Dom Smales

CEO & Founder Gleam Futures

Under the influence: brands must stop focusing on follower counts

The fifth series of popular reality series Love Island is in full swing. With the contestants’ social media followings growing by the thousands, we are reminded of the seductiveness of numbers to define success.

It is now incredibly easy for anyone to call themselves an “influencer” – a term which has become symptomatic of the challenges facing the industry today.

About a decade ago, a generation of talent organically found their voice and a loyal audience on digital platforms such as YouTube, dramatically changing the media landscape. While their followings were impressive, it wasn’t the numbers that struck me – it was the passion, knowledge, creativity, and relatability that they were bringing to their audiences through online content. 

As the industry has evolved at pace, and the volume of content creators has spiralled, this unique talent has taken a back seat in the eyes of many who seek to define the industry under the catchall term “influencer”. 

This is dangerous, and leads to a number of complications.

The biggest is that it has lumped everyone labelled an influencer into a homogenous mass of people. It doesn’t distinguish the “talent” – those creators who have an expertise to share, produce high-quality content, have a purpose in what they do, and maintain a deep connection and dialogue with their trusting community – from those who use the influencer label as a means to define their status, but have no real value beyond that. 

Find the talented influencers

People become influential because of the talent that they bring. No two creators are the same, and their value should not be measured by the number of followers they have or how many likes they accrue from post to post.

Being a digital-first talent is about having a natural ability to do something that people want to be part of: from fitness and make-up artistry through to cleaning and food creations, and sharing that online. 

Digital-first talent are real, authentic, accessible, and honest.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for celebrities and reality TV stars who build a presence online – of course there is. But it is important to understand the distinction, and make informed decisions from this.

The other problem with influencer homogeneity is that it has led to an obsession with data, with the industry attributing value to influencers based on numbers alone. This is causing many creators to buy fake followers in an effort to be discovered.

The problem with the industry

Unfortunately, this has driven the commoditisation of content and talent. Viewing talent through this lens can lead to a lack of creativity and authenticity, as well as a lower quality of content. Ultimately, this is damaging the reputation of the industry and is causing a lack of trust.

To combat this, brands should come at everything through a talent-first lens. It’s about putting yourself in the shoes of talent to ensure that creativity and authenticity come first. 

Doing so means that the talent are true to who they are, their audience gets something that they value, and the brands benefit from great results. 

Data is still important, of course, but it should be combined with expert insight and experience to inform talent selection, not dictate it. Without that layer of human knowledge, it’s impossible to determine whether a talented creator is the right fit.

Ultimately, it’s about finding common ground between the talent, the brand, and the audience. 

Shaping what to do with that common ground in a way that works for everyone requires experience, which if I’m honest is hard to find in an industry that has only been around for a short time. We firmly believe that this is the most innovative and exciting industry in a generation – but it’s being tarnished by a lack of experience and low-quality partnerships. 

It’s not always plain sailing operating in a new world, and challenges are a byproduct of being innovative. 

But if the industry is to rebuild trust, the value of truly talented content creators must be realised, so that only the most creative, strategic, authentic and effective campaigns are delivered. 

I can guarantee that the best talent-led brand partnerships are yet to come.

This article first appeared in City AM in July 2019