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The History of Influencers: Impact on Society and Businesses

If you ask anyone today, “what’s an influencer?” odds are they’ll be able to tell you. (Especially if they’re a part of the millennial or Gen Z populations.) If you had asked people 10 years ago, their answers would’ve sounded much different. So what does the history of influencers have to do with present-day marketing?

Since the early 2000s, social media influencers have transformed from mere internet personalities to influential figures shaping trends and consumer behavior. Emerging initially on platforms like MySpace and early blogs, influencers gained traction through their authentic content and relatable personas. Eventually, with the rise of platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, influencers have become integral to marketing strategies, dictating behaviors among audiences and brands alike.

Pre-2002: Celebrities as Influencers

Celebrities have long had an impact on the way that people dress, act, buy, and more. The influence of celebrities can be seen in their ability to change the mainstream. Prior to social media, the number of celebrities with such an effect on society was limited when compared to today.

In what seems like an unconnected world (compared to the present), celebrities like The Beatles, Oprah, and Princess Diana all had an impact on what brands were trendy and popular at the time. Celebrities were icons that people aspired to be like, and their influence could be seen purely in mainstream culture.

Celebrities had limited opportunities for brands to influence mass audiences. Whether the celebrity was seen wearing branded clothing, drinking Coca-Cola, or present in a commercial, most of the time these were expensive endorsements with limited ROI measurability when compared to today.

2002-2012: Bloggers & Vloggers as Influencers

The early 200’s saw the semi-mainstream adoption of the blogger. With the internet exploding in popularity, anyone with expertise in anything from motherhood to engineering could post their thoughts online. Advancements in technology gave birth to the vlogger with the creation of YouTube in 2006.

This greatly changed the game around offering content to a viewer, and the endorsements that came with it.

When it comes to the history of influencers, you can see how bloggers and Vloggers were able to influence more niche communities. People with specific interests could learn about products and services that spoke to them specifically. However, these endorsements also had an extremely limited ability to be tracked by companies for ROI and were used sparingly by few brands.

2012-2018: Influencers Enter the Game

The creation and widespread adoption of social media spawned the concept of influencers. Celebrities and popular social media profiles recognized their ability to sway the public into buying various products and services. Meanwhile, these platforms also gave celebrities a way to grow their own brand and sell someone else’s at the same time by targeting their followers.

Social media soon became the wild west of marketing. Products from every industry were promoted through influencers between 2012-2015 with nearly zero FTC guidelines. It was the true awakening of influencer marketing, and advertisers were only getting started.

However, at this point in time, advertisers typically only used influencers with some sort of celebrity status. Likes and follower count could be used as a baseline estimate of anticipated ROI for campaigns that leveraged influencers, but attribution was still severely lacking.

FTC Guidelines Alter Influencers

In 2015, The FTC began to place guidelines onto influencers for how they could promote products. These rules originated from laws already in place at the time that pertained to general endorsements. Because influencer marketing has exploded since then, new rules and regulations, specific to advertisers, have been put into effect. In the beginning, an influencer could be paid to post a picture wearing sunglasses and no one would know it was a paid sponsorship.

This and other posts like it were considered “native advertising”. Native advertising was content that people can’t necessarily differentiate from other non-sponsored posts. Now in 2024, influencers are legally required to put special disclaimers on all content that they were paid to post. The FTC does not allow for hidden or native advertising any longer, but rather ensures that consumers know that they are being marketed to. Should they violate these guidelines, influencers can face hard sanctions that may threaten their livelihood.

2018-2022: Content Creators Become Influencers

It’s extremely difficult to be famous for being famous (e.g. the Kardashians). Individuals today will find it difficult to become famous on social media without offering something that will truly provide value to their viewers. This phenomenon gave rise to the content creator. These creators offer more to their followers by providing them with videos and content that they are most interested in. They aren’t famous for being famous, but rather are popular for entertaining, educating, and engaging their followers.

Content creators develop original media that speaks to an audience. These audiences can be widespread, niche, or anything in between. People follow channels that speak to them personally. Regardless of the type of content, these creators develop a pseudo-personal connection with their viewers. This connection creates more trust in endorsements from content creators than with traditional influencers. By 2018, consumers caught on to the fact that influencers are trying to sell them something by leveraging their brand.

With FTC guidelines tightening, and native advertising no longer being so subtle, traditional influencers have found it more difficult to leverage their brand in a meaningful and “honest” way. Content creators have been able to combat this by not hiding endorsements or making them subtle, but rather having ads as part of their viewing experience. Content Creators give advertisers enhanced targetability, branding capabilities, and connections with their chosen audiences.

2022 and Beyond: Influencer Communities

Throughout the long history of influencers, famous content creators eventually learned, scaled, and transformed their platforms into a community. For example, Logan Paul has his “LoGang” or Taylor Swift’s “Swifties.”

The communities that have formed around these creators are die hard fans who identify and align themselves with their chosen influencer. The followers in many cases affix their personas to these creators and often use their mannerisms, sayings, and more. Most importantly, they view the creators as a personal friend, whom they know a great deal about.

The Relevance of Community

These “friends” are often part of many aspects of their viewers’ lives. From listening to their podcast on a commute to school or work, to watching their YouTube content at home, or reading articles about them in the news, the creator’s connection to followers is always present. This has given advertisers unique opportunities to attach themselves to these platforms and their following. Because of the level of trust their following has, creators’ endorsements transform from an advertisement to a recommendation from a friend.

These endorsements are more likely to see better ROI’s because their following believe that if their “friend” likes a product or service then they will too. With communities like these popping up more often than ever, there has never been a better time in influencer history to attach a brand to one or multiple creators. Now, with greater influence on consumers, better ROI, even more targetability, high customization of content, and increasing levels of attribution capabilities, these types of influencers will be key for brands looking to connect with their audience in a meaningful way. 

Influencers for Business

The long-winded history of influencers has come full circle. Word of mouth connects consumers to new creators based on their likes and what they and their friends relate to. Influencer marketing today has a more organic feel than traditional advertising since many consumers view the people they follow as friends that they trust and want to support rather than seeing them as untouchable celebrities.

When friends recommend a brand, the effect is much more powerful on the likelihood of buying the product, as opposed to a traditional commercial. Influencers can be highly leveraged to create a personal connection with a brand that leads to a lifelong customer.

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