Are ‘influencers’ really that influential?

Some people have huge social media followings, and some have the power to shape civilization. Sometimes those groups overlap—but not always.

Are influencers really influential?

Consider the difference between being an “influencer” and being influential.

Take, for example, Frances Arnold of CalTech, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work in unlocking the key to the evolutionary process, so people can create solutions to save lives and protect the environment, among many other applications.

Her work is summed up in two words: “directed evolution.” 

To say Arnold is influential is an understatement. Her work has advanced all of mankind. Visiting her Twitter profile, you’d notice that she has 20,000 followers. 

Kylie Jenner, on the other hand, has 28.4 million followers on Twitter. People.com lists Jenner’s accomplishments this way: 

“Kylie Jenner is a reality TV personality, social media influencer and makeup mogul. She rose to fame in 2007 on Keeping Up with the Kardashians, her family’s E! reality show that follows the daily lives of the Kardashian-Jenner clan.” 

One is a world-class influential; the other is a world-class influencer. 

What is an influential? 

It’s someone who has made a substantive impact on society, apart from the metrics and monetization of “likes” and follows. An influential might not even have a social media account, but rather spends her or his days advancing society. 

Mother Teresa was an influential, which earned her sainthood but not influencer status. Given that her time ended before the explosion of digital culture, she was never an influencer. Lacking a digital footprint, she was still able to move millions through her selfless example, and through her commitment to her faith and the poor. 

Of course, you needn’t be known worldwide to be an influential. 

You might be Scott Fahlman, who created the emoticon that may have dashed across your screen at some point today. Though that contribution is seen far and wide, for decades he has been a scientist working to develop artificial intelligence. That’s an influential. 

What is an influencer? 

Influencers are easier to find. Media agency OMD launched its “I-Score” influencer report in 2017 in conjunction with tech firm Influential. 

Each influencer earns a composite score based on engagement and mentions “within their vertical.” If Twitter is your platform of choice, and you are more engaged and mentioned than most others there, you are a top Twitter influencer. The same holds for other social media platforms. 

Why does this matter?

This all leads us to the question: Are influencers influential, and are influential people influencers?

The short answer is “yes.” The more detailed answer is: It depends on your view and your goals. 

If you are looking for someone truly influential, she or he probably has not actively used social media, because they have been busy doing other things. They are usually experts, invaluable resources for the people and organizations with whom they work.

If you are a brand manager looking to make a splash on a particular social channel, you might be looking at influencers—those who’ve made a business of being popular on specific channels. Many are accomplished in entertainment and athletics, but given the nature of social media, some are arguably more famous because of their social activity.

There are caveats. AdAge says the biggest mistake you can make with influencers is “to focus on one-off activations instead of partnering on long-term campaigns. … More and more brands are realizing the value of activating influencers for longer-term strategies, and this will continue to grow in popularity.” 

Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy, and he is producer/host of the ShapingOpinion podcast. A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.

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