What’s an Influencer? The Complete WIRED Guide

Much like trolls or the blockchain, the term influencer is one of those words that ubiquity has rendered meaningless. It is simultaneously an insult and an aspiration, the scourge of small business owners and the future of marketing, and a moniker for kids with middling social followings and megacelebrities alike. It’s how the Pope describes the Virgin Mary, for some reason, and the title given to computer-generated (inexplicably Trump-supporting?) teen DJs. Some elected officials are influencers, as are many infuriatingly well-dressed pets.

So what is an influencer, really?

Ostensibly, it’s someone who wields influence. (Duh.) But that doesn’t really match up with current usage. Influencer culture, as we know it today, is inextricably tied to consumerism and the rise of technology. The term is shorthand for someone (or something) with the power to affect the buying habits or quantifiable actions of others by uploading some form of original—often sponsored—content to social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, or, god forbid, LinkedIn. Be it moody photos, cheeky video reviews, meandering blogs, or blurry soon-to-disappear Stories, the value of the content in question is derived from the perceived authority—and, most importantly, authenticity—of its creator.

A fashion blogger tagging her “favorite” basicswear brand on Instagram or a popular gamer name-dropping his “go-to” headset model mid-stream doesn’t carry the same heavy-handed transactional connotation as, say, Steve Carrell hawking Pepsi. (Or at least it isn’t supposed to.) True influencerdom presupposes a particular type of relationship between content creator and viewer, at scale, one that hinges on the willingness of the viewer to be influenced. Users consider influencers more akin to a close friend than an advertiser or paid endorser, as the stream of content they produce—and the more casual way in which it is shared with the public—imbues influencers with an air of authenticity that is rarely seen in semicommercial spaces.

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It is this perception of expertise and accessibility that separates influencers from celebrities and one-off viral sensations—though those in the latter category frequently make embarrassingly public attempts to strongarm their way into the former (see: Curvy Wife Guy, Backpack Kid, etc.)—not to mention the many other genres of on- and offline star.

Not all popular social media users are influencers—some are simply online celebrities, entertainers, comedians, or cute animals—nor are all celebrities influencers. Actress Evan Rachel Wood, for example, may have a large following on Instagram, but she isn’t an influencer. The same could be said of YouTuber Shane Dawson, who, despite his more than 23 million subscribers, is more akin to the Ken Burns of the YouTube generation than a mere influencer. On the other side of the spectrum are figures like Kim Kardashian, who, despite beginning as a prototypical celebrity, made a successful transition to influencerdom.

Traditional celebrities’ fame originates from their participation in an established industry like film, television, or radio; while the prototypical influencer’s path to stardom is a more gradual, grassroots affair. They amass a following by creating and posting some form of unpaid (at least at first) original content that not only attracts the attention of other users but earns their trust or respect in some sense. Beauty YouTubers (also known as “Beautubers”) such as MannyMUA, Wayne Goss, and Patrick Starrr are prime examples of this, as is Instagram’s Luanna Perez-Garreaud (@Luanna), who became one of the platform’s most popular fashion influencers after the blog she started in 2009 took off.

An actor, musician, or comedian can act as an influencer, sure, but it’s an auxiliary action, coexisting with—or, often, in spite of—the celebrity’s already established public brand. For influencers, the act of influencing and the public self are one and the same. The viewer’s primary understanding of them is as a tastemaker, so it feels only natural that they would flex that influence.

That perceived expertise and authenticity are hallmarks of an influencer is, of course, a bit ironic, as the term is increasingly synonymous with the more skeevy sides of the product marketing industry. What once seemed corrupting is now the norm, and given the dismal state of truth online, it’s unlikely the lines will ever get unblurred.

The History of Influencers

The history of influencerdom is, in essence, a history of the modern web itself. The advent of the World Wide Web in 1991 ushered in a new era of connectivity and unfettered interactivity, giving users around the world the means to build and maintain relationships with people they had never met in person. It also made it easy for people to access information and media content produced by non-mainstream sources.

The early web forums and bulletin board sites of the 1990s and early 2000s allowed people to publicly post and reply to messages from other users, paving the way for the development of niche virtual communities and some of the first instances of digital influence as we understand the term today. Some users who frequented these forums—which were usually organized around a particular hyperspecific topic or interest—would become proto-influencers themselves after earning a reputation as an authentic source of quality recommendations and valuable expertise among their posting peers. Hiking enthusiasts who visited the online forums of Backpacker magazine and GORP.com in the late ’90s found themselves impressed by the boards’ camaraderie and the depth of their users’ expertise on subjects from gear to food to trail locations. That’s according to a 1999 Wall Street Journal report on the then-surprising trend of nature lovers—who apparently were not viewed as the type of people who would normally use the World Wide Web—“overcoming initial skepticism about the medium and increasingly … turning to the Internet for information on travel, treks and equipment.”

As users of all types joined virtual communities, marketers and brands began to understand their potential to shape public understanding. A 2001 Rutgers study on “internet forums as influential sources of consumer information” found that people who read online discussions between other users in forums or message boards about a product were significantly more interested in it than those who read an online promotion from the company itself. Unlike ads or a corporate website’s marketing copy, posts from internet strangers are often relatable, funny, or sometimes even moving.

The unique influence of forum powerusers on consumer sentiment was not lost on retailers and advertisers, some of whom would start covertly seeding their products and clients in popular forums around the same time. In the early 2000s, the media firm MindComet became one of the first to explicitly seek out influential message board moderators and MySpace users to promote brands and products to their followers in exchange for a gift card or promo code. The practice took off among mainstream companies, like Sony BMG, which hired unpaid interns to covertly promote its artists in online communities in 2006.

These prolific posters were influencers in their own right, but their sway over consumers and advertisers would pale in comparison to the power commanded by weblog authors in the early to late 2000s. The rise of personal blogs and their subsequent commercialization brought about many of the tropes of modern influencer culture more than a decade before it became a widely understood phenomenon. Companies sending freebies to influential bloggers in the hopes of earning a review or promotion had become a common enough practice in the early days of the blogosphere that high-profile discussions around the ethics of disclosing such conflicts took place as early as 2002.

In 2004, Ted Murphy, the founder of MindComet—which today is named IZEA—started the BlogStar Network, likely the first influencer marketing network. It began as a private email database of influential bloggers interested in getting paid to post about his marketing firm’s clients, which included companies like Red Lobster, Turner, and Burger King. Murphy sent out email blasts to the database detailing potential offers and would manually negotiate the terms of each content deal based on the blogger’s response. In 2006, Murphy told Businessweek that a “couple thousand” bloggers had joined. When asked about disclosure requirements, he shrugged off the question. “It’s up to [bloggers] to be their own morality police,” he said. The Businessweek article captured the sentiment toward the practice at the time:

BlogStar paid nicely—a flat fee of $5 or $10 per post. “Easy money…go buy a burger or something,” advised a BlogStar invitation from 2005 soliciting posts about cable network TNT’s basketball commercials featuring HBO (TWX ) character Ali G. That come-on also told bloggers “we definitely appreciate more positive posts.”

In June of 2006, Murphy launched PayPerPost, the first automated digital marketplace connecting advertisers with influencers from the blogosphere and beyond. Brands could pay to put a listing on the site detailing what sort of influencer they were looking for, what they wanted promoted, and how. Bloggers with a bigger audience were able to command higher rates. At the time of launch, disclosure was not a requirement, though it would be later.

Internet users received PayPerPost’s launch poorly. Though sponsored content today is considered a permanent fixture of the digital landscape, at the time, the notion of influential posters being paid to promote or mention a brand online outraged users around the web, and caused a meltdown among bloggers. TechCrunch’s response to the scandal was titled “PayPerPost.com offers to sell your soul,” and the Businessweek article tied to the company’s launch described it as “Polluting The Blogosphere.” When Murphy tried to ask TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington a question at a conference they both attended the following year, Arrington asked how he was allowed in the building and told the crowd that Murphy was “the most evil person in this room.”

A few months after PayPerPost launched, other marketplace companies joined the fray. (Or, as TechCrunch put it at the time: The PayPerPost Virus Spreads.) By the end of 2006, it had become a full blown infection, with companies paying for influencer marketing left and right. Another scandal ripped through the blogosphere in December after some prominent tech bloggers reported that Microsoft had sent them free Acer laptops.

WIRED’s Michael Calore blogged about the now quaint-seeming controversy at the time:

Companies have long sent promotional materials by the boatload to journalists who typically disclose that the item was a gift. Given the increasing influential power of blogs, it’s no surprise that companies are beginning to try the same tactics on bloggers who often hold even more sway over tech-savvy consumers.

Earlier this month there was widespread controversy over the fact that companies have been offering money to prominent Digg users in return for posting links to products and favorable reviews.

But getting paid a few pesos from PayPerPost or to put something on Digg is one thing, getting a $2000+ Acer laptop is a whole other ball of wax…

Influencer marketing campaigns would only grow more overt in the coming years. When British mobile company Hutchison 3G UK Limited launched its Skypephone in 2007, it gave influential bloggers the device for free in exchange for reviews. Later that year, Kmart—through Murphy’s firm—gave $500 gift cards to six influencers and asked them to blog about their shopping experience at the discount store. The resulting campaign generated 800 blog posts and 3,200 tweets, reaching 2.5 million people in 30 days, Murphy told The New York Times the following year. “Mommy bloggers,” women who wrote about parenthood, were one of the most popular and lucrative genres of early influencers, regularly commanding valuable advertising deals and high-profile partnerships with brands from Walmart to TNT.

Ostensibly, influencers are supposed to prominently disclose if they have received anything—be it money, free products, or something else—that could impact how a viewer interprets their endorsement of a product or brand, but enforcement is rare, and the few influencers who are caught by agencies like the Federal Trade Commission are almost exclusively celebrities and usually let off with a mere slap on the wrist.

The Future of Influencers

Over the last five years, influencer marketing has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, with brands large and small coming to view the practice as a less ham-fisted way to hawk their products. In the early days, brands that sent an influencer free products or offered to pay them a small commission in exchange for their consideration would often receive a shoutout or casual promotion. But as more and more companies came to see the practice as an invaluable marketing tool, the power balance flipped, and influencers began to command significantly higher fees for each post, mention, or product placement.

That didn’t slow down advertisers’ thirst for an effective way to covertly raise the profile of their brand in the eyes of consumers. Average payment rates only continued to soar, especially after influencers started to retain agents and managers. Today, influencers are all over social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, Tumblr, and Snapchat, and sponsored content has become so ubiquitous that some platforms, like Instagram, now have built-in tools to help influencers disclose and promote their paid partnerships in Stories or feed posts.

The digital marketplace model pioneered by PayPerPost is booming, with thousands of companies now vying to play matchmaker between brands and content creators to craft the perfect #ad. Grapevine and Famebit are two of the most popular. Famebit, which connects YouTubers and Instagram users with sizable followings to companies interested in sponsored content, took off in 2016 after it was purchased by YouTube. The company has since integrated Famebit into its platform, making it easier for content creators looking to monetize their YouTube accounts to find an ad campaign that aligns with their interests. It seems like only a matter of time before Instagram attempts something similar.

The (Spon)Con Artist’s Toolbox

You don’t actually require that much genuine influence (whatever that is) to seem like an influencer. It’s more of a numbers game. And, like most things on the internet, those numbers can easily faked. A brief taxonomy of some of the top tricks:

Social Media Marketing Panels

Called SMM panels for short, these illicit engagement marketplaces sell fake views, likes, followers, comments, swipes, and more. They appeal to wannabe influencers looking to boost their presence.

Power Likes

These services claim to provide subscribers with likes, comments, and story views from Instagrammers with large followings. The aim is to trick the Instagram algorithm into thinking their account is cool enough to be promoted in other users’ Explore page.

Engagement Groups

Share a post in one of these private group chats and the other members will shower it with likes and comments in the hopes of propelling the post to algorithmically aided success

Automation Apps

These apps will send a user’s profile into an automated frenzy, liking, commenting, and following other accounts en masse in an attempt to snag them a follow back.

The Account Switcheroo

These accounts amass a large amount of followers as quickly as possible by whatever means necessary—often by engaging in some follow-for-follow type scheme—then sell their login credentials to the highest bidder so they can wipe the account clean and start posting to a prebuilt audience.

On YouTube and Instagram, product placement deals are now common, as are the use of affiliate marketing links and sponsored coupon codes. Popular YouTuber Sanders Kennedy, who chronicles drama in the influencer world, told WIRED that a brand once offered him a couple thousand dollars to place a beverage on his desk while filming a video. A 2018 WIRED investigation into the influencer marketing industry found that payouts increase if the influencer tags or shouts out the brand specifically, but covert endorsements are often preferred.

Influencers like Luka Sabbat, a model-turned-actor with two million followers on Instagram, can charge upwards of $40,000 to promote products in story and feed posts.The cost of a single promotional photo posted by Instagram influencer with a million followers starts at $10,000. YouTube is more expensive. A video from a YouTuber with 3 million subscribers will cost at least $40,000. Influencers charge up to $10,000 to $30,000 more to post a negative review of a company’s competitor, the investigation found.

Influencer payout rates have risen so quickly that advertisers that used to be some of the industry’s biggest advocates now feel priced out of the market. Marlena Stell, a popular beauty influencer and entrepreneur, relied on influencers to promote her cult cosmetics brand Makeup Geek since its launch in 2011. However, she cut back on the practice in 2018, telling WIRED that content creators had begun to regularly demand $50,000 to $60,000 per video.

These prices are a function of the fact that, online, value is quantifiable. Or at least it’s supposed to be. The worth of an idea, person, movement, or meme is based on how many likes, views, clicks, and shares it has. An idea expressed in a tweet that garners thousands of likes seems inherently more valuable and widely accepted than one with four. An Instagram user with tens of thousands of followers is assumed to have an audience of that many real people, and a YouTube video with millions of views is thought to have captured the attention of millions of actual viewers. But those interactions can easily be bought.

That an influencer’s potential earnings are directly linked to their reach has come as a major boon for fake engagement marketplaces, where key metrics like followers, views, and likes can be purchased anonymously online for cheap. As the influencer marketing industry grows increasingly overheated, with more and more brands getting onboard each quarter, the problems posed by rampant engagement fraud have only worsened. According to cybersecurity firm Cheq, influencer marketing fraud is projected to cost brands $1.3 billion in 2019 alone.

Which, of course, has led to the rise of influencer fraud detectors. Some companies rely on human investigators to suss out fake or inflated accounts, while others use proprietary programs designed to spot signs of fakery, but it’s largely a cat and mouse game. One of the simplest tricks used by industry experts to tell whether an Instagram influencer padded their stats—comparing the amount of likes per post to the influencer’s follower count—won’t be possible if Instagram goes ahead with its plans to do away with public like counts. (Instagram, for its credit, hopes that getting rid of like counts will disincentivize fake engagement peddling more generally, but that seems unlikely.)

A return to a less quantifiable era of influence may seem like a loss, but if anything it’s the opposite. Trust, ultimately, is unquantifiable. And perhaps in the absence of futile attempts to assess it, gooey amorphous authenticity will reign once more.

Learn More

  • Inside the Pricey War to Influence Your Instagram Feed

    When Sahara Lotti started her lash extensions company, Lashify, in 2017, she didn’t know what she was getting herself into. It wasn’t making and selling fake lashes that stumped her—she was more than prepared for that—but rather the bizarre and shadowy industry that seemed to envelop her. In interviews, more than a dozen people involved in influencer marketing expressed concerns over the ethics of the burgeoning industry, where brands routinely shell out well over $60,000 in exchange for one video review—or upwards of $85,000 to publicly disparage a competitor’s product.

  • When Influencers Switch Platforms—and Bare It All

    On Instagram, an influencer is helping sell products, essentially to add a degree of cool to, say, sunglasses or dietary supplements. On OnlyFans, influencers are themselves the product. Partnerships and #sponcon can lead to considerable paydays, but there now exists an additional source of revenue with the rise of bare-all subscription fandom. In front of a camera, and sometimes with multiple partners, they are no longer just influencers but digital sex deities.

  • Fighting Instagram’s $1.3 Billion Problem—Fake Followers

    As influencers strive for ever-higher engagement numbers, the battle between fake followers and fake-follower-detection tools is turning into an arms race. Not being rubes, influencer economy participants know that signing a contract isn’t enough to certify continuous truthfulness. Online tricks evolve like Pokémon, though, and fake followers are getting much harder to identify.

  • Colleges Need Influencers, but Do Influencers Need College?

    Colleges try to leverage the social media savvy of their students with “social media ambassador” programs that help them advertise to prospective new students, raise the schools’ profiles, and educate their current students about school programs. And for some influencers, college can be a windfall, landing them brand deals to market dorm furnishings, Victoria’s Secret underwear, and tooth-straightening solutions to their fellow students. For others, college just gets in the way of their real passion.

  • Byeeeee, Logan Paul: Brands Prefer ‘Micro Influencers’ Now

    Endorsements are no longer the sole domain of the broadly popular megawatt star. Instead, companies want to work with the smaller, more niche internet personalities they’re calling “micro influencers”—generally speaking, people with followings of about 50,000. Limiting the scope of a potential scandal is only one of the benefits of working with a micro influencer. Analysts argue that micro influencers’ intimate, engaged communities are more likely to trust and buy what the influencer recommends.

  • YouTube and Pinterest Influencers Almost Never Disclose Marketing Relationships

    Research from Princeton University indicates that the vast majority of affiliate marketing relationships go undisclosed by influencers on platforms like YouTube and Pinterest. The vast majority of disclosures that the Princeton researchers did find don’t even abide by FTC guidelines. In 2013, the agency began requiring that affiliate links embedded within product reviews include a disclosure.

Last updated December 3, 2019.

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