What is a social media influencer?

From a layman’s perspective, a social media influencer (SMI) is a person with a sizeable number of followers and, in some way or the other, ‘influences’ them.

This influence is derived from activity (on or off the platform), posting content (opinions) and authority garnered based on personal and professional experience.

SMIs thus spend most of their days developing new content — videos, photos, blog posts and podcasts, which are engaging and relatable to their followers. Their audience turns to them for industry insights, new product information and purchasing recommendations.

An SMI may be anyone from a blogger to an online entrepreneur who simply capitalises on a niche to attain widespread credibility. From a discipline, SMI marketing is more than just paying models and celebrities to promote a product on Instagram and Twitter.

SMIs are considered “diverse individuals with expansive platforms, and refined strategies of engaging target audiences and shaping their behaviour”.

As an example, Kylie Jenner, a beauty industry SMI who, before founding her own cosmetics company, partnered with global brands like OPI, Pac Sun and Balmain to generate sales for highly sought-after products.

As a result of the revenue generated from her following and influence, Kylie has now become America's youngest-ever self-made billionaire, overtaking Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg who bagged his first billion at the age of 23.

Celebrity endorsements were the original form of SMI marketing, but in today’s digital world, social content creators with niche audiences can offer more value to brands through their dedicated and engaged groups of followers.

Why is an SMI a worthwhile contribution to the marketing department?

In 2016, Annalect found that 40% of Twitter users have been directly influenced by an SMI’s tweet to make decisions ranging from purchases to lifestyle. As a result, both business-to-consumer and business-to-business firms in industries like fashion, beauty, toys and consumer electronics are also increasingly turning to SMIs to engage their target customers across multiple platforms.

In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article titled To grow your business abroad, partner with local influencers, it was found that a community of relevant SMIs engaged over an extended period of time can add value to a brand by leveraging their existing relationships of trust with followers to grow a customer base.

Some of the activities being prioritised by large brands in their social media marketing strategies are engaging SMIs in different parts of the world to participate in events; co-authoring blog articles — specific to the SMI’s niche — and co-hosting webinars for target audiences.

The use of SMI marketing extends beyond larger firms with smaller organisations — particularly within the e-commerce sector, which is also capitalising on the trend. For example, companies like Superbalist and Runway Sale are engaging fashion and beauty SMIs with over 5 000 followers to become brand ambassadors or partners.

After building relationships with the targeted SMIs, the company’s marketing teams develop a sales model through which they can promote their products and earn a fixed fee.

Trust has been and will remain essential to the success of a company’s growth initiatives. It is widely agreed that local and relatable connectors are an essential part of establishing this trust; hence, it is critical to work only with SMIs whose vision aligns with that of the engaging organisation.

The primary purpose of SMI marketing should be to promote a firm’s goods and services in a trusting manner. Such trust breeds more trust and contributes to sustained loyalty and SMI-driven advocacy among their respective followers.

Over the longer term, the benefits of engaging the SMI should far outweigh the costs driven by the trust that is being leveraged to sustain success. Authenticity is, therefore, a critical recruitment criterion for firms looking to engage SMIs.

There have been cases where, instead of promoting a product, the inauthenticity has created sizeable backlash, which takes away from the efforts of the intentions of the campaign.

Should companies be partnering with SMIs?

Social media influencing is an extension of the age-old practice of word of mouth — now via digital platforms to reach mass audiences.

SMIs can open new doors for businesses by leveraging existing follower relationships that are underpinned by authenticity and trust to attract new customers.

Rather than working with SMIs who have large followings, companies should consider building relationships with ‘nano-influencers’ who are able to interact more with their audiences; thus, inspiring higher engagement.

Higher engagement means reaching out to followers directly in a private message to obtain insights on their interaction with the service or product advocated for.

So, for the short- and medium-term, it would be best to partner with nano-influencers because their appeal can be converted to brand authenticity, which, in the longer term, translates to a loyal consumer base.

For example, Mr Price South Africa partners with nano-influencers due to their ability to engage and connect with ‘narrower’ audiences on the brand’s culture and vibrant fashion offering.

However, when it comes to companies choosing their own SMIs, they need to take the target audience, the authenticity of the content shared and the trust built between the brand and the consumers into consideration.

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*Image courtesy of Vecteezy