Are We in a Golden or Gilded Age of Influence?

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Years ago, in a time before “micro-influencers” traveled with photographers and mobile lighting kits to capture and document meticulously staged snaps, I worked on a social media campaign that taught me an important lesson – trust your audience. They wield considerable influence over smaller, trusted networks of people.

At the time, I was working on a challenge-based digital program.  As the participants in the social media program shared content, we observed an interesting phenomenon. Participants started to organize themselves around the brand. And perhaps more interestingly, without using paid media to promote the program, the participants created a groundswell of movement doing so.

We watched as contributors connected with each other, demonstrating what they believed embodied this brand.  And they took it offline, into brick and mortar communities, rallying people who didn’t even know about the online competition. Over time, we saw a lift that positively impacted the brand.

Since then, we’ve seemingly entered a world of golden influence. A place where the instagrammer next door is able to amass a tremendous following overnight and command large sums of money for candy-colored photos.

But is the golden age of influence growing gilded?  What makes someone an influencer?  How can you know if someone truly wields influence or is paying for followers and likes? How do you find the right influencer? And will partnering with an influencer benefit your brand?

What is an Influencer?

Influence is built on trust. And trust is a changing credence among us. Trust is changing at a faster pace than I’ve seen in my lifetime. Brand Marketer Charles Vallence recently wrote, “People no longer even vaguely trust upwards; they trust sideways.”  In many ways, that statement is one of the most telling regarding the evolution of influence in social media today.

An influencer is any person or organization that we look to offline or on, with a voice that we trust, that shapes our opinions.

We used to look up to established sources and known entities as influential; now we look left and right, to voices among us advocating for and sharing opinions on things that matter to us. Skepticism is the order of the day. There’s less trust in government, elected officials and their surrogates. Trust in news is being questioned in a way that Americans — and our free press — may be unaccustomed.

Want to know if someone wields influence?  Look at the conversations around that person online.  Are people rallying behind that person’s messaging? Are there conversations or comments confirming audiences have taken an action encouraged by an influencer? Is this person building a swell or hive of activity that’s documented in earned media (press, word of mouth)?

Finding the Right Influencer

To find the right partner, start by listening. Use a social listening tool like Netbase or TweetReach, or search keywords across social conversation places like Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram, and see who starts to percolate to the top from your search terms. Who are the most-followed people or the people generating most engagement on your topic?  In those keyword-organized conversations, who else are they talking about?   Who influences or dominates the conversation in a positive way?  What are they saying?  How are they representing the topic in conversation? How are their audiences or social network of followers engaging on the topic with them?

As you answer those questions and start see leaders emerge, dig in to those leaders’ social handles more closely and evaluate their overall presence and participation online.

Influencer Benefit

Two years ago, Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising Report (2015) shared that 83 percent of consumers take action because of trusted recommendations. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in their Brand Activation Marketing Forecast 2016 – 2020 reported that influencer marketing and content marketing are projected to be the fastest growing brand activation channels through 2020.

As consumers of content and social media users, we’re wiser today.  We know that celebrities are paid to sell us things in social media and elsewhere. We’ve discovered that “micro-influencers” among us  –  those people in social media with the wittiest remarks, the cleverest captions, the most lush imagery, the content creators we love  –  are now paid by brands they like to share posts and messages that are #sponsored. We’re accustomed to that; we accept it.

The New Star of Influence

As a result, there’s a new star in the growing galaxy of influence. We’re seeing a shift among micro-influencers – a rising prominence, not necessarily of a person, but advocates and organizations. These organizations have missions dedicated to specific subject matter and share a common denominator:  credibility.  As long as credibility remains untarnished, we’ll continue to see powerful spheres of influence emerge. This is good news for those among us grounded in fact and verified data  –  the scientists, the medical associations, the third-party advocacy groups.


As social media matures and audiences grow savvier to paid promotion, authenticity continues to be demanded. For influencers, it’s no longer about striking a balance between personal brand and advertising, but the integration of the personal brand and sponsors.  Influencers are expected to partner in meaningful ways with brands.

Those who don’t play by the rules of authenticity risk losing trust – and, in turn, audiences and dollars.

For brands looking to connect with audiences through an influencer as an ambassador or conduit, be prepared to loosen the reins of your brand as you do so.  When you’ve ascertained the trust and credibility of your potential social media influencer, tight control will not be necessary.  Association with the right influencer can provide a halo effect for a brand, delivering new relevance and affinity to new audiences. But the message has to be authentic to the medium, and the medium is the voice of that influencer.

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1 Comment
  1. Hi Annie,

    Thank you for mentioning TweetReach by Union Metrics as one way to narrow down the conversation around different topics to find influencers. We appreciate it!

    – Sarah A. Parker
    Social Media Manager | Union Metrics
    Fine Makers of the Union Metrics Social Suite & more

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