Social media influencers – are they worth listening to?

Unless you’ve taken up residence in outer space, you’ll have heard the term ‘social media influencer’ being bandied around fairly regularly, yet it’s often poorly understood. Could you define precisely what a social media influencer is?

An influencer is a user of social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram who has established credibility in a particular industry, with access to a broad audience over whom they hold some sway. Essentially, their reach allows them to persuade others to act, and they have an impact on their audience’s purchasing decisions.

Influencers are considered especially important when marketing to young people, who may be less likely to trust an advert alone.

In some ways, these individuals are the modern versions of glamorous film stars of the past whose tastes everyone wanted to copy. For example, many wanted to wear the same dress as Marilyn Monroe or drink the same beer as Elvis Presley.

Modern-day influencers

Each industry has its own key influencers. For design and interiors, people turn to decluttering queen Marie Kondo (followed by 3.4 million via Instagram), for fashion and cosmetics Alexa Chung or Kylie Jenner (156 million Instagram followers). When it comes to music, Rita Ora (followed by 6.8 million on Twitter), Beyoncé (137 million Insta fans) or Selena Gomez hold considerable sway; foodies follow Jamie Oliver (nearly 7.5 million Instagram fans) and Nigella (1.7m Instagram devotees).

Not actually existing is, it seems, no bar to holding social media power. One influencer is teenage Brazilian-American model and musical artist Lil Miqela. She has no fewer than 1.8m Insta followers – and she is entirely computer-generated.

Influencers develop communities around the products, issues or trends that interest them, creating an ideal environment for marketers. Equally, the best ones understand their audience well and keep publishing fresh, relevant content.

The Fyre Festival, the luxury music event in the Bahamas that never was and whose organiser was imprisoned for fraud, may have been an unmitigated disaster, but it demonstrated clearly the important role that influencers can play in whipping up excitement, after models Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner promoted it on social media.

Today, brands face increasing scrutiny from regulators, who insist that influencers must clearly identify sponsored ads as such, or risk falling foul of consumer law. Last autumn, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned three influencers’ Instagram posts promoting diet products, calling them ‘irresponsible’.

How many followers do you need to be an influencer?

Nano influencers can have as few as 1,000 people following their social media accounts. They are not celebrities or idolised but are approachable, ordinary, and popular among their friends and family. If they recommend a shampoo, the advice is trusted and seen as genuine. They’ll often work in return for a small commission or free products.

Micro influencers have up to 100,000 followers, macro influencers up to a million. And while the latter group has, obviously, far greater reach, micro influencers often generate greater engagement and are more affordable.

How much can they earn?

A new report shows that the amount of money influencers can make has soared in recent years, with YouTube videos commanding the highest fees. With social media marketing budgets set to double over the next five years, brands are evidently happy to continue sponsoring content, and spending on ‘influencer marketing’ is likely to continue well into 2020. Make no mistake, influencing has become a full-blown, multi-billion dollar industry.

So – worth it or not?

Used alongside other marketing and advertising methods, influencers can definitely give the brands they work with a hugely powerful boost. The idea of communicating and sharing online is not going anywhere any time soon.

It’s true, however, that your influencer has to be the right fit for your brand, and that your relationship with them will require constant work and attention. Using influencers is thus not without risk – but you ignore them at your peril. If you’re not working with them, your competitors almost certainly are.