Image via Olu Eletu under CC0 1.0

The Influencer is Dead, Long Live Influence

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

Let’s face it: social media’s new car smell is gone. Facebook is almost old enough to have Facebook. Twitter is a fifth-grader. Content is saturating us to the point where nobody clicks anything anymore. Really, we’re at that point where lazy marketers ruin things.

How’d we get here? Well, we’re all signed up. Everyone and their dog has Instagram. Your mom is on Woo Woo. We’re at the end of the late majority, the laggards are online. This includes marketing laggards — if you’re a marketer and you’re not using social yet, you’re lagging hard.

Image via Wesley Fryer under CC BY-SA 2.0
Image via Wesley Fryer under CC BY-SA 2.0

Early adoption and influence

What does this have to do with influencers? Well, innovators and early adopters often leverage their first mover advantage to become “influencers,” who then teach the majority how to use the thing they adopted. Just by pioneering, they become the go-to authoritative resource. And this effect gets magnified on social platforms—the earliest adopters reap extra network benefits by being first, as new users follow and emulate their behavior. For example if you were quick enough to get a one-name handle on Twitter (and use it well) you probably have a lot of followers by now. This compounds over time—new users assume that if you have a lot of followers, you’re worth following. The rich get richer.

These early adopter influencers fall into two camps: People who are influential primarily because they were pioneers, and people who are influential for… like… real life reasons. In the adoption period, we need both. Real-life influencers (celebrities, personalities, athletes) are a powerful draw for a platform to grow. We all wanna be where the cool kids are. Then the pioneer-influencers are there to tell us how to use the platform, market ourselves, and build our presence. Each complements the other.

But with most social media platforms we’re now past that point — the majority have now adopted. We no longer need someone to tell us “5 ways to engage on social” because smart marketers either know what they’re doing or are testing to work it out for themselves. This leaves three options for the pioneers: Explore the front of a new curve, pick a niche and double-down on expertise, or help the last set of laggards get on board. Status quo isn’t an option for this type of influencer.

The currency of influence

That doesn’t mean influence itself is dead. People will always use social media to talk, and some voices will be louder or more insightful than others. What is changing though, is the currency of influence. New-school influencers won’t speak in generalities about social media best practices, they’ll shift to talking about what they’re doing with social. They’ll talk about the legal pitfalls for finance professionals on Instagram. They’ll talk about how they market fine dining on Foursquare. They’ll share how athletes engage fans on Vine and Snapchat. It’s a small but fundamental shift toward demonstrated expertise. In this post mass-adoption phase, subject matter experts are the real influencers.

For brand marketers this doesn’t mean an end to influencer marketing – quite the opposite. Campaigns partnering with key opinion leaders are more important than ever to cut through the noise. But it does mean focus. Marketers will have to do their homework to understand which influencers are truly drivers of consideration, and which are just noisy early adopters (or outright fakes). That means research and qualitative analysis. That means embracing the influence of prominent brands, and doing a better job of telling customer stories. That means brokering partnerships with influencers who are credible because they do things, not because they say things.

This shift is happening now. It’ll take time for the noise of “influencers” to die out, but when it does we’ll be left with a more meaningful, more valuable, morefun social media experience. Influence will thrive, and the people we call influencers will embody the title in the truest sense. They’ll be world-changers – whether they build a movement, a company or just a better mousetrap. They’ll be experts and leaders (not ninjas or gurus) and they’ll show us their expertise through action (not words). We’ll talk about stuff that matters. We’ll use social as a channel for network building, for inspiration, for change. It’ll be a better, more connected world. See you there. ✌