Inside the world of ‘Influencers.’
“I believe, really, all cool things come from the hood,” says Coltrane Curtis, CEO at Team Epiphany. “So if you’re able to have that education, and see the trends before they happen, then you got an advantage.”
Curtis isn’t saying these words over the phone, or in a cafe somewhere while sitting across the table from me. Instead, his image moves back and forth within the frame of a YouTube video, where he stands on a stage at Miami Ad School speaking to a room filled with America’s advertising and marketing hopefuls, young men and women who have enrolled at an institution that boasts the tagline: The School of Pop Culture Engineering.
The skills being learned here, and that will later be put to use when pitching holistic media campaigns to the corporate heads of coveted Fortune 500 brands, are considered vital to survival in a market that’s continually being reshaped — and redefined — by the mechanisms of technology and, most importantly, social media.
Curtis is just one of the many players who populates the ever-growing world of “influencers,” a new breed of marketer that shuns the traditional strategy of selling directly to a target demographic and focuses instead on appealing to key individuals (i.e., celebrities, influential bloggers, social media wunderkinds, etc.) who hold sway over a large base of potential customers.
For example, instead of attempting to capture the attention of 18- to 34-year-old consumers solely through print or online advertising, a so-called influencer might turn to Tumblr and its cult of product obsessives — those who blog and reblog images from fashion label lookbooks or commercials masquerading as short films — to initiate consumer interest on a more casual level. An influencer might also put his or her client’s product in the hands of a cultural luminary — Kanye West, Jay-Z, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, etc. — with hopes of initiating a trickle-down effect. As in, Kanye wore those sneakers, I need a pair. Or, Lady Gaga carries that handbag, who’s the designer?
As Curtis explained to me, influencers help “engineer the consumer-facing persona of most celebrities.” It’s emulation, commodified. Or more aptly, idol worship leveraged for a profit. It reminds me of a well-rehearsed magic act that involves transforming the concept of cool into a bankable currency, time and again.
Cult of influence
Ask a dozen people what an influencer is, and what they do, and chances are you’ll receive just as many explanations. For example, in last year’s short film Influencers: How Trends and Creativity Become Contagious, filmmakers Davis Johnson and Paul Rojanathara laid out their definition, and also intimated which cultural icons (in their estimation) fit the bill: Andy Warhol, Jay-Z, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, Mark Zuckerberg, you get the point.
As examples, these big names represent innovators in music, art, technology, government, and sports. Most who adopt the title of influencer, however, hail from the creative community, specifically the marketing and advertising sector, and view the notion of influence in a very specific manner: How it translates to money. In many cases, it’s a self-proclaimed moniker, part of a growing and exhaustive lexicon of marketing speak delivered with swagger and a winking acknowledgment. And depending who you ask, response to the term can range from eye-rolling dismissal to full-fledged adoption.
For this article, I interviewed a key group of branding specialists, strategists, and media watchers — some who consider themselves influencers, others who have no interest in the title. When asked the question “What is an influencer?”, responses ranged from matter-of-fact to grandiose:
Raymond Leon Roker, co-founder of URB Magazine: “I would say an influencer goes well beyond an audience of a few. Everybody has friends that take their advice on things or emulate their choices at times. But an influencer reaches a deeper and more diverse audience. An influencer goes beyond the friend circle and into the general viewing audience, and is able to drive thought and action with people they have no direct association with.“
David Gensler, CEO of The KDU: “To some extent [influencer marketing] has always existed, marketers have always understood that the many follow the actions of a few. People aspire to climb to the rung above them, so they look to people who they perceive to already be in the desired position. They attempt to copy their style or mimic their behaviors. Recently, the idea has become ‘overgrown’ which is dangerous, since more emphasis is placed on who is consuming, rather than what is being consumed (referring to the quality of goods or services).”
Coltrane Curtis, CEO at Team Epiphany: “Influencers are the people behind the scenes that create brand energy, iconicism, and they help to design/engineer the consumer-facing persona of most celebrities. It means everything to me. It’s who I am. It’s who I wanted to be. It’s the title my peers have bestowed upon me.”
Bucky Turco, Editor-in-Chief at Animal New York: “I know the term has been in the mix for a while now, but in the past few years it appears to have taken hold. Before that, it was ‘tastemakers,’ but I guess that word ran its course. It’s certainly better than ‘brand sirens,’ but in the end, like all things marketing, there’s no new ideas, just new terms.”
Kevin Ma, Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Hypebeast: “Anyone can be an influencer, and this has become easier, especially with the rise of blogs and social media tools (such as Twitter and Facebook). In the past, influencers would be celebrities, musicians, artists, and politicians. But nowadays, it’s more accessible and easier to be an influencer as long as you have an audience and a platform to share your voice or information. The term is now overused and a bit abused. The main reason is because many large companies and corporate brands are utilizing influencers to market their brand. When this happens too often, the ‘pull’ of these ‘influencers’ are no longer genuine and takes away from the original meaning and authenticity of the term.”
Sky Gellatly, Director of Strategy at Team Epiphany: “ An influencer is really any individual or group with cultural gravitas. In order to be influential, in any walk of life, you’ve had to earn your stripes; in most cases, being particularly innovative, prolific—or both—has engendered respect for you amongst your endemic community. Your name, opinion, and tonality is respected. You are an expert in your immediate community.”
Philip McKenzie, Managing Partner at FREE DMC and Founder of Influencer Conference: “Broadly I define an ‘influencer’ as someone who follows their own path, is rooted in creativity, and is looking for new ways to change or redefine their world. Someone who is an ‘influencer’ not only has broad relationships but also has deep relationships. In short, they are building a community around shared beliefs, principles, and interest.”
Truth or hype?
As with any new movement of self-styled entrepreneurs, determining veracity can be a challenge. The world of influencers is no exception.
“The reality of the digital age has created a numbing of the truth,” says David Gensler, CEO of The KDU. “These ‘influencers’ targeting, let’s say, youth culture or street culture fashion, reach such a small percentage of the total youth population, it is impossible to put any weight in their actions. I have experienced some that truly believe their own hype, believing they are the voice of a generation, which is simply false.”
A veteran in the field of holistic media design, Gensler is not alone in his skepticism.
Raymond Leon Roker, co-founder of URB Magazine, believes a good filter is needed to cut out all the noise. “Tons of hype and just as much truth,” he says. “The trick for corporate America and society is discerning the two. Again, snake oil sales have always been part of the societal fabric, but now it can be found at snakeoil.com or on a Twitter feed. Ultimately, ask the influencer for evidence. If you’re an influencer, show me the trail. Show me the results of your platform and reach.”
Roker’s challenge makes sense, but what metrics can be used to gauge something as intangible as influence, especially when it encompasses so many seemingly immeasurable factors? According to Team Epiphany‘s Curtis, “influence is a science.” Through Tumblr “Likes” and reblogs, tweets and retweets via Twitter, and Facebook shares, consumer interest can be measured, he says.
“Despite false industry sentiments, influencer marketing activations are as measureable as traditional media buys and the like,” Curtis says. “It [just] depends which agency you engage.”
When asked for specifics on metrics, and how Tumblr and Facebook “Likes” translate to money, Curtis says this: “Tumblr is the preferred shorthand tool of communication for influencers. It’s difficult to present effective results if the ‘client’ is not proficient in the navigation of relevant social media platforms. Facebook is different, brand managers set benchmarks for success that the program must work towards.”
If influence is indeed a science, it may be somewhat of a junk science, at least where the study of pinpointed social media analysis is concerned. According to some experts, followers and “Likes” are not enough. And new measurement technologies, often touted as Holy Grail solutions, are continually being introduced. There is a general impression that decoding such insider knowledge requires insight only an influencer possesses, a feat no layman could pretend to understand.
Which is part of the fascination surrounding a title as precious as that of “influencer.” For many, it smacks of hype and pretentious self-inflation; the look-at-me spirit of a carnival barker claiming he or she knows exactly what you, the listless consumer, need. And as with any group that claims to be a cultural oracle for the masses, it paints a picture of egomania, which has a tendency to leave a bad taste.
“I think the term is bullshit,” says Bucky Turco, Editor-in-Chief at Animal New York. “Throughout the ages, there will always be a niche of people influencing others who will then in turn spread the word to the masses. The only thing that has changed is the medium and speed in which things can be disseminated using social media, so of course it was time to reinstate a new word.”
Using the speed and immediacy of social media has allowed influencers to flourish, for both client work and their own personal branding. But some experts, like Gensler from The KDU, believe that trend may be more fleeting than many realize.
“I am not downplaying the short-term value of [the] hype some ‘influencers’ can generate, this can be an incredibly useful tool at times,” he says. “I am simply attacking the notion that it has become a primary tool companies should use to build long-term brand value.”
The line between engagement and exploitation
When examining the work that influencers do, it’s difficult to ignore the potential to exploit cultural and social movements in order to sell a client’s product. Traditional marketers and advertising firms already excel at such practices. For example, see Levi’s latest ‘Go Forth’ ad, which was released during the recent violence in London and featured romanticized riot imagery as a prominent visual. The salient undercurrent of the advert: Levi’s jeans are the uniform of would-be revolutionaries, please buy some. Another classic example of culture co-opted for a profit would be Nike’s short-lived ‘Major Threat’ campaign from 2005. In this example, the iconic cover art from Minor Threat’s self-titled debut album was plagiarized and reappropriated to market Nike’s skateboard team.
In other words, each example represents the questionable practice of corporate interests cashing in on either the spirit of social unrest, or the success of a singular cultural moment (i.e., the release of a seminal album).
When I inquired about the potential for exploitation en route to profit as it pertains to the world of influencers, the responses I received were mixed. For Sky Gellatly, Director of Strategy at Team Epiphany, he believes it’s crucial to understand both the marketer’s perspective as well as that of a targeted demographic.
“If you have working knowledge of both sides of an equation, you will always have something to add,” Gellatly says. “In this way, knowledge really is king. The more that you know, the more that you can give—or get hired to share.”
And he added this caveat: “I’ve tried to give back to my cultural communities, I suppose, as much as I’ve marketed to them.” This point is echoed by Curtis, Gellatly’s business partner at Team Epiphany.
“We have a responsibility not only to our clients but also to our community,” Curtis says. “Our commitments to both are constant and steadfast. Team Epiphany is comprised of influencers, mavens, and brand-breakers whose gravitas in the space is undeniable.”
What’s unclear, however, is whether “gravitas” translates to objective thinking. For example, when an influencer is trying to reach a targeted demographic, where is the line drawn between mindful cultural tribute and excessive appropriation? And how often is finding a nuanced approach even a consideration?
“Some cultural and social movements want to be exploited, because that’s when the dollars come in,” says Roker. “So I don’t have a problem per se with pedaling influence to corporate sponsors, so long as it’s a win on the side of culture too. But I am suspect of somebody that claims to be able to influence all shapes and sizes of, say, hip-hop culture. Something like hip-hop is far too diverse to be spoken to by one voice. So beware the all-knowing influencer.”
Rise of a cottage industry
With the advent of services such as Klout, which rates an individual’s social media influence, and platforms such as Vogue’s Influencer Network, the concept of selling to consumers through social media — and using so-called influential voices to do so — continues to grow. Next month, for example, marks the second annual Influencer Conference, a “first of its kind global content platform that seeks to identify, understand, and support influencer culture globally.” Panelists and moderators, dubbed experts in the field, speak on topics such as “peer learning” and “product and curriculum development for Millennials and young professionals.” Last year, for example, one panel focused on the realness of one’s influence. And according to conference founder Philip McKenzie, the event is intended as an entry point for curious companies and brands.
“Working with clients via [our marketing agency] FREE DMC, we found that many wanted to access ‘influencers’ but didn’t know how, or were unwilling to take the risks to fully utilize and engage this audience,” McKenzie says. “ The goal is to discuss the current and future state of influencer culture, [and] it’s a unique opportunity for brands to immerse themselves.”
Essentially, the conference is a marketplace for influencers eager to expand their client rosters and personal brands. But the conference wouldn’t exist without some level of demand for the services influencers offer, which begs the question: What spurred the rise of such a cottage industry?
“There have always been influencers,” Roker says. “But I think the main drivers in recent years are a breakdown in trust between consumers and citizens and ‘traditional’ brand and media messaging.” Consumers are no longer content to accept anonymous recommendations or information straight from a corporation when they can easily find trusted sources elsewhere, he says.
“And that ease in finding alternative feeds is the second conditional change brought on by technology,” Roker adds. “The proliferation of blogs and opinion channels means that ‘expertise’ can be amplified. And that has created a cottage industry of influencers for hire, repurposing, or simply listening to.”
Last year Roker tested his skills on MSN’s “The Tastemaker,” an online reality series that pitted contestants and their event planning/social media skills against one another. “The most interesting thing I learned,” he says, “is that influencing people is as much about tactics, tools, and methods as it is about your personal brand.” Roker ended up winning the competition, plus $10,000 in cash.
But where is the value in all of this? According to Gensler, there is value in the idea of a brand or individual striving to be an influential force in their respective field. “I just think we as a culture allowed a perfect crime to be committed against us when we lost sight of reality,” he adds. “We are now caught in this digital simulation reality, where success is measured only by mass traffic and rate of consumption and never quality. We need to find a balance between traditional value systems and this new hybrid digital system, which seems to have a set of values that stand in direct conflict with anything traditional.”
In the world of influencers, where culture and ever-changing concepts of “cool” are continually shopped and sold, the consequences of such a practice are rarely considered. To say this long-running cash-for-culture arrangement is a catastrophe would be hyperbole: Nobody dies when McDonald’s uses hip-hop to sell hamburgers; or when Nike banks on graffiti to move sneakers. Plus, intelligent consumers can spot hucksterism from a healthy distance. But there is a certain sad drama associated with the prolonged cheapening of cultural movements, moments, and experiences, especially when profits are the only apparent and desired end.
Originally published by Forbes in September of 2011.