properties. This computer-generated 19-year-old, created by LA-based Brud, has a big client list that includes Prada, Dior, and Calvin Klein. 

Another growth area for influencer marketing is social commerce. This trend, which closes the gap between social media and ecommerce, enables influencers to share their recommendations online and offer their followers the chance to buy instantly. Social commerce will enjoy a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 30.8% between now and 2030 to reach $6.2 trillion, according to Grandview Research. Brands will need to tap into this by investing in better and more frictionless social commerce engines. 

The quest for authenticity may also drive consumers in new directions. Who are you more likely to really trust – Taylor Swift or your close friends, family, and peer group? We’ll see marketers look for ways to reach out to nano- and micro-influencers. By connecting a brand to user-generated content, you can gain an army of ambassadors who owe a lot more to the unforced enthusiasm of the web’s early bloggers than to Miley Cyrus.

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