Influencers are here to stay

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Ádám Guld (Department of Communication and Media Studies, Institute of Social and Media Studies, University of Pécs) was a guest lecturer at Professor Bálint Nagy’s MSc marketing module

Why is this new form of marketing that we call influencer marketing needed at all? Is it really new? 

It may sound like a commonplace, but still, we live in an accelerated world. Customers’ demands and expectations can change a lot even within a short period of time. In communication and marketing, it is important to follow these processes and respond to them in effective ways. I see the position of influencer marketing in this context. Celebrities have been used to propagate brands since the beginning of the 20th century but social media has changed the game fundamentally. Today, anybody can be famous, and an interactive connection can be set up between a star and his/her fan; thus the social, cultural and economic distance that the customer perceives between a celebrity and an average person has become shorter. Mostly, these are ordinary people who can actually reach success in online sites. There are lots of new phenomena in this field.

Are there predecessors, antecedents of influencer marketing?
Some experts trace its roots far back in history. If we consider the influencer somebody who has a great impact on our way of thinking, opinions and decisions, then Aristotle, Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette, Lincoln, etc. can be considered influencers. Obviously, marketing and communication professionals do not mean them when they speak of influencers. The stimulation of consumption with the help of celebrities, in a conscious and organized way, appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, parallel with the emergence of the American film industry. Television also contributed to and carried further the development of this type of marketing with celebrities. Today, social media has brought a new era of the production of fame and celebrity industry, which might call the era of “ordinary celebrity”.

Who can be an influencer? Are there different types of influencers?
At the moment, there is no consensus even among professionals about who counts as an influencer. Sometimes the term influencer is used in a strict and narrow sense describing only those online celebrities who can become famous without any real performance or professional knowledge. In this sense, influencers are content creators who are in close connection with brands and marketing; they are actors of a new segment of the entertainment industry. They differ from opinion leaders who, in most cases, are independent of the market; they have real achievements as well as expertise and professional knowledge. From another perspective, online celebs represent only one, but probably the most spectacular, segment of influencers. Besides, there are quite a few online content producers whose ideas, comments, and advice can have a great impact on their followers. The latter are journalists, activists or famous businessmen, among others.

Is it true for influencers as well that “like rejoices in like”?
I think one of the most important attractions of influencer communication is that in most cases these celebs are exactly like their followers, their biggest attraction lies in their everydayness. Generally, they do not have any outstanding capacity in a traditional sense. If they are talented in something then is that they can talk about ordinary things (like make-up, cooking, playing video games) in an ordinary way, thus they can play the role of an online friend, a virtual buddy. Earlier, young people were looking for these functions in their own social environment, and they found them in the boy/girl next door or their classmates. Today, these functions have often moved to the online space.

Who decides who can be an influencer?
Basically, the users of social media do. Although the process can be manipulated to a certain degree (by content control, buying followers, fake followers etc.), this is not decisive on the whole. In this sense, it is a democratic phenomenon. Anybody can be famous who produces content that meets demand. It is the number of followers that decides everything and this cannot be concealed in the online world.

via AATraackr

In what ways is this different from connecting a celebrity’s face to a product?
Earlier, a brand and a well-known person, an Olympic champion, a sportsman, a film star, an outstanding singer, etc. who had real and highly praised achievements, were connected. It was assumed that the appeal, the attraction of the star would be transferred to the product. This way, the product itself became desirable, exceptional because a celebrity was advertising it. In other words, the aim was to sell an exceptional product with the help of an exceptional person. Meanwhile, the chosen celebrity also transmitted marketing messages drafted by professionals through special channels (television, radio, billboards, etc.) to customers who did not have an option to respond. Today, influencer marketing is going on in an interactive space where tons of online celebs are discussing different products in an everyday, simple way that everybody can understand. It is a huge difference that in this environment it is not only the positive features of a product (“this is a face cream that wonderfully hydrates my skin”) that are discussed but the negative features are also emphasized (“this face cream is not well-absorbing, it makes my face glossy”). This makes the communication and the product more real, more honest, more authentic, as well as simpler and more ordinary. There are no longer miracles.

Could you give a few examples of good practice in influencer marketing?
I think one of the strongest features of this segment, which I highly appreciate, is that it can make those people well-known who earlier were almost invisible for the traditional mainstream media. One of the most successful American beauty vloggers is Jeffree Star. He seems to be an extreme, flamboyant person for the first sight; he is absolutely open about his sexual otherness. He has built up a multi-million dollar business, a whole empire in the social media, mostly on YouTube, practically from scratch, and his success was based purely on his personality. Today he is a huge opinion leader in the fields of make-up and cosmetics, while he is also a well-known gay-rights activist and a philanthropist. Another good example in Hungary can be Imi Kiss, the influencer of GameDay Office. He successfully takes advantage of his popularity in campaigns that serve social goals and public interest, like acting against online harassment and cyberbullying. Both of these examples underline the fact that it is a mistake to assume that influencers cannot support important issues and causes.

How can we measure the success and efficiency of influencers?
The primary function of influencer marketing is to raise awareness, and not to inspire consumption in the first place. This naturally means that its efficiency is still hard to measure. Of course, we can use traditional methods, like counting the number of visitors, likes, interactions, click-throughs to other sites, however, there are not too many and truly reliable indicators.

How do you see the future of influencer marketing?
I think right now we are at the peak of the hype surrounding influencer communication. Actors of the market have begun to realize its actual potentials, advantages and disadvantages. Consolidation of the segment will happen in the near future. I think companies will realize when and for what purpose this option is worth applying and when it is worth thinking in other options. What is for sure, however, is that during the last decade the world of media and culture was changed by social media in a way that has launched fundamental processes considering fame, celebrity, the relationship between stars and fans. There is no way back, influencers are here to stay in the forthcoming decades.

MSc in Marketing Management