Are ‘influencers’ really that influential?

Some people have huge social media followings, and some have the power to shape civilization. Sometimes those groups overlap—but not always.

Consider the difference between being an “influencer” and being influential.

Take, for example, Frances Arnold of CalTech, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work in unlocking the key to the evolutionary process, so people can create solutions to save lives and protect the environment, among many other applications.

Her work is summed up in two words: “directed evolution.” 

To say Arnold is influential is an understatement. Her work has advanced all of mankind. Visiting her Twitter profile, you’d notice that she has 20,000 followers. 

Kylie Jenner, on the other hand, has 28.4 million followers on Twitter. lists Jenner’s accomplishments this way: 

“Kylie Jenner is a reality TV personality, social media influencer and makeup mogul. She rose to fame in 2007 on Keeping Up with the Kardashians, her family’s E! reality show that follows the daily lives of the Kardashian-Jenner clan.” 

One is a world-class influential; the other is a world-class influencer. 

What is an influential? 

It’s someone who has made a substantive impact on society, apart from the metrics and monetization of “likes” and follows. An influential might not even have a social media account, but rather spends her or his days advancing society. 

Mother Teresa was an influential, which earned her sainthood but not influencer status. Given that her time ended before the explosion of digital culture, she was never an influencer. Lacking a digital footprint, she was still able to move millions through her selfless example, and through her commitment to her faith and the poor. 

Of course, you needn’t be known worldwide to be an influential. 

You might be Scott Fahlman, who created the emoticon that may have dashed across your screen at some point today. Though that contribution is seen far and wide, for decades he has been a scientist working to develop artificial intelligence. That’s an influential. 

What is an influencer? 

Influencers are easier to find. Media agency OMD launched its “I-Score” influencer report in 2017 in conjunction with tech firm Influential. 

Each influencer earns a composite score based on engagement and mentions “within their vertical.” If Twitter is your platform of choice, and you are more engaged and mentioned than most others there, you are a top Twitter influencer. The same holds for other social media platforms. 

Why does this matter?

This all leads us to the question: Are influencers influential, and are influential people influencers?

The short answer is “yes.” The more detailed answer is: It depends on your view and your goals. 

If you are looking for someone truly influential, she or he probably has not actively used social media, because they have been busy doing other things. They are usually experts, invaluable resources for the people and organizations with whom they work.

If you are a brand manager looking to make a splash on a particular social channel, you might be looking at influencers—those who’ve made a business of being popular on specific channels. Many are accomplished in entertainment and athletics, but given the nature of social media, some are arguably more famous because of their social activity.

There are caveats. AdAge says the biggest mistake you can make with influencers is “to focus on one-off activations instead of partnering on long-term campaigns. … More and more brands are realizing the value of activating influencers for longer-term strategies, and this will continue to grow in popularity.” 

Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy, and he is producer/host of the ShapingOpinion podcast. A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.


5 Responses to “Are ‘influencers’ really that influential?”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    PR opportunity: instead of just employing influencers and influentials, be one. Your PR skills can help to make your company an influencer that influences for the benefit of the public. You can create a double benefit.

    .1. Influencers you already employ—your heads of human resources, accounting, law, safety and more—can have the pleasure of using their skills not only to make money for the company which they are already doing but
    also to make life better for the community by collectively influencing the success of a good cause that can help millions of people.

    .2. Members of the public with a big need can have a big new ally, your company, helping the public to meet that need and enjoy life that is happier and healthier.

    It can work. Just as engineers and doctors start life as babies not as engineers and doctors, your top executives can be not only what they were yesterday–skilled influencers of the company in accounting, law, human resources and more—but be for the public what Tim O’Brien correctly calls an influential:
    ”someone who has made a substantive impact on society.”

    One impact that could win for your company huge public gratitude can come if your company rises up to protect the public against a health peril. Children and adults alike cherish those who protect us against harm. Heart disease and cancer are the biggest health perils. Heart trouble may be less alarming to most people because it is so common and is commonly less painful than cancer but pick any major health concern that your CEO may prefer.

    Look at the opportunities to influence if you choose to help protect the public against a major menace like lymphoma. In many ways your company can be influential.

    .1. Human Resources can help guide the recruiting of volunteers who encourage annual health check-ups including tests that could expose lymphoma.

    .2. Finance and Accounting can help local universities and hospitals apply for government and foundation grants that may be available for health research.

    .3. A Parents Committee of employees and spouses can sponsor an essay contest with local merchants plus other companies and groups offering prizes for the best essays. Local teachers and college educators can be judges who select the winners.

    .4. Your Labor Relations people (an occupation increasingly called by other names) can work WITH the union, which both sides may enjoy, to spread the word on possible ways to avoid lymphoma and how to detect symptoms early so it can be treated successfully.

    .5. Your Corporate Contributions Committee (again by whatever name) can reallocate the donations budget to include some fraction of a million for Lymphoma Research Foundation, then create perhaps national media coverage each time company-backed anti-lymphoma research has a newsworthy achievement which can happen two or three times a year.

    The top objective of a “let’s be an influencer” program should certainly be public benefit, but enhanced corporate earnings can also result. Skilled PR guidance of a corporate influencer program can create a confluence of influence and affluence.

    Bruce Jones says:

    Being an influencer sounds glorious but that is because it is just a stage. If we knew the everyday lives of people we look up to we would realize they are just regular people like you and me.

    Tim OBrien says:

    Actually, I just notice my main point at the end of the Muck Rack piece didn’t make the cut. That said, my point was, the biggest mistake we can make with influentials is to assume that only influencers matter. That was the primary theme behind the whole piece.

    Justine Groeber says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article about the influence of influencers. While it’s easy to fall into the assumption that social media influencers aren’t taken seriously, it’s important to note that thousands of followers are looking to these individuals for authentic advice, reviews and suggestions. Not only this, but some of the most influential influencers are strong advocates for important topics and use their platforms to imprint their knowledge onto their followers. Brands need to be completely aware of the influence of every kind of social media influencer and partner with them to tap into this social media savvy generation. – Justine Groeber, writer/editor for Platform Magazine

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