More and more, marketers are buying into the idea that the best way to communicate to young audiences is to communicate through young audiences.
They’re convinced that there is nothing more authentic and effective than your products being 'sold' from a friend to another, from a peer to another, or from an influencer to their followers. But with social media and social damage becoming increasingly intertwined, marketers should rethink their idea of what influence is and how it works.
15 minutes of fame
Inspired by the opportunity of becoming famous — fast — millions of young people have turned their passion for yoga, froyo, fitness, and fancy outfits into a profession, hoping to be noticed and chosen as spokespeople of everything from yoga brands to yogurt brands, and from fitness brands to fashion brands.
And why not? Even Andy Warhol had predicted that, "In the future, everyone will be world- famous for 15 minutes."
The truth is that there is a big difference between being truly influential and being an "influencer" (air-quoted, small-capped).
Being influential comes with having a unique point of view. It's about cultivating a unique talent in a defined space, having a powerful perspective on culture or a relevant message to share across society.
It's about being an originator of something that can change, or has changed, the way we experience the world around us.
It's what Ian Schrager accomplished long ago with dance clubs and hotels. What Steve Jobs did with technology. What Danny Mayer does with food. What Julie Rice, Elizabeth Cutler, and Ruth Zukerman have done to fitness. What Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan have done to workplaces. Or what Alessandro De Michele is doing to fashion and what Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger have done to imagery through Instagram.
All these people have had an incredible influence on how we live think, learn, live, work and play. They are all influential because they’ve had or have something meaningful to say. Today, being an influencer often simply means you have something to sell, and many people to sell it to.
Neither substance, nor style
Let's be honest. Most of today's influencers are clueless, and don't even pay attention to what is it that they are really promoting. (Fyre, anyone?)
Most of the times they are unoriginal and uninspiring. They often look like one another, talk like one another, and pose like one another. They become role models because a big part of the Internet is built and operates on celebrating and promoting conformity.
Brands and marketers engage influencers with equal superficiality, driven by the thought that engaging more of an influencer’s followers means building more of their own following. But that can backlash quite quickly, proving to be a damaging and short-minded strategy.
Take Olivia Jade Giannulli, professional 'influencer,' daughter of actress Lori Loughlin, who is caught up in the recent college-cheating scandal.
Should Amazon Prime Student really partner with someone who shared the following thought with millions of people: “I don’t know how much of school I’m going to attend, but I do want the experience of game days, partying. I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.”
No wonder we all find out a few months later that she is accused of gaining access to college through bribery.
Marketers should associate with 'influencers' not just to leverage their face, voice, and followers, but also because they have and share unique ideas, perspectives, and talent. And because these align with their brand's unique mission, vision, and values.
A sign that things might be shifting came from the recent announcement by Instagram’s head of product, who suggested that the company is evaluating whether to test hiding the number of likes and views that photos and videos receive to reduce pressure, and make the experience more focused on quality content than on the quantity of likes.
That's one more proof point that what we need, and should associate with, are more influential people, and less influencers.
Auro Trini Castelli is chief strategy officer for Elephant Global