What is an influencer? The complete definition
What is an influencer?
Broadly speaking, an influencer is someone who has the ability to influence the opinions and behaviors of others. This might be through the clothes they wear, the opinions they hold, or the expertise they have on a certain topic.
There was once a time where this influence was mostly contained to our friends and family, or the celebrities we saw in films and magazines.
But as social media has continued to carve a place in our everyday lives, the term ‘influencer’ has become intrinsically linked to those with a strong influence online, who shape the opinions and behaviors of their audiences through the content they share and the communities they create.
In this sense, we can categorize influencers in a few key ways:
- Someone with the ability to shape the opinions and behaviors of others
- Someone who shares engaging, entertaining, informative and/or inspirational content that appeals to a specific audience
- Someone who has developed authority and credibility within a certain niche or topic
- Someone who engages frequently with their audience to develop trusting relationships
- Someone who has built a community of followers that look to them for advice, inspiration, or entertainment
Of course, there can be some variation in this definition based on the size of an influencer’s following and the industry they are in. This definition can also include people who built influence offline first, such as industry experts, academics, journalists and celebrities. We’ll delve into this shortly, or you can skip to types of influencers here.
Why are influencers such a big deal?
The reason that the term ‘influencer’ has become such a big deal over the last few years, is because of the power these key influencers hold in shaping opinions and behaviors towards brands.
It’s no secret that consumers are losing trust in brand messaging. And, as a result, they are looking more to the people they can trust for honest opinions and recommendations: their friends, family, and – you guessed it – influencers.
In fact, compared to just 38% of consumers that trust brand messaging, 61% trust influencer recommendations. Another study found that nearly 50% depend on influencers for product opinions and insights to guide their future purchases.
These stats speak for themselves. And it’s why brands of all sizes are partnering with influencers to promote their products, build stronger customer relationships, and leverage growing influencer trust to achieve their marketing goals.
This is called influencer marketing, and it’s fast becoming one of the most powerful marketing strategies available to brands. Generating an average of $5.20 for every dollar spent, there’s a reason 68% of marketers plan to increase their influencer marketing budgets this year.
What are the different types of influencer?
Influencers can be categorized in a variety of ways. This may include their industry niche (fashion, food, fitness), or their primary social media platform for creating content (TikTok, Instagram, YouTube). But for the most part, we categorize influencers based on the size of their audience – in other words, their follower count.
Nano-Influencers are the smallest of our influencer groups with less than 10,000 followers followers. They may still be carving their space in a broader industry such as beauty or lifestyle, or hold a significant share of influence in a more niche category, such as gardening, pottery, or holistic health.
Importantly, nano influencers tend to have the highest engagement levels of any other type of influencer. This is thought to be due to a greater overlap between their online following and the people they know in real life, as well as their ability to remain highly engaged in their comments and DMs and build strong relationships with their followers (something not so easy for celebs receiving thousands of messages a day).
At this stage, nano-influencers may still be exploring partnerships with brands, and view influencing as more of a ‘side hustle’ next to their primary jobs. For brands, this can often mean they are willing to work in return for free products and experiences (see product seeding) or invitations to events. Brands should be careful not to take advantage of influencers in this category – their impressive engagement rates enable them to offer huge impact for brands (especially those in smaller categories) and they deserve to be compensated fairly.
Micro-influencers are the next tier in our influencer scale, with around 10,000-60,000 followers. Like nano-influencers, micro-influencers can include big players within a smaller niche, or up-and-coming creators within more competitive markets such as food or fitness. They continue to benefit from high engagement rates and close audience relationships, but with a slightly higher reach than their nano counterparts.
Offering a perfect ‘sweet spot’ between engagement and reach, but with a smaller price tag than the likes of macro and mega influencers, micro-influencers are a popular choice for brands of all sizes.
For example, home decor brand, Ruggable, partners with micro influencers to inject more authenticity and personality into its brand messaging. This includes partnering with pet accounts on Instagram to highlight the rugs’ machine-washable benefits and ability to withstand any level of muddy pawprints.
As the name suggests, mid-tier influencers fall right in the middle of our influencer scale. With around 60,000 - 200,000 followers, mid-tier influencers are often more established in their industry and may already be generating a sizable income from brand partnerships and sponsored content.
At this stage, we’d expect to be moving away from smaller niches, and into broader categories such as lifestyle, beauty, fitness and food. While mid-tier influencers still offer modest engagement rates compared to macro and mega influencers, brands partnering with influencers of this size are often more interested in reach over engagement.
For example, skincare brand Coco and Eve partners with mid-tier influencers such as @_aalia, a London-based makeup artist and influencer who shares a variety of content on skincare and beauty.
When we reach the heights of macro-influencers, we are typically referring to an influencer with a following of between 200,000 and 1 million. This category tends to be a mix of B-list celebrities who have generated a significant amount of fame offline first, and savvy content creators who have grown their followings through engaging content.
For both groups, it’s likely that a large proportion of their income comes from their online activities. They are typically well-versed in negotiating brand deals and partnerships, and may even have an agent or manager managing brand relationships on their behalf. As with mid-tier influencers, brands partnering with macro-influencers are typically more focused on enhancing the reach of their campaigns, partnering with influencers who are well known within a certain category.
A perfect example is HelloFresh’s partnership with @jamesdoylefitness, a fitness influencer with over 700,000 followers on TikTok.
Finally, at the very top of our scale we have mega-influencers. With audiences of over 1,000,000+, here we have a mix of A-list celebrities and social media personalities who have really hit the big time.
Once again, the prime benefit offered by influencers of this size is reach – and with this group that comes with a cost. A cost of between $500,000 - $1million per post, to be precise. For this reason, a campaign with mega-influencers is typically confined to larger brands, with the marketing budgets to make these campaigns possible.
Fitness brand Nike recently partnered with sports star and mega-influencer Serena Williams to launch a new co-created product line.
How do influencers make money?
As the industry has shaped and evolved, there are now a number of ways that influencers make money. Some of the most popular are:
- Brand partnerships
- Platform payments
- Personal projects
Let’s break these down.
1. Brand partnerships
The number one source of income for influencers is brand partnerships. As we mentioned at the beginning of this post, brand partnerships are a form of influencer marketing, and involve influencers working alongside brands to promote their products or services via their social media channels.
Brand partnerships come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They might look like:
- Sponsored posts – influencers promote the brand’s product on their social channels in return for cash incentives or free products
- Affiliate marketing – influencers promote the brand’s products on their social channels and generate a percentage commission for every product sold using their unique affiliate link
- Co-creating product lines – influencers collaborate with brands to create a product line in their name (Serena Williams x Nike is a great example). Influencers typically earn a certain % of the sales, while brands benefit from association with the influencer’s name
- Attending events – influencers attend events and post about it on social media. They may be paid in cash or the incentive may simply be attendance to the event itself (popular for food/experience brands)
- Becoming a brand ambassador – influencers form a long-term relationship with the brand which involves their involvement in multiple brand activities. This may include sponsored posts, event attendance, co-created product lines and billboard ads.
2. Platform payments
Another key way that influencers make money – and one that is predicted to grow significantly in the coming years – is platform payments.
This can be divided into several key areas:
- Creator Funds and Partner Programs – to encourage influencers to continue creating on their platforms, social networks such as YouTube and TikTok now offer ‘creator funds’, which provide payouts for content which garners are certain amount of views. This is typically more accessible to larger accounts, as programs require a specific amount of followers/video views to be eligible.
- Platform Gifting – a relatively new feature to social media platforms, platform gifting allows social media users to pay influencers in small ‘gifts’ which they can purchase within the app. This allows them to show encouragement to their favorite creators and boost their content across the platform. Payouts are typically small but can mount up for large accounts.
- Content Subscriptions – an extremely fast growing trend in the world of influencer marketing is content subscriptions. To move away from a dependence on brand partnerships, influencers are gating their content using platforms like Patreon and Memberful and encouraging users to sign up for access with a monthly fee. This can include simple extras such as BTS content and bonus videos, to daily content across a number of platforms.
3. Personal projects
Another popular way for influencers to make money is via income from personal projects after building their presence online. This is typically an option for more established influencers, who have built large enough followings to create demand for products associated with their name.
Personal projects can include merch, product lines, podcasts, record deals, acting gigs and more.
Elyse Myers’ personal collection 'Go Find Less' is a perfect example.
How much do influencers get paid?
While sources of influencer payment are reasonably simple to define, answering the question ‘how much do influencers get paid?’ is a whole other story.
The amount influencers can earn varies greatly, depending on the size of their audience, engagement rate, industry, demand, exclusivity, and the platforms they create content. Luckily, there are some industry benchmarks out there, and we cover them in our 2023 guide to paying influencers.
How to find influencers
For brands looking to partner with influencers, the search can often be trickier than expected. Choosing the right individuals depends on a variety of factors, including your industry, target audience, brand values, influencer marketing goals and budget.
For guidance, check out our complete guide: How to find influencers the easy way.
For more information on influencers, influencer marketing and how to find influencers, check out our blog. Or, if you’re ready to get started with your first influencer marketing campaign today, see how Aspire can help.