Why You’re Part of the Influencer Problem (and Might Not Even Know It)

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For quite a while now I’ve been spending more time on YouTube watching ‘regular people’ than I have been watching TV shows and movies. I’ve also stopped caring what ‘legacy celebrities’ (actors, musicians, sportspeople etc.) have to say about anything that doesn’t directly relate to their actual line of work. Of course, it’s okay for them to have opinions (just like everyone else) but when they start preaching about a field that’s clearly not their area of expertise, or endorsing products that are obviously driven by the opportunity to profit, I tune out, and I’m not unique in doing so.
I’m actually a typical consumer who is spoiled for choice when it comes to entertainers and thought leaders, and I tend to gravitate towards those who are authentic and genuine than those who are self-important and phony. Shocker, right? But even more importantly, I’ve realized that ‘typical’ celebrities who attain fame through traditional media and garner the kind of influence that entices the biggest endorsement deals from brands — aren’t necessarily the ones we should be idolizing most in the first place, nor are they necessarily the most influential.
The days of ‘celebrity’ status relying on media moguls and conglomerates to elevate people from ‘ordinary’ to ‘superstar’ are long gone. Many ‘ordinary’ folks in a variety of niches have now grown to command a larger following and more substantial influence on social media and a plethora of paywalled-content platforms than those glamourized through traditional media, like movie stars, sports stars, musicians, fashion icons and other formerly-coveted-mega-star-industries. Which begs the question: Why are those industries the ones most associated with celebrity? Is it because we perceive them to be so glamourous and exclusive that we all aspire for the same movie and TV-star lifestyle? Sure, there are some amazing actors, sportspeople, musicians and other famous people who are exceptionally good at what they do and are adored by their fans, and in general we admire and appreciate people who strive to achieve excellence in their chosen profession. But,

It seems we’ve been conditioned to idolize above all others those whose professions can make them famous by being broadcast to the masses through cinema, TV and other traditional media, than those whose professions are not.

Noya Lizor
As admirable as the work of an accomplished actor, musician or athlete may be — why is their work more worthy of mass appreciation and mind-boggling financial compensation than that of professionals who are literally in the business of saving or shaping lives, like top-notch surgeons, scientists, teachers or fire fighters? It’s probably because these types of professionals aren’t as famous as those who live in the public eye, so they’re not considered to be as influential by traditional standards (at least not outside of their own industries) and are therefore overlooked by brands and marketers for promotion via mainstream media, which is mainstream because it’s what we consume most and has the most extensive reach.

Or does it?
Things are changing.
Fame has become a perceived virtue to the extent that people now aspire to become famous without having achieved anything of significance to justify their fame (you can literally be famous just for being famous), because fame itself can be leveraged for profit. But if anyone can become famous for no real reason other than accumulating a large following (which may be largely artificial, or not particularly engaged) then fame actually loses its value because it’s not difficult to achieve. If everyone is famous, then no one is actually famous.

With global audiences tuning to the mobile screens in the palms of their hands almost as often (if not more often) than the ones in their living rooms, traditional media is being overtaken by digital channels. YouTube and other social media platforms are available for content consumers to not only watch other people who interest them, but to become content creators themselves.

We now live in a world where anyone can become a celebrity without first signing a contract with a film studio or talent agency, and it’s us — the willing audience — who grants them this celebrity status.

Noya Lizor
Consequently, marketers are finding it increasingly challenging to promote their products to content-fatigued, advertising-averse and discerning audiences using traditional promotional channels, which is why self-made Internet stars are attracting a growing chunk of today’s marketing and advertising budgets.

Although Influencer Marketing has been around for decades (legacy celebrity brand ambassadors have been plugging all manner of products for years) — the industry of self-made influencers is still relatively young. Made possible by easy access to the internet and social media, a camera in everyone’s pocket and a huge variety of affordable content creation software — it’s an advertising Wild West, with both influencers and marketers learning how to navigate the rough terrain as they go. Influencer Agencies have been somewhat helpful in creating order and regulation in the industry, and new tools have emerged that help marketers identify (and avoid hiring) fake influencers whose audiences consist of mostly fake followers — but these too are in their infancy and by no means foolproof.
How we contribute to the Influencer ‘problem’ (whether we realize it or not):
In a world where anyone can start publishing content, buy fake followers and fool reputable brands into shelling out big bucks to leverage their alleged influence — how do we, the audience, contribute to the deterioration of the true power of influence and what does it say about us when we’re complicit (even unintentionally) in bestowing that power on people who aren’t truly deserving of it?
How do we, the audience, contribute to the deterioration of the true power of influence
Having spent some time pondering this conundrum, I’m now super selective about whose videos I watch and subscribe to on YouTube, let alone tolerate and trust when they include paid promotions. I do this mainly because I don’t like the feeling of having been duped by a fake influencer, or misplacing admiration for someone who hasn’t really done anything (or enough) to earn their influence other than amass a large audience, which as the rise of legitimate, micro-influencers has shown — isn’t as valuable as it once was.
There are a few caveats though. There are plenty of content creators on YouTube with a massive following, who are teenagers, or who vlog about nothing in particular other than their daily lives, or who create videos about what many might consider trivial and even silly topics. But if that’s their shtick, and people seem to really dig it and watch those videos religiously, then who is anyone to say that those content creators shouldn’t leverage this engagement to monetize their channels and earn an enviable living?
If a 16-year-old high-school student who likes fashion and makeup has an engaged following of 10,000 or one million, why shouldn’t she accept a paid sponsorship opportunity from a beauty brand? Sure, she still has a lot to learn about life, she’s yet to form educated opinions about a wide range of issues, and isn’t professionally qualified to recommend much of anything, but none of those things are a barrier to building an audience and it’s highly possible that those of her followers who aren’t bots, are other teenagers who don’t require any other qualifications in said 16-year-old to deem her fabulous and worthy of their attention. For marketers who are trying to reach a captive audience of potential teenage customers, she’s a perfect promotional vehicle, and the same goes for content creators in every niche whose audience is valuable to a particular brand because it represents potential customers for their particular product.
The onus should be both on brands to recognize potential ambassadors whose audiences are truly engaged, and also on content creators to earn their audience’s trust and loyalty by providing truly great content, rather than grow their following by any means necessary simply to boost vanity metrics to attract paid promotion deals for products they aren’t really qualified to promote, to audiences who don’t really value their opinions.

And it’s on all of us, too.

If we’re watching a video or a post that’s clearly mediocre, starring someone who hasn’t really created anything that’s even remotely different from or superior to others in their space, we need to vote with our eyeballs and move on to content that’s been created by someone who demonstrably cares about offering something genuinely creative or valuable. If we don’t, we’ll see more and more content creators rewarded for mediocrity, and the perception of brands that are rewarding them will be tainted by this mediocrity too. And if that’s not bad enough, there will be a lot more mediocre content polluting the web, so it’ll be a lose-lose for everyone.

And this doesn’t apply only to those who create content for entertainment value, but even more so to content creators whose main offering is professional advice and inspiration.
Not all ‘experts’ are created equal.
As a marketer, I have an insatiable hunger for new and up-to-date knowledge from industry experts. But these days, even expertise can be faked. Many ‘gurus’ (often self-proclaimed, with no real evidence to qualify their expertise) reassure beginners in the Influencer space that they don’t need to be experts to create an online course or instructional resources. “Everyone has something unique to offer” and it’s okay to “fake it till you make it” so newbies needn’t worry about Impostor Syndrome. The theory is that as long as a beginner has some sort of knowledge that others covet and are willing to pay for, they are perfectly qualified to share that knowledge and monetize it. Indeed, anyone can spend their money however they like, and if they want to pay money to learn something from someone who has minimal experience, it’s totally their prerogative.

But while Impostor Syndrome is certainly a concern when experienced by people who actually are qualified and fail to recognize their own expertise (and there are ways to overcome it) — if a newbie experiences Impostor Syndrome, it shouldn’t be brushed off so easily, because it’s most likely warranted, in my humble opinion.

Not all Influencers are created equal, and not everyone is qualified to position themselves as experts. Expertise is achieved by gaining knowledge and experience, or in other words, being able to demonstrate a track record of success and ‘knowing what you’re talking about’.

Noya Lizor
The whole point of using influencers in marketing is to have them endorse and promote products to an audience that’s likely to be influenced into using them, but if everyone is considered to be an influencer then the power of influence is diminished for everyone, and fame and influence will eventually be degraded both as a social aspiration and a commercial commodity.

In order for influence to mean something and be regarded as a legitimate commodity that’s worth paying for, it should be a lot harder for people to achieve it.

Noya Lizor
If we allow ourselves to be influenced by people who don’t have enough life-experience to have practiced what they preach, or to endorse a product without having sufficient experience with other products in the same niche so that they might form an educated opinion before recommending it to others — it’s akin to the blind leading the blind: We are choosing to blindly validate those people’s influence and indicate to brands that this influence is worth paying for based on false merits, or even no merits at all.

While it’s true that ‘everyone’s got to start somewhere’ and there are always going to be instructor-type content creators with expertise ranging from minimal to significant at any given moment, influence should be subjected to scrutiny in order to determine its rightful value. Newbie influencers certainly have the right to earn a living just as much as veteran experts do, but it seems only fair that their earning potential is based on their level of expertise and the quality of their content.
That being said, the Influencer conundrum is further complicated because personality and the art of engaging an audience also go a long way towards determining the value of an Influencer. A college professor with his own YouTube channel who really knows his stuff may demonstrate far greater expertise than a 20-something year-old who has only been in the field for a relatively short time, but while the college professor lacks charisma and produces videos that will put most people to sleep (this is a hypothetical of course, I’m sure there are loads of enthralling college professors out there who are totally rocking it) — the less-experienced YouTuber is brimming with passion and energy and is able to ‘teach’ their audience in a way that the more knowledgeable expert can’t. In such a case, if brands are more concerned with the ability to convert an audience, they’ll choose to spend their money on the more effective influencer regardless of their expertise (or lack of it).
So given this conundrum, how can we raise the bar for influence in professional niches and reduce the risk of falling for impostors attempting to teach you how to do something they’ve only ever learned about through an article or online course rather than actual real-life experience?

Here are a few ideas:
1. Consider the influencer’s age or stage of life. While it’s wrong to generalize and claim that all young people giving professional advice aren’t capable of doing it well (because there are always exceptions), a teenager or fresh college graduate giving business advice probably isn’t as qualified as a seasoned professional who has actually been in business for a while, so bear this in mind before you heed that advice to make your own business decisions.
2. Consider the influencer’s background and track record. Even more important than the age factor (since there are exceptions to the rule, as there are with anything) — is a content creator’s background and track record. Does their background qualify them to give advice in a particular niche? Can they point to examples of personal success using their own professional advice? When they promote a product, how familiar are they with it? Have they actually used it or does it look like they’re reading from a prepared script when they promote it? These are all good indicators to help you determine whether the influencer really is qualified to influence.
3. If you aspire to become an influencer in a professional niche yourself — know your place, be transparent with your audience and choose your sponsorship opportunities wisely. Authenticity and honesty lead to trust and loyalty, so even if you’re only 10 steps ahead (professionally) of someone who’s at step zero, people may still prefer to take your advice over someone who’s at step 200, just because your personality and style resonates with them and they like and trust you. Moreover, if you’re as honest about your ‘greenness’ in a particular area as you are about whatever you’ve legitimately mastered and can teach with confidence — people will trust you even more.
IN CONCLUSION:
Whether we know it or not, we are all part of influence culture because we are all subject to an attention-economy: Wherever we direct our attention, and whoever’s content we choose to watch, read and follow — that’s where celebrities and influencers are being made. Our attention is the most precious commodity to marketers, which is why content creators need to be delivering exceptionally interesting or entertaining content to be worthy of our time and loyalty if they’re going to benefit from it. So, it would serve us all well, to be discerning with what we watch and read as well as who we follow and subscribe to, so that only those who truly deserve it are justly rewarded. The alternative is that if we continue to perpetuate an attention-culture where the undeserving can prosper just as successfully as the truly worthy, in the end, both Influencers and influence will hold no value at all, even when warranted.
Feature image by Kues via Shutterstock.
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Noya Lizor - I'm all about creating standout content that helps businesses grow

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