What is an Influencer?

By Jim Larrison

May 16, 2011

The term “influencer” is being thrown around a lot in social media and digital marketing circles these days, and that’s a good thing: it’s imperative for brands to build strong relationships with influencers. But what exactly is an influencer?

The Wiktionary tells us that an influencer is “A person who or a thing which influences.” Well, that’s not very helpful. The guy on the street would probably answer something like: “An influencer is a person who has the power to influence other people to think or do something.” That’s more helpful, but it leaves some questions unanswered. How does an influencer influence? What is the “something” that the influencer is influencing people to think or do? How many people does a person need to be able to influence, in order to be a bona fide influencer? And perhaps most important: how does one identify an influencer? Let’s address each in turn, while looking through the lens of word of mouth marketing.

How does an influencer influence?

The answer is “any which way they can”. A person who is passionate and knowledgeable about a given topic, and whose passion impels them to communicate their opinion to others, will use any means to reach their audience. The emergence of social media gives influencers an amazing new arsenal. But the majority of word of mouth recommendations occur offline, and the best influencers use both online and offline channels.

What is the “something” that the influencer is influencing people to think or do?

It’s accurate but simplistic to say that brands want to work with influencers because they can influence other consumers to buy the brand’s products. For a true brand (not a direct-response “As Seen on TV” marketer), the process of influencing purchase behavior is much more subtle and multi-faceted. Sophisticated brands look to engage a consumer across the entire spectrum ranging from mere awareness to full intent.

Consumers usually don’t buy things based on a “cold” econometrical calculation of costs and benefits — they buy things with emotional attention to the “warmth” a brand has cultivated with them over a long period of time. By collaborating with influencers for the long term, a brand can more effectively cultivate consumer warmth and affinity.

How many people does a person need to be able to influence, in order to be a bona fide influencer?

This is one place where there is a lot of confusion. Influencers are sometimes assumed to be celebrities with widespread fame. This might be true in some cases, but more often than not, influencers are not celebrities. Think of celebrities as a subset of influencers. All celebrities are influencers, but most influencers are not celebrities.

An influencer is simply a person who has an audience who trusts their opinions and recommendations. There’s no hard-and-fast number for how big that audience needs to be. (If you want to get into precise definition and segmentation of influencers, try exploring the excellent Peer Influence Pyramid research of Forrester analyst Augie Ray.) Some brands prefer to be highly exclusive, selecting only a small number influencers with whom they want to collaborate, each of whom has a large audience. Other brands feel that any of their loyal customers have the potential to be influential in their advocacy efforts, so they build large consumer communities consisting of many enthusiastic customers. Both strategies can be very fruitful. At Dynamic Signal, we help each brand client identify where on the spectrum of inclusiveness they best belong.

How does one identify an influencer?

That’s the million-dollar question these days! There are two methods for a brand to systematically identify influencers:

1.) Use listening and analysis tools to survey the vast expenses of the Web to find people who already hold sway with the brand’s target audience. (Then work to win these influencers over, inviting them into a mutually beneficial alliance of brand ambassadorship.)

2.) Invite large numbers of customers who have somehow indicated that they are enthusiastic supporters of the brand (e.g. Facebook fans, Twitter followers, etc.) to become members of a thriving community of like-minded individuals who are passionate about the same topics. (Then work to identify which of these supporters are most outspoken and influential, and develop these supporters into effective brand advocates.)

The key point here is that these two methods are not mutually exclusive. A brand can and should employ both methods, and Dynamic Signal provides a technology platform and support services to facilitate both methods.

Post Author

Jim Larrison

Jim Larrison is the Co-Founder & General Manager at Dynamic Signal. He is responsible for overseeing the company’s direction, product innovation, and market strategy to become a global provider of SaaS based advocate and social marketing enterprise solutions for leading Global 2K brands. Jim lives in the Chicago area with his wife and two sons. Jim is an influential movie fanatic, local politico, blogger, and photographer. On weekends, you can catch him on the sidelines of his sons' football or lacrosse games with a few Nikon cameras around his neck.