A relatively new phenomenon has been the rise of the social media influencer. A social media influencer is exactly what it sounds like: someone with significant influence over online followers. 

Of course, the degree of influence can and does vary greatly. Some influencers have a couple thousand followers while others have several million. Regardless of the size of their “influence,” an influencer is one with a privileged position in the eyes of a number of individuals online. They have the power to sway their followers’ purchasing behavior, thinking, and even beliefs. This means an influencer can manipulate them into buying unnecessary products, adopt inimical values, and become obsessively materialistic. Or they can help them in ethical and service-oriented ways.

However, individuals with the power to influence masses of people are not new by any means. Still, the manifestation of this age-old phenomenon through the advent of digital and social technologies is unique and exclusive to this generation. It has transformed the way businesses, non-profits, government agencies, and even churches reach and communicate with their constituencies, be that to help sell a product or champion an ideal.

Like most instances of technologies and their multi-varied use, the rise of the social media influencer is a complex reality with both benefits and costs to society. Yet it’s worth considering the phenomenon nonetheless, which is why we sat down with a PLNU faculty member as well as two PLNU alumnae to get their thoughts, insight, and expertise on the subject. 

A Closer Look at the “Influencer”

The term social media influencer can loosely be applied to any individual who has the capacity to incite a behavior with his or her followers (in this sense, anyone with a social media account and a circle of following friends and family can be deemed an influencer). But it’s most commonly used to refer to individuals who have the capacity to encourage a significant group of followers to make purchasing decisions. In other words, the term often refers to individuals who are aiding with the marketing and advertising efforts — be that officially or not — of one or more organizations.  

From a marketing perspective, this notion has been around for over a century. As one article from Forbes details, the use of an individual by a business to influence potential customers’ purchasing behavior dates back over a hundred years. For example, the actor Fatty Arbuckle was encouraging potential customers to smoke Murad cigarettes in 1905 and Nancy Green, a former slave, was the face of Aunt Jemima pancake mix in 1893. 

PLNU professor of marketing, Michael Wiese, Ph.D., explains that social media influencing is simply an extension of what companies have done for a long time. It’s only the tools that have changed.

“We have had sponsorships, testimonials, and product placements for a long time. In the past, the tools were controlled by the marketers, and they were the ones who decided what was said. The medium was somewhat limited in terms of access to the customer, giving a lot of power to brands. What social media has done is idealistically shifted power from the brand to the customer. Because now marketers can’t control the brand message as they did and now customers have the power to inform the perception of the people in their network about a given brand,” Wiese said. 

People want to hear from those who are relatable, people they can trust because they are just like them.

Major brands have certainly caught on to the value of employing social media influencers to expand their marketing reach. One representative from Estée Lauder admits that somewhere around 30 to 50 percent of their social/digital budget goes toward funding social media influencers. And overall, from 2015 social media influencer platforms have grown from 190 to 740, reaching a $6.5 billion market value. 

But one of the major differences between influencer marketing today is the apparent authenticity and familiarity that can be conveyed to customers. As opposed to watching a commercial of an NBA star sporting a clean shave (courtesy of Gillette), now potential customers can follow the star on Instagram and see him actually using the product in his everyday life. But even the celebrity social media influencer (though usually sporting a large following) is not always the most effective influencer.

Instead, the non-celebrity influencer can be more compelling because of their apparent authenticity and familiarity. People want to hear from those who are relatable, people they can trust because they are just like them. This means a teenage girl might be more likely to take makeup advice from a fellow teenage girl who demonstrates knowledge, authenticity, and relatability than a popstar. These influencers are known as “micro-influencers” (or “nano-influencers”), and usually only have a few hundred or thousand followers as opposed to hundreds of thousands. It can also be more financially beneficial for a company to employ a couple dozen micro-influencers over celebrities with massive followings. Not only can this be tremendously cheaper, but brands realize that sometimes these types of influencers are more effective in actually convincing followers of the benefit of a given product or service. 

“If a micro-influencer is someone I respect and I connect with through social media, YouTube, and/or a blog, etc., I may view that person as more credible and authentic, as opposed to a celebrity.  For example, if someone ‘more like me’ is helping me with my home décor or with my physical fitness, I will likely trust them over traditional brand messaging,” Wiese said. 

Life as an Influencer

When people witness people “just like them” garnering a large following by simply talking about certain products and services (and even getting paid for it), they can be tempted to try to become an influencer themselves. It’s easy to imagine why a company sending you free things to merely review in a five-minute YouTube video would be an easy, lucrative, and compelling gig. It’s true that those with massive followers can and do make a lot of money. And brands do pay certain influencers (in both free products/services and money) who can reach at least tens of thousands (if not more) of individuals. But becoming an influencer and making a decent salary — or at the very least accruing a ton of free products and services — is much more difficult than it looks.

There’s a misconception that this type of career is easy to get into and to execute. It took me five years to build my platform and now I work a full-time schedule alongside my management team and assistant to run my platforms.

PLNU alum Elena Taber (18) has been crafting videos on YouTube for a few years now, producing content related to fashion, beauty, and travel. On her YouTube channel, she currently has hundreds of thousands of followers. After graduating from PLNU, she moved to New York to produce content for YouTube full-time and created her own brand. Because of the size of her influence and talent in video production, she has been able to craft content full-time for companies, non-profits, and other organizations for a salary. She has worked with clients like Marc Jacobs, Bloomingdales, Adobe, Nissan, Project Runway and the tourism boards of different cities and countries.

But the operative term is “full-time,” and she is quick to say that it’s a lot of work to make a living doing what she does.

“There’s a misconception that this type of career is easy to get into and to execute. It took me five years to build my platform and now I work a full-time schedule alongside my management team and assistant to run my platforms. Creating videos for a brand often means you have to wear all the hats of a production company. You basically are the creative director, producer, editor, talent, stylist, and marketer all in one,” Taber said.

She doesn’t like the term “social media influencer,” and prefers to use content creator, which is understandable since the former can carry a pejorative connotation of being unserious, superficial, or even manipulative.

When Taber first started, she didn’t have any goals of doing it full-time. She simply liked to travel, capture her experiences on film, and share them online with her friends.

“I enjoyed making videos growing up. I started my channel as a freshman to have a creative outlet and wanted to capture my outfits or moments going on adventures with friends. For years, I would spend 10 to 15 hours a week making videos on top of being a full-time student and having a part-time job but I loved it. With time, I saw my audience gradually grow and it inspired me to keep going. When I finally reached 50,000 my senior year, I realized this could be something bigger than I could have ever intended,” Taber said. 

She was told that when one reaches roughly 100,000 subscribers on YouTube, there are opportunities to monetize one’s efforts to the equivalent of a full-time salary.

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Another PLNU alum, Lauren (Lebouef) Miranda (19), has also had success as a social media influencer. She currently has over 30,000 followers on Instagram. Before attending PLNU, she was modeling with agencies in L.A. and S.D. While doing this, she started to learn that brands were willing to give models free clothes and products in exchange for modeling them on their social media accounts. She started to get involved and was soon contacted by brands like American Eagle, Forever 21, and other small boutiques partnering with Nordstroms. She started doing this initially for the free products but eventually fell in love with it because of the community aspect.

“It kind of started with the idea of modeling, and it turned into more of me loving the community side of it,” Miranda shared. “I didn’t know that these young girls looked up to me, and it turned into more than just a surface-level thing. It was about community.”

She started having young girls reach out to her, thanking her for her suggestions with respect to certain products as well as her honest reviews. She still works a full-time job in digital marketing, and so it’s been something she does on the side to help serve young women by promoting good products by brands she supports. She also has another account on Instagram, where she promotes various Target products.

“Actually, during my last year at PLNU, I came up with this idea to start a new account and promote everything from Target. My dream is to grow the Target platform bigger than myself,” Miranda said.

Additionally, she launched a podcast where she brings people on related to Target (e.g. an author with a new book selling at the store, etc.) to help promote their work. She does this because she appreciates that Target is relatable and affordable, while still allowing young women to feel good about themselves and their purchases. In other words, she hopes to encourage young women to feel empowered to dress stylishly at an affordable price, rather than thinking that they have to buy only from high-end and expensive stores. 

The Dangers of Influencing

As with anything that promises the allure of free products and services, status, power, and wealth, there are dangers. 

For one, influencers may give the appearance of authentically liking a certain product but could be promoting it only to get it for free or in exchange for money. Secondly, a social media influencer culture can encourage people to try and build up followers for the wrong reasons, mainly to draw the attention of certain brands in hopes of making money or gaining fame. This means that loyal followers can be misled, fed an image or narrative from an influencer that isn’t true.

In a The New Yorker article, Laurence Scott makes the humorous analogy of the influencer’s villainous-sounding name: “the Influencer could be a Batman villain, alongside the Joker.” The comparison is no doubt worth considering. There are individuals who are using their platform just to accrue wealth or products, inauthentically highlighting the benefits of a certain product or service only to sell them. This can be especially dangerous when it comes to products or services that can alter people’s image of themselves. Promoting unsafe dieting practices or apotheosizing a certain level of fitness, for instance, can be problematic. It can cause followers to adopt unhealthy views of themselves, breed insecurities, and encourage rampant narcissism, vanity, and materialism. 

The Influencer could be a Batman villain, alongside the Joker.

Wiese pointed to the debacle of the Fyre Festival, which was a prime example of influencer marketing that was fueled by selfish and materialistic desires. The Fyre Festival was a music festival that was promoted by social media influencers. The promotion of the event led to many purchasing tickets and attending the event, which was an utter failure because of serious problems related to catering, medical services, and security. In the end, attendees were sold on a luxurious experience, but paid thousands of dollars to attend a poorly run event simply because it had garnered undue hype on social media.   

“The Fyre Festival had powerful social media influencers promoting it. It is an example where the focus was on hype and stimulation of demand to get a transaction, as opposed to a focus on delivering customer satisfaction. Effective marketing helps the firm find customers to serve and focuses the firm on providing value to the customer,” Wiese said.

Taber admits that she knows of people in her line of work who try to become social media influencers for the wrong reasons. 

“A common pitfall is try to recreate what other people are doing and be someone you’re not. While it’s cliché, it is so important to be true to yourself and to avoid creating content that will only be popular for a moment,” Taber explained. “It’s common to see people start now in hopes of free product, money, and fame but entering in with the wrong mindset will never lead to a  meaningful platform.”

“There are people just promoting a brand only to get product or because they just want followers and say yes without knowing and loving the product,” Miranda said.

A common pitfall is try to recreate what other people are doing and be someone you’re not. While it’s cliché, it is so important to be true to yourself and to avoid creating content that will only be popular for a moment.

Miranda pointed to the fact that it can be very dangerous when an influencer isn’t committed to serving the needs of their audience and what is best for them.

“Another thing is that if certain influencers do have a big platform and have a community of all ages they can put ideas into people’s heads,” Miranda continued. “If you have a younger audience then you don’t want to promote products or services that are not good for them or appropriate.”

She gave the example of promoting certain diets that might not be safe for all ages (or any age), which could cause harm to those who might buy the product or service. Ultimately, the danger is that an audience is used to gratify selfish desires or goals of the influencer with little regard to the consequences on that audience.

Influencing as a Force for Good

If failing as a social media influencer — or manipulator — involves serving one’s own selfish interests for fame, free product and services, wealth, and status, then the opposite is serving the audience and trying to authentically promote products or services in their best interests.

If you open a social media app and end up feeling worse off about yourself then it’s important to re-evaluate who you’re following.

Taber said a good way to check to see if the content you’re following is serving you, and not the publisher, is to pay attention to your feelings. 

“I am always self-checking to making sure I am only working with brands that I truly believe in and creating content I can be proud of. My hope is for young women to come across my platforms and feel inspired and confident. If you open a social media app and end up feeling worse off about yourself then it’s important to re-evaluate who you’re following,” Taber said.

As a prominent influencer herself, Taber checks what she is creating and sharing by keeping in mind her vision for her work. She works only with for-profit brands she feels are sustainable and running ethically a well as non-profit organizations and NGOs. She admits this can be tough at times, since her livelihood depends on working with organizations and creating content. But she understands that there can be great satisfaction in working with certain for-profit brands because they can still allow her to serve others.

“While I greatly value working with nonprofits and humanitarian groups, I have also grown to realize how important it is to reach the 20-something women around me and encourage them to live outside of their comfort zones,” Taber elaborated. “There are so many of us simply trying to find our way, our community, our purpose, and there’s so much value in authentically showing my journey of doing so and hopefully inspiring them to live a greater life. I’ll get messages from people who’ve been inspired to make a big move or travel solo or go for something that scared them because they saw me doing it and that’s the best feeling. I’m still very passionate about sharing about sustainable fashion, living an eco-friendly life, and supporting important causes but love being able to reach young women just like me.”

In fact, this is exactly what she did for PLNU as a student. She took a video internship position with PLNU’s Marketing and Creative Services Office and created authentic videos to share her perspective with prospective students.

“I think my mindset for each video for PLNU was to share my experience with potential students and for some people to see whether it is the school for them or not. I remember seeing videos of other schools and wanting a more raw video than just a high-quality orientation video,” Taber said.

For her, the goal wasn’t to merely convince people to attend PLNU. The aim was to provide an authentic behind-the-scenes look, from her perspective, of what life is like at PLNU so that viewers could make the best decision for themselves. If they ended up picking PLNU, great.

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Miranda approaches her responsibility as a social media influencer in a similar way. 

“I definitely circle back to being authentic and always trying to at least research the brand beyond a surface level when they approach me. If they claim to be healthy, and are a food company, then I want to think about the follower who is looking at my content. So if a junk food company reached out to me then that wouldn’t align with my brand. And it could be the same with a certain clothing brand. I have to really love the brand to say yes. I try to have that one avatar person in mind and give them an age and think about what does she need. Does she need encouragement in relationships or help buying stuff from Target? I try to think about the impact I can make with just one post,” Miranda shared.

Being a social media influencer should ultimately be about serving the audience out of love by sharing truthful information. And it can also lead to connecting with others and encouraging them for reasons beyond buying a given product or service. 

“I know of an influencer in Indiana who attends the church that my wife and I used to attend,” Wiese explained. “She decorates her home in a farmhouse style and started sharing on Instagram. Hobby Lobby and other firms contacted her to be an influencer. Now she has over 50,000 followers and is in a position to use her role as an influencer to talk about her faith or share service opportunities. Recently, she used her network to help fund an elementary school inclusive playground. With a group of people who care about home decoration, she has influenced in ways beyond getting people to buy pillows.”

This is what Miranda does on her platform. In addition to providing helpful information about various products and services, she opens up about her life and faith. She does this to hopefully connect with and encourage her followers in ways beyond marketing.

“I share what I’m going through and how my relationship with God has helped me. I don’t want to push my faith on someone, but people following me do tell me they like when I talk about my faith,” Miranda said.

Not only can good come from authentically educating and connecting with audiences about a given product or service (which provides a legitimate service), but a social media influencer can even inspire others in ways that are personal, edifying, and, ultimately, grace-filled.

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Christopher Hazell is a writer and editor. He is the author of Ends in Mind, a newsletter about culture, technology, Christian spirituality, the arts, and more.