Influence is a Spectrum

Esteban Contreras
8 min readMay 13, 2016


According to Merriam-Webster, one of the meanings for the word generic is “having no particularly distinctive quality or application.”

It seems that at some point over the past few years, the idea of an “influencer” became a generic one.

Apparently there is some invisible threshold that allows marketers and PR people to say: “A-ha! X+ followers. Young. Camera-friendly. You know what that means!? INFLUENCER. Boom. Let’s get us one, pronto.”

Well, not so fast.

If a 17-year-old kid has a million followers on Snapchat and he spends two hours a day snapping away all kinds of random funny things, is that kid an influencer?

The kid’s an influencer, OK? He influences others. It doesn’t matter what his skills and experience look like on a resume. A higher-than average ability to influence others makes you an influencer.

Does that mean that every brand on Earth should work with this 17-year-old influencer to awkwardly pitch random products on Snapchat?

No. Definitely not.

Does that mean that some products may be naturally relevant to the kid, and therefore naturally relevant to his friends and audience?

Well, yeah. Maybe.

And would it make sense for a brand that makes a relevant product to reach out and say, “Hey, maybe we should chat — we’d love to give you some Vans shoes and include you as one of the actors in an upcoming campaign.”

Yeah, sure.

The problem is that brands, especially those with big pockets for content, often just turn to an agency or an advisor or just whomever looks young at headquarters to ask: “Can we please get some influencers in here already?”

That. Makes. No. Sense.

I’m talking about the part of looking for an influencer instead of looking to solve a problem or leverage an opportunity.

Now, the idea of paying people of influence for their time, their name, and their endorsement is not a bad idea. It’s not a new idea either. Celebrity spokespeople were all huge fans of cigarettes in the 50’s, for example. At least that’s what Google shows when you search for 1950’s celebrity endorsements. If they had had Vine back then, teenagers would’ve watched endless loops of Ronald Reagan raving about Chesterfield’s “mildness.” Who knew?

Associations between brands and influencers have always been a bit of an art and science. Back in the day, it was much easier to spot influencers. You could just ask questions like, “Are they famous? Are they on TV? On the radio? Could they sell our products for us?” And then you’d talk to your Mad Men agency and come up with some dandy copy and art direction. And then you’re run it on some newspapers and high-five your colleagues for a job well done.

These days, influence is much more complex to understand, measure and explain. People of all kinds of influence become popular almost overnight, and many die trying. Not literally, of course.

There are people influencing niches and sub-cultures all over the world. From makeup and fashion to sports and comedy, more people than ever before in history are leveraging their personalities and creating versions of themselves that resonate with large audiences. The Internet has truly empowered us to share photos and videos of ourselves, and some people turn that into full-time jobs and careers.

Brands should not focus on the popularity of influencers when considering to collaborate or pay for the endorsement. Instead, they should focus on which influencers may be an ideal fit. Is a collaboration relevant to their audience? Do they have similar audiences?

Instead of just looking at a list of a PR agency’s influencer roster and picking based on affordability and availability, brands should ensure that an association actually makes sense. Does this person influence the brand’s target market? Is this person known for the right topics? Does this person actually use the brand’s products? How does this person work with other brands? Why would this person want to be associated with the brand?

This is what all brands do with major celebrity endorsers. It’s why Tiger Woods was a spokesperson for many top brands for many years. He was carefully selected for more reasons than one. His follower count had nothing to do with it, that’s for sure. And this careful selection is also the reason why the world’s favorite golfer fell from grace amidst a personal crisis, and advertisers swiftly backed out from their deals.

Was Tiger Woods a waste of time and money? Given that Tiger Woods had such a great personal brand and likely did not just lend his image to anyone, probably not. During Tiger Wood’s advertising prime, it is safe to assume that most of his deals were win-win; resulting in major ad campaigns and big-time event appearances.

That’s not the case with a 17-year-old Snapchatter who is happy to lend his image to pretty much anyone who pays up, especially not if said 17-year-old has figured out that there is a market for this stuff and his rates can rise faster than a Vancouver condo.

So why would a brand invest their marketing dollars on an unproven, not-so-well-known but mildly influential kid who is not planning to go to college because Snapchat is way more fun?

For one, experimentation. Brands often like to experiment. Another reason is a desire to accelerate relevance — of a campaign or a product launch — through association with people who are already top of mind for a particular audience. Some brands just want to get some attention so they’ll throw money at the wall and see what sticks. One of the tactics is usually going to be related to influencer marketing. Brands have been doing this with social media influencers for several years now — probably since the rise of YouTube.

When I was at Samsung a few years ago, the brand started working with YouTubers. In 2010 I started to meet some of these YouTubers. From what I could see, they were working around the clock making clever and well-produced videos. Those YouTubers who were just getting started were more than happy to participate in contests to showcase their talents. And they were very happy to create and collaborate on content. While they were not rocket scientists, they definitely had talent — ranging from singing and public speaking to video production and editing. They put themselves out there and they were diligent, perseverant — even if they weren’t always patient.

Each year, I noticed their influence rise. From commanding hundreds of dollars to tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars — to being featured on magazines, movies, music videos and major awards shows — their influence was very real. A few faded back to normalcy before anyone noticed. Many are still incredibly influential within sub-cultures (like local eSports competitions) while a few have gone on to became stars.

By the time I left Samsung, the company had worked and built relationships with lots of influencers. Some were a perfect fit — making the brand, products and themselves shine in an authentic, meaningful and creative way. Others, not so much. But the goal was never to work with influencers.

The goal of working with influencers, at least from my perspective, is to better understand customer affinities — and produce relevant messages and stories. Whether that is an ad, social media content, an appearance, a song on a commercial, or something else, I believe any work with influencers should be properly vetted before an agreement. And once there is an agreement, it should be cultivated over time. The details will depend on many factors because, of course, not all influencers are equal.

Sorry Gawker, this definition of “influencer” may be witty, but it isn’t true.

“An influencer, for those readers who have never commuted to a funky converted-loft office space for work, is a person, usually a teen or early-twentysomething, who has a large following on some social media platform, and has used that large following to trick some decaying capitalist institution into believing that they are valuable in some way.”

Gawker was piggy-backing on a Digiday “confessions” post by an alleged “social media exec.” It’s an interesting article with valuable insights for marketers — but it also shows that the same people who fueled “influencer marketing” are the ones who aren’t sure what to do with the frenzy they helped create. The fact that someone paying influencers has “no idea what to pay (influencers)” shows that they had no idea what they were doing — or why.

Does no one care about WHY anymore?

You don’t simply throw money at a wall full of people with a following. Whether they are reality stars or the latest Damn-Daniel-ish viral hit, you can’t simply buy relevance through random associations with whatever and whomever is cool this week.

Working with anyone with some form of influence and celebrity status should be done carefully. It’s not exactly like picking a spouse or a house or a co-founder, but there are some similarities because you are creating a relationship, an association, and a mutually-beneficial partnership. Working with influencers should not be done with the assumption that it will be a one-time mindless transaction to get a couple of extra retweets.

You research. You think. You meet. You consider. You test.

You try your best based on the interest of your customer, your brand and the influencer. And you become accountable for that spending. You don’t just go all-in for a few years and then say that “Influencers are going to start disappearing.” You don’t blame the CEO’s kid for recommending an influencer.

You learn. You validate. You invest. You iterate. You research some more.

Influence is not a social media fad. Influence is not something found on a score or follower count. And influencers are by no means limited to millennials or Snapchatters or spreadsheets.

According to Merriam-Webster, influence is “the power to change or affect someone or something.”

Influencer deals with no likelihood of being relevant to the brand and its customers are a waste of time. But influencer deals, when done correctly, can turn a good campaign/event/program/video into a great one. It’s not easy, but it’s worthwhile to try.

Influence, at the end of the day, is a spectrum.

And “influencers” fall somewhere on that spectrum. That’s why influence will never cease to exist and — regardless of Digiday confessions — influencers will be around for the rest of our lives. For better, or worse.

When someone becomes a potential fit for a brand, they have made their way into that brand’s influence spectrum. And at the top of that spectrum may be someone who is anything but generic. Someone like Ellen. Yep, believe it or not, Ellen is an influencer. And so are all the other people on this selfie:

This article was originally published on Social Nerdia. Let me know what you think here on Medium or on Twitter.



Esteban Contreras

Sr Director, Product @ Hootsuite. All opinions are personal. I’ve run out of witty bios 👾