Influencer Marketing Is Useless
You read that title and thought, “Jess, what the hell are you talking about, don’t you run an influencer marketing company?”
My answer would be, “Yes, I do.”
Followed by, “but I’ve noticed something that’s changed the way I see the entire influencer marketing ecosystem.”
That something is the way we talk about creators and influencers.
Both of these terms get thrown around loosely as if they are the same thing.
I can understand why.
Creators call themselves influencers, influencers call themselves creators. TikTok and Instagram call them creators, agencies and brands call them influencers. The two terms have become rather synonymous with one another which creates confusion for all of us who work with them.
That’s why I’ve decided to put pen to paper, or in this case my fingers to the keyboard to address this disconnect with the goal of creating clarity.
So before you hop on LinkedIn and start stoking the fires of criticism, allow me to share a few thoughts about the difference between creators and influencers and how we should view them going into 2024.
Let’s get into it.
What is a creator?
Creators are people who make content and share it on the internet and social media platforms. They are artists who have developed a skill and passion in a particular niche and earned a following of highly engaged audience members who align with their personal brand and interests.
Creators come in all forms, ranging from teenagers all the way to retirees, college students to parents. The commonality amongst all creators is that they have an inherent desire to make things and share them with the world. We see these people on TikTok and Instagram posting videos about the creative process, photos of their work, podcasts that dive deep into their passion, and so much more.
Creators are unique in that they’ve found the intersection between passion and personal branding where what they make is a reflection of who they are. They see content as a vehicle for their brand and social media as a distribution channel for their ideas.
I think of creators as content specialists—experts in their discipline who’ve earned their stripes creating. They have invested time and energy into developing a specific skill set and style that is embodied in their content, making them the best in their discipline.
Here’s the other thing about creators…they aren’t necessarily driven by monetary or reputational gain, but instead by the act of making something and sharing it with their audience.
The byproduct of doing such is that they amass a following of dedicated fans who support them, bolstering their reach and creating opportunities for brand collaborations that fit their niche.
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What is an influencer?
Influencers are people who share content on social media platforms with the intent of promoting different brands, products, and services. Influencers boast large audiences of engaged followers who align with their lifestyle and the products that they promote.
Influencer sizes vary from nano-influencers (1k-10k followers) all the way to mega-influencers with millions of followers. Unlike creators, most influencers expand their following with the help of brand collaborations where their content is exposed to a wider audience with similar interests. In doing so, they also tie their personal brand to the products and services that they promote the most.
We see these people on the For You Page of TikTok and the Explore Page of Instagram, sharing viral content that drives engagement and conversation, most of which directs back toward a brand.
Over the last five-ish years, influencers have built a reputation for being the conversion catalyst between brands and audiences, moving followers closer to purchase via promotional content on social media. Influencers have established themselves as a trusted resource with their audience. Hence, when they recommend a product, their audience listens and often buys.
I think of influencers as content generalists—they understand their audience better than anyone and serve up content that captivates them with the goal of appealing to the masses.
Their content messaging is simple: buy this product because it will make your life better in some way. It doesn’t matter the brand or the product, the intent is to promote to their audience who is deeply aligned with their particular lifestyle and wants to experience something similar.
What’s the difference between creators and influencers?
This is a loaded question with no absolute answer. In my experience, these two personas are fluid.
The reality is that no single person is exclusively a creator or an influencer, but rather a mix of the two that varies in each piece of content.
That said, there are differentiators between the two that I think are important for brands to know as the creator economy continues to expand into the new year.
Allow me to break it down…
Content Development Process
Creators and influencers craft content differently. Each has a different intent and approach that shapes the way they make content. For brands working with both of these groups, it’s important to understand this process, especially if you’re going to collaborate with them.
Creators are artists at their core. They’re driven by ideas that excite their creative energy and as a result, craft content about that idea and distribute it to their audiences. I consider creators as modern day Renaissance artists with a social following. Their passion for creating is the reason they make content, which in turn serves an audience of fans who love their work and what it stands for.
When it comes to the content development process, creators are content-first. Content-first means that they aren’t following a specific script or brief and aren’t bound by creative restraint. If they have an idea, they see it through in its truest form and maintain their artistic integrity throughout the process.
Often people confuse creator and influencer because their content on social media appears similar. One way to tell the difference is that creator content has a bigger message that goes beyond a product or service. That message speaks to a theme or idea and is the focal point of the content. As you venture through their feed you’ll see that these ideas permeate across all content and resonate with their audience in a way that fosters true engagement and interaction.
Where creators stand out in content is their willingness to take a stance. They aren’t afraid to be polarizing or opinionated in regards to their content. That’s not to say all creators are definitively opinionated, but rather, they speak the way they want and don’t hesitate to express their personal beliefs in their content. This approach deepens their relationship with their followers because their thoughts and ideas are a reflection of the larger audience.
That’s why most creators don’t work off creative briefs and scripts. Instead, they are given a concept and told to put their creative spin on it, doing what they do best. This comes in the form of entertaining videos, captivating photography, compelling podcasts, music, painting, and so much more.
Influencers are content curators. They stick to a consistent, repeatable theme (ie their niche) and like to explore the different areas their niche touches.
Take beauty influencers for example. Many of them have a specific niche within the beauty industry, such as skincare, and focus on sharing content about different skincare brands, products, hacks, and helpful tips. Over the course of time, they become a master curator of all things skincare and the go-to resource for audiences who trust them.
When it comes to content development, influencers are audience-first. Their audience is the primary reason for their popularity, thus, they want to make sure that each piece of content connects with them on a personal level.
Whether it be a video, photo, or podcast, influencers know the language of their audience and use that knowledge to create content that subtly pushes people toward a brand or product in a way that doesn’t feel like a salesman but instead like a trusted friend.
Influencers make content that captures their audience and keeps them engaged via entertainment, education, or inspiration. Because of this hyperfocus, influencer messaging is consistent from one piece of content to the next reminding the audience of a particular brand or product that they believe in and partner with.
The primary goal of influencer content is to make audiences aware of a brand and move them one step further in the sales funnel. That isn’t the case with every single piece of influencer content, but a vast majority of it is used to drive sales on behalf of brands focused on a specific niche that has new potential customers. As a result, audiences tie the brand and the influencer together leading to trust between the three groups: audience, influencer, and brand.
Because influencers are representatives of brands, they usually avoid controversial or polarizing opinions and try to appeal to the masses. At the end of the day, they want content to connect with the most amount of people possible, thus, most of what they share is applicable to a wider audience and can be consumed by many.
Impact On Brands
This is the big question every brand asks me before working with a creator or an influencer. They want to know just how impactful the content can be. I can’t blame them, creator marketing is tough, especially when you’re new to the game and have a limited budget to play with. That said, the impact that both creators and influencers have on brands can be both massive and dramatically different.
Benefit: Creators inspire niche communities and develop deep relationships with their audience.
These people don’t become creators overnight. They’ve invested time into developing their creativity, content, and audience. In doing so they have earned the respect and trust of their followers. This long-term play builds a deep relationship with audiences that is hard to match.
Which is why so many brands want to work with creators. Imagine an entire online community of people who read every word, watch every piece of content, and engage regularly. That’s a whole new group of potential customers who might perfectly align with the brand or product it’s trying to sell.
Benefit: Creators work well for brands with smaller budgets.
Brands will spend an estimated $7.14 billion on influencer marketing in 2024. That means a majority of brands that you see on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube are dedicating a massive chunk of their marketing budget toward this effort.
But not every brand can afford celebrity-level influencers. That’s where creators come in.
They typically come in at a lower cost compared to influencers and have just as much impact. Sure, they might not garner the attention of millions, but the few thousands that follow them will not only see the branded content, but also engage with it heavily.
Working with creators allows brands to test a wide scope of ideas and see what truly resonates with the audience and what they like. Instead of spending an entire budget on one person, creator marketing allows brands to invest into more people with diverse creative input, resulting in a variety of content.
With that information they can target similar creators and start collaborating to develop more content that truly serves the audience, all without forking over 6-figure numbers in cost.
Drawback: Brands have less creative control over creators.
Creators don’t like to follow the template model that influencers do. They aren’t as comfortable using brand scripts or extensive creative briefs to the level of influencers. Not only does it hinder their creative process, but it feels inauthentic to their audience which will likely hurt how it performs. Instead, they prefer to freestyle each piece of content using their own creative approach.
This can be scary for brands investing their money in creators. They don’t necessarily know what content will come forth and how well it will work. Every brand wants to pay money and know that they are getting what they pay for. Working with creators requires trust that they will deliver something of value.
That value can be difficult to measure as not all creators are concerned with likes, engagement, and virality. Some value artistic impact which is not always followed by millions of likes, thousands of comments, and a spot on the Explore page.
That said, creator content is meant to stir audiences, capture their attention, and get them thinking. For brands who want to grow deep relationships with dedicated fans, this content can prove to be exactly what’s needed to connect them with that community.
Benefit: Influencers have a wider reach and greater chance of vitality.
It's simple, larger audiences mean larger reach. Larger reach yields more awareness, which results in more visitors and conversions.
Every brand that works with influencers wants more eyes on their products. Influencers make that happen.
Influencers are always at the top of FYP which means the chances of them going viral are inherently higher. Whether it be TikTok or Instagram, virality can catapult a brand into the mainstream and grab the attention of millions, pushing them toward products and services that align with their interests.
Benefit: Influencers bring valuable experience and a history of success to the table, making the brand's job more manageable.
Like I mentioned before, every brand wants to know the ROI of working with influencers. They want to show the value of the content in numbers, data, and results.
Influencers for the most part have worked with brands and know the basic marketing principles. They understand brands are trying to get the most out of their money and that metrics matter. By collaborating with influencers who’ve worked with other companies before these brands get a better estimate of ROI, making it easier to pay the costs knowing they will see the results they desire.
In that vein, the measure for success with influencer content is simple: CPM & engagement rate. This comes in the form of views, likes, comments, saves, and shares. Brands who are looking for impactful results get specific metrics that inform whether a campaign was a success or not. From there, they can optimize further efforts with influencers to ensure that content continues to perform and meet those numbers.
Drawback: Influencers come at a higher cost for brands.
It’s clear, influencer demand is at an all time high right now. Every brand on the internet knows traditional advertising is taking a backseat to the creator economy and that influencers are the catalyst for tremendous growth.
This means influencers are getting contacted every single day with collaboration opportunities. As these opportunities pour in, influencer prices go up. This price increase puts brands in a tough position: pay or don’t play.
In order to play the influencer marketing game, brands have to be willing to part ways with their marketing budget. This means writing five, even six-figure checks to one single creator, with the hope that their content resonates with a brand’s audience.
Many times, this investment yields massive results, but there’s no guarantee. Brand’s could ink a large check to an influencer only to find that the content style or message doesn't strike a chord with the audience, setting them back financially.
That’s not to say that all influencers are expensive. There are plenty of ways to work with influencers on a smaller budget, it just requires finding the right people with the right following, which we just so happen to do very well.
Which one is better: creators or influencers?
I wish this question had a cut and dry answer, but it doesn’t.
Creators and influencers are equally important in the creator economy. Both can have a major impact on brands big and small.
Creators help brands connect with niche audiences and turn fans into lifetime brand advocates. Influencers help brands reach millions of eyes and spread awareness across a wide range of audiences, driving clicks and conversions.
The question brands should be asking themselves as we head into the new year is what matters more?
Do you want to go viral and get millions of views?
Do you want to build deep relationships with audiences that truly align with your brand and mission?
There’s no wrong answer, it’s up to you to decide.
Until next time,