There’s an article in The New York Times worth reading about the relationship between influencer statistics and book sales, entitled “Millions of followers? For book sales, ‘it’s unreliable”, which has gotten the publishing industry talking about how best to market new titles.
The limits of influencers are becoming increasingly clear: the first question revolves around just how many people follow them. The use of metrics such as the number of followers or Likes led to the rise of all kinds of fraudulent schemes, many of them fueled by social networks, which saw them as a way to artificially inflate their figures. Many influencers with millions of followers are, in reality frauds, practicing the fine art of fake it till you make it.
The second question relates to the nature of influence: often, we follow somebody because we’re interested in a particular issue at a particular time, but that doesn’t mean we accept what they say as gospel. Just because somebody reads you articles, comments on them or watches your videos doesn’t mean they’re going to buy your books or your products.
In short, there is no way to really gauge the quality of data or how engaged followers of so-called influencers really are. Consuming content that is generally free of charge in exchange for very little effort does not necessarily reflect an interest in obtaining additional content, which, in many cases, may be relatively redundant or seem of little added value. At this point, the followers who really “follow” the influencers to the point of acquiring whatever product he or she offers them do so either because of a fandom model that does not necessarily occur in all areas, or because they come across the product in a very specific context.
The phenomenon of online influence has been massively overhyped by marketers, and the product sales figures prove it: getting attention on a free, no-strings-attached channel doesn’t necessarily translate into sales, because the attention we give them isn’t for them to do what they want with.
That’s precisely why influence generates value, and in some cases is even capable of setting the agenda for an industry or a particular topic. But that does not necessarily have anything to do with the number of followers an influencer has or how many people watch their videos: it has to do with other things: their ability to generate quality content (understood broadly and flexibly), whether the content they generate reaches decision makers (purchasing, opinion or even legislation), or with the potential they have to influence opinion.
Generating quality content that reaches people who are truly interested in it has nothing to do with creating viral videos on TikTok, a network with little influence, because reaching an audience of teenagers with no spending power means little.
What matters is the demographics of the followers, along with the type of engagement they have with the people they follow; so if we want to understand online influence, then we need to start studying it for what it really is, and not what some would desperately like it to be.