Tapping Into Social's Sphere of Influence

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With the rise of social media platforms like Instagram, a new category of celebrity has emerged: the digital influencer. While their names might not be as recognizable as Kim Kardashian’s or Justin Bieber’s, these influencers have built strong followings based on their expertise in particular areas.

Because of their reach, digital influencers have been employed by companies for various promotional purposes. An example is a promotion that Fiji Water ran last summer tapping fashion blogger Danielle Bernstein—whose Instagram handle (@weworewhat) boasts 1.7 million followers—and celebrity personal trainer Eric Johnson. The result was a workout program called BodyWoreWhat. For a one-time membership fee of $35, users received access to eight short workout videos and a comprehensive meal plan. In addition to sponsoring the project, Fiji kicked in a 25 percent discount off the first shipment of home delivery for its water.

Fiji is not the only company to have run an influencer-driven campaign. In fact, 60 percent of marketers commissioned influencers to make content for them in 2016, according to a recent report from Forrester Research.

At press time, 2017 figures were not yet available, but the enduring dominance of social media—with Instagram alone boasting 800 million monthly active users as of September—would seem to suggest that digital influencers will continue to have a special place in marketing strategies for quite some time.

According to the same Forrester report, influencers fall under the umbrella of “word-of-mouth marketing,” which the report asserts also includes customer and employee advocacy. More specifically, the report defines influencers as “mainstream journalists, industry analysts, subject matter experts, independent bloggers, and certain social media celebrities who have influence in a specific topic or category and are not customers or employees of the brand.”

For marketing and e-commerce consultant Kathryn Kerrigan, an influencer is “a person or entity with a wide network of connections, followers, or fans, and the ability to influence, change, or alter the behaviors, acts, and style of others.” She notes that there is “an unspoken and unwritten acknowledgment that one who follows an influencer believes in that influencer’s vision.” Typically, influencers are categorized by the number of followers in their networks, she says, noting that a “micro-influencer” might have a reach of just a few thousand, while a “mega-influencer”—such as Selena Gomez who, with 128.3 million Instagram followers, is the most followed person on the platform—can command audiences of tens of millions.

There are influencers specific to nearly every industry, from fashion to food to electronics, Kerrigan says, adding that within each industry there are different types of influencers, ranging from members of the Kardashian-Jenner clan to celebrity bloggers like Perez Hilton to thought leaders like Tesla founder Elon Musk.

Felix LaHaye, cofounder of influencer marketing company Open Influence, defines the phenomenon fairly broadly: “An influencer is one that has garnered a reputation and subsequently a following on social media platforms for the content that they post.”

Like Kerrigan, LaHaye notes that most influencers have a specialty, such as fashion, gaming, or technology. A common criterion for influencers is to have at least 10,000 followers on at least one social platform, he says, and to consistently generate a minimum of 1,000 engagements (likes, comments, reposts, shares, etc.) for each piece of content.

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