Influencer Who? Digital Media Marketing Gone Awry

I’m no marketing expert or digital media guru, but I think we can all agree that the landscape of blogging has completely changed from what it used to be not just two decades back, around the time of its inception, but even a mere year ago!

The term “weblog” was coined in 1997 to describe exactly that: a web log, or online journal, populated with opinion on matters of interest to the author. A blogger, thus, is not a media representative as all too often they are classified, but a self-appointed editorialist or commentator who seeks a platform wherein to voice his or her ideas.

Under those notions my own blog Beirutista was born nearly six years ago. To this day, I continue to insist that everything on my blog reflects my own beliefs, sentiments, and perspective. Each post is a manifestation of Beirutista, expressing my values unequivocally.

When the term “influencer” came to be a few years ago, it served as a convenient catch-all for emerging social media users, namely Instagrammers who in the blogging community certainly didn’t qualify as bloggers. Whereas the latter wield words to express ideas, the former rely on images to illuminate their interests.

As Instagram started picking up pace locally -- I’m talking roughly four or five years ago -- there were a few big accounts that were generating mass followings. Boasting 5,000 - 8,000 followers used to be awe-inspiring and impressive. Today, I’ve lost track of how many accounts number in the tens of thousands, and they seem to reach those volumes swiftly, making it impossible to discriminate between which accounts have gleaned their followers organically and which have opted to buy them.

Image source:

From its onset, I grew wary of the title “influencer.” To me, that’s like saying human beings are mammals. Everyone in his day to day life is an influencer on some level. Does your personal trainer at the gym help shape your fitness regimen? He’s an influencer. Does your colleague order healthy cuisine to the office daily, spurring your own health consciousness? She’s an influencer. Does your friend sport an irresistible fragrance, swaying you to go out and buy a bottle for yourself? That’s called influence, and nothing will ever replace the power of unpaid advertising like word of mouth.

Last week, digital media consultant and fellow blogger Ralph Aoun (Blog of the Boss) linked an eye-opening article titled “It’s time to address the elephant in the room: Influencers don’t really influence anything or anyone!” In a word, it’s brilliant. Author Elinor Cohen articulates everything veteran bloggers and the digital media community have been trying to communicate for years now: who the heck are influencers, and why have we bestowed so much importance on them? Cohen draws a major distinction between “influencing” and “thought leadership,” pitting them as opposites. While influencers are about follower numbers, she argues, thought leaders are about knowledge.

Bless her prose. That ties in beautifully with my perception of bloggers as self-appointed journalists and thus experts in their chosen focal areas.

Do you know how many times I proofread my writing, not merely for grammar, but for coherence and objectiveness? I’ve established an audience worldwide who subscribes to my writing style and opinions, not because I’m dubbed an influencer, but because I’m genuine, and because my primary objective is not a pretty penny. Maybe that’s why I’ve amassed a measly 7,700 and some odd followers on Instagram. Because each and every one of them naturally gravitated to what I was sharing with the public domain, and he or she elected to follow my account of his or her own free will.

My Instagram account has attracted a following of some 7,700 regular viewers

What’s reassuring is that the author of the aforementioned article corroborates my viewpoint from a commercial angle, too:

“Business wise, a brand would benefit more from working with a thought leader, who has 5000 real and engaged followers, who could become real and paying 5000 customers, than a buzzword thrower with 20k-50k followers (or more) who are only following thanks to herd behavior and who are not likely to pay for a product or a service. Real thought leaders *care* and make a point to be knowledgeable about the topics they cover.”

In Lebanon and extrapolating to a more global scale, rarely do brands make that realization. Like everyone else jumping on the digital media marketing bandwagon, they pipe unjustified amounts of money to “influencers” with tens and hundreds of thousands of followers to advertise their products and services and host meaningless giveaways.

Newsflash: the public ain’t stupid. We know those influencers are advertising tools exactly as a radio or TV ad would be categorized as such. We know that everything shared on that influencer’s account has been paid for with a fistful of cash, otherwise it would never have made its way to that faux soapbox.

Props to the brands that in seeking collaborations can look past the superficiality of influencers and instead pursue thought leaders to work with. In other words, quality over quantity.

But really, don’t get carried away with the fancy title of “thought leader,” which might end up with the same stigmatic fate as “influencer.” It’s simply another expression for someone who knows his sh*t and is eager to share it with the world. We bloggers are passionate like that, even if it means writing gratuitously. Scary thought, isn’t it?


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