Tow Center

Digital influencers have changed advertising. They’re changing journalism, too.

December 7, 2018
Photo: Adobe Stock

The rise of social platforms has brought with it a new kind of celebrity: the digital influencer.

It’s a newish term, used to describe social media users whose online clout enables them to engage with and advertise to their followers in more direct ways than traditional media figures. As influencers build relationships with their audiences through sharing their opinions and personal stories, they establish a sense of credibility and authenticity that differentiates them from most conventional celebrities.

This enables them to dominate the social media economy of likes and shares. And as they develop significant online power, the money from advertisers follows: brands pay as much as six figures for a single Instagram post or YouTube video from a big name.

Digital influencers don’t simply post selfies or pictures of food—some of them present themselves as reporters or informed pundits and their posts as journalism. Libertarian commentator Dave Rubin’s YouTube show The Rubin Report, described as “the largest talk show about free speech and big ideas on YouTube,” has over 800,000 subscribers. On the other end of the political spectrum, 30-year-old Natalie Wynn, who calls herself a “leftist propagandist,” uses her YouTube channel ContraPoints to share her views on socialism and social justice with her 300,000 subscribers.

On November 29, I organized a series of discussions on the role of digital influencers in the online media ecosystem with a group of journalists, industry experts, and academics at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. We discussed the ways influencers are monetizing their online clout and what their rapid rise to prominence means for news publishers who are competing with them for eyeballs in the social media marketplace.

Influencers are often attractive to advertisers because of their perceived authenticity, rather than the size of their audiences, which are far exceeded by media like television and Facebook, panelists noted. Sapna Maheshwari, who covers advertising for The New York Times, described the phenomenon of nano-influencers: people with as few as 1,000 followers who are especially popular among their friends and communities. When working with brands, sponsored posts from “nanos” look like friendly suggestions (even when they contain hashtags like #sponsored or #ad). The most successful influencer advertising often doesn’t look like advertising at all.

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Indeed, one of the biggest challenges proved to be agreeing on what exactly influencers are.  Some panelists pointed out that all social media users are to some extent influencers among their followers, while others lamented that the category is broad enough to include traditional celebrities like Kim Kardashian. Shareen Pathak, director of editorial products at Digiday, suggested replacing the catch-all term with “social media stars” or “creators.” Taylor Lorenz, a staff writer for The Atlantic covering internet culture, defined influencers as celebrities “native to social platforms with social clout who have power and influence over their audiences, drive purchasing decisions, and affect behavior.” Mia Shaung Li, a Tow research fellow who studies social media in China, pointed out that the Chinese government defines social media influence as the ability to “sway public opinion and mobilize socially.”

For news publishers, using influencers to promote both editorial and advertising content can broaden audiences, build more personal relationships with audiences, and please advertisers. Digital-first publishers often embed influencer talent among their own staffs: Many BuzzFeed video creators have social media followings robust enough to guarantee view numbers that would be unrealistic for other publishers, while Refinery29 staffers create sponsored posts for advertisers on their personal accounts. Low-end viral news sites pay influencers to promote their articles as a form of syndication. Even at the top of the market, the Times acquired the influencer marketing agency HelloSociety in 2016 as part of its native ad division.

The most successful influencer advertising often doesn’t look like advertising at all.

When it comes to influencer–publisher partnerships, the power of big social platforms cannot be overstated. As Digiday’s Max Willens recounted during a panel discussion on Thursday, when Facebook found out that celebrities like George Takei were advertising for sites like Mic and Slate on its platform without going through official channels, the social media platform minimized the reach of such sponsored posts to such an extent that the entire business model was “choked out of existence” on Facebook. The newly launched Facebook Brand Collabs Manager, a search tool connects brands and influencers for the purpose of Facebook sponsored-content ad campaigns, appears to be an attempt to centralize the influencer marketing ecosystem.

While some influencers sell products through sponsorships and endorsement deals, others peddle political ideologies. Data & Society researcher Becca Lewis and Wired technology reporter Paris Martineau spoke about the rise of powerful right-wing influencers that came to prominence in the lead-up to the 2016 election, especially on YouTube.

Lewis described what she calls the “alternative influence network”: a group of loosely-related social media personalities including men’s rights activists, white nationalists, and more moderate Trump supporters, who appear on each others YouTube channels, collaborate on projects, and engage in public debates. Throughout the last few years, these influencers have created a media ecosystem largely separate from the mainstream media and cable news.

Though YouTube occasionally denounces misleading and extremist content on its platform, Lewis argued that these influencers are using its monetary structures the way they’re meant to be used: to build audiences by any means necessary.

The sudden growth of influencer content in both advertising and journalism was a major topic of discussion on Thursday. Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor of communication at Cornell who studies digital labor, described the rise of influencers as a phenomenon born out of the convergence of celebrity culture and Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. What sets influencers apart from more traditional celebrities, she suggested, is their focus on self-promotion and self-branding as well as (at least initially) their lack of institutional support.

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Natalie Silverstein, who runs the New York office of the influencer marketing agency Collectively, sees her role as “helping brands connect with digital communities” using influencers as “vectors.”

For researchers studying digital influencers, the main challenge lies in the lack of data-gathering tools available from platforms. Lewis described having to manually log collaborations between right-wing influencers because YouTube does not provide sufficient metadata on its video content, while Martineau pointed out that there are still no commonly agreed-upon methods for measuring “influence” at all. The flattening of definitions on social platforms—an individual can be a brand, a brand can be a publisher—only adds further confusion. As the industry wrestles with these issues, digital influencers in business and politics will likely continue to gain power in the online media landscape.

George Civeris is a research fellow at the Tow Center. Follow him on Twitter @georgeciveris.