Public relations work changed dramatically with the advent of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The way we reach audiences changed, and the way people communicate with each other changed too. Globally we are interconnected, and billions of people use these channels every day to share snippets of their daily lives, photos, and video—and these platforms are now how millions of people stay updated on news and events.
Social platforms have revolutionized how we communicate with one another
As these platforms have reached a certain level of maturity, the amount of manipulation that exists on each of these channels is increasingly a point of discussion. Whether it is the sheer volume of bots on Twitter, electoral mischief on Facebook and YouTube, or fake followers on all three, some of social media’s inherent weaknesses are coming to light.
At least one casualty of this manipulation that is of concern for communicators is the erosion of the meaning of the word “influencer.” For years, public relations and communications campaigns have painstakingly mapped out and devised complete strategies around identifying and amplifying the voices of those who can influence the target audiences that the programs are attempting to reach.
We have reached a point where calling someone an “influencer” brings to mind not their credentials, but questions of how many fake users have been added to bolster their follower counts. This is damaging to PR programs because it undermines trust. Communicators need to reclaim this word—or come up with new language and cede the term completely.
Influencer programs have persisted because they are effective
Real influencer programs can be very effective. If, for example, you are trying to reach pregnant mothers-to-be in a campaign—whether you are trying to convince them of the benefits of cloth diapers, convey complex nutritional information, or get them to call a member of Congress to support a relevant piece of legislation—a solid strategy is to identify who that group trusts and in what setting. Then, you provide those opinion leaders with information to relay to the target audience. A truly effective strategy will also recognize that within that target audience there might be sub-groups who will respond to different influencers.
You reach out to those who have been identified as having authority or expertise, and talk with them to determine whether they are the right voices for your campaign. Some won’t give you the time of day. Some will agree with you whole-heartedly and be happy to help out. Others will fall somewhere in the middle.
It is hard work, but when you have the right campaign matched with respected voices, your audience will get your messages. In its most simple form, an influencer campaign is nothing more than finding the people who your target audience listens to.
Influencer programs can get people to exercise more, lose weight, wash hands during cold and flu season—they are often a core component of public health outreach.
They can motivate people to register to vote.
They can help people understand the utility of a completely new-to-market consumer item.
They can address the concerns of worried pet owners—an influencer outreach campaign to veterinarians was how Procter & Gamble addressed unfounded rumors back in the late ’90s that Febreze harmed pets.
And yes, influencer campaigns can also sell stuff.
Social media changed the landscape
When influencer campaigns made the leap from person-to-person contact to connecting with online audiences, two major issues became apparent. One, the sheer volume of social content meant that regardless of how much true influence someone yields, their voice will only be heard if they can break through the clutter—usually, by having lots of followers. Leading to the second major issue: it can take time to build a real audience on social media if one is not already a celebrity to begin with.
This led to more 360° programs that had both online and offline components. Offline/in person influencers were identified, and online influencers were identified. By addressing both potential audiences, communicators started to build programs that reached audiences wherever they might be.
Online takes over
Social media’s rapid rise as a primary means of communicating meant that clients were demanding more and more online components and social media outreach. The funding and attention started to flow to online influencer programs.
Communications professionals were tasked with finding ways to identify potential online influencers for PR and marketing campaigns. While smart communicators know that follower numbers alone aren’t an indication of the quality of an influencer, to be effective, those influencers do have to reach people.
Qualified success with a few programs quickly led to a burgeoning field of “social media influencers,” some with hefty budget demands to match. One of the factors that can affect pricing is the number of followers.
A mess of problems
In addition to some influencers failing to clearly disclose sponsorships (a violation of FTC rules) and some influencers behaving very badly, another problem that surfaced a while ago but just now is receiving considerable media attention is the issue of fake accounts. With low barriers to entry on some platforms—all you really need is an internet connection and an email address, often easily spoofed—social networks have long had a bad fake accounts problem.
A New York Times report covered how those fake accounts are created, collected, and sold to online influencers—including people you would think would garner large followings without the need for fake padding, like celebrities, entertainers, and athletes—all leading to a serious distortion of the whole ecosystem—and raising real doubt about the value of influencers.
The problem for PR and communications
Ask someone to describe influencer programs and you might hear about the Kardashians, a toddler with 3 million Instagram followers, or about teens making fortunes on YouTube.
Influencer programs now carry a very specific meaning in the minds of the public, and to a certain extent to brands and agencies too. Is this a problem? Potentially yes.
If you’re pitching a public affairs program to a client and you get to the influencer outreach section, you don’t want them thinking about PewDiePie or Logan Paul. And on the flip side of that equation, if your program does have a strong online influencer component that could be successful, you now have to overcome questions about value, validity of followers, and more.
Is the word tainted forever? Probably not. These things seem to go in cycles. If you are looking to define those who will reach audiences, there are other phrases that work.
But, please don’t use “guru.” That one really is gone.