Long before they were called influencers, they were bloggers, and before they were bloggers, they were market mavens.
“Influencers are as old as the internet and social media,” said Robert Kozinets, Jayne and Hans Hufschmid Chair of Strategic Public Relations and Business Communication. “As soon as people started getting the tools, they started to share ideas about lots of things, including products and services with each other. Since then, influencers and content creators have profoundly impacted business and culture.”
Kozinets has been studying how individuals have been creating content for virtual communities, talking online and connecting with unique audiences for more than 20 years. He co-wrote Influencers and Creators: Business, Culture and Practice (Sage, 2023), which now serves as the primary textbook for his PR 426: Influencer Relations course.
The course delves into the way today’s influencer ecosystem is being created, extended, altered, and managed. Topics like cancel culture, fear of missing out (FOMO), influencer stalking and the ability to provide creative and impactful product and service recommendations are covered in the first half of the course. The second part examines the campaign development, implementation, and measurement behind influencer relations.
“It's a very full field and a rapidly changing industry,” Kozinets said. “But there's a lot of misunderstandings because there's not a lot of good education about how technology, people and businesses interact in the real world. A lot of it assumes that people can be corralled and herded using technology, rather than recognizing that there's a lot of give and take and empowerment of people that also happens.”
For their final project, students have one week to design a specific influencer campaign from start to finish. Acting as brand managers for an assigned company, they develop a contract, a contact letter and a brief. On the last day of class, they present their proposals, including clear objectives, strategy, tactics, ethics, diversity, and metrics.
“I think it’s really eye-opening for students to see just how much diversity and variety there can be in these influencer campaigns,” he said. “I think a lot of people assume that if you're going to do an influencer campaign to promote something, you just call up Kim Kardashian and you tell her what you want her to say, and she says it, and then you sell your stuff and you're done. But in reality, there's a lot more choice, variety and often many better ways to spend your money than that.”
We spoke with Kozinets about his new book and how influencer relations is transforming the rules of marketing and public relations.
Are influencers and content creators synonymous terms or are they two different people/things?
They can be the same person, but they refer to two different kinds of activities. Content creators tend to be people who are good at creating content like photography, making videos about food, taking travel photos or writing enticing text about pet care, for example. Those people, from an industry perspective, might be hired to create content that is shared as content — like something that could be put on a billboard.
An influencer is different. An influencer is a person or an entity who's built up a personal brand of some kind and is using that to build an audience. They have a consistent flow of themed or dedicated content about a particular thing or in a particular area. They're audience builders. So when you hire an influencer, you are not just hiring them to create content, you’re hiring them because you want to get to their audience.
The terms “influencer” and “creator” often get confused with each other. A lot of people call all influencers creators because they feel like it has less of the stink of exploitation about it, but really they refer to separate kinds of activities that could also possibly be done by the same person. Influencers build audiences and creators create content, and often, especially for influencers, those activities overlap.
Why is understanding influencer marketing and content creation important?
I think the phenomenon itself is at the very early stages. It's not going away and it's infiltrating every different part of our lifestyle, just as social media has. Governments, businesses and the media recognize that unless they work with this phenomenon, they're going to increasingly lose their access and their legitimacy with a lot of constituents and customers.
COVID-19 was a great example. I believe that Finland was one of the first government organizations that recognized that the voice of the government, just like the voices of corporations, big media channels and newspapers, was not being heard and not being trusted the way it used to be. Fifty years ago in a pandemic, the government could say, “Everybody wear a mask,” and everybody wore a mask. Now it's different. The Finnish government during the pandemic worked with different influencers that had their own audiences and their own credibility. The pandemic required that they lean into the credibility and the ability of this powerful new group of people, influencers, to translate big messages into local languages.
Do you think AI will change the influencer industry?
I just saw some prediction yesterday that was saying that over time the amount of voices on social media that are AI-generated is going to drown out the number of human voices. The last chapter of my book is all about virtual influencers and AI and whether it's an AI influencer or a human influencer both of them are going to be influencing human beings.
Bots have been a part of the conversation on Twitter for a long time. That doesn't mean that people don't use or don't trust Twitter. They just recognize that a lot of the messages could be coming from bots. We're going to see more and more of that generally in social media and more and more deep fakes and all that kind of stuff. So you won't be able to necessarily know where something came from, but people will judge it anyway on whether it's interesting or useful to them.
So this whole idea of being able to tell whether something's “real” or “true” is going to continue to be squishier and squishier. But that doesn't change the fact that people do want to know what's real and what's true. They also will use whatever resources they have available at the time. There will be increasingly more and more chatbot-type voices as part of the conversation. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.
I don't have a crystal ball, but my guess would be AI will not be able to catch up anytime soon and be able to mirror people’s voices perfectly. Human beings are still going to be attracted to other human beings. I mean, I don't know how much time you spent with Chat GPT, but you can pretty much tell when it's a generated answer versus one from someone whom you like, admire and trust. Is AI going to get better and better at imitating people? Maybe, but they won't ever have a life, a story and a narrative the way that influencers do.
What are the dangers surrounding influencer marketing and how do we as consumers and PR practitioners overcome it?
It’s definitely complicated. Even in the book we wrote about things like challenges to equality and the ethical implications. There are a lot of dangers but obviously pandering to people by telling them what they want to hear or by exposing them to familiar faces saying the kinds of things that they're used to hearing may seem like it’s the most commercially viable strategy. But it's not always in the best interest of our society and our culture.
We decided that it was important enough that we included a whole chapter on diversity, equity and inclusion issues in the influencer world. Those issues are only getting more urgent and important. Just like Hollywood has to deal with issues of social justice and representation, it's the same in the influencer space. But there are a lot of opportunities, for companies and for individuals – especially for companies — to move the needle because there are so many people who have so many different kinds of characteristics who are out there now.
For example, Kelvin Davis, a Black male influencer who talks about Black male bodies and body image, he has spoken in my class and we feature his story in the book. His thing is, not every Black guy can look like or should look like LeBron James. The general public doesn't really talk about it even though this is a really important issue. So he started a blog and now it's a bunch of social media accounts called Notoriously Dapper. It's been really successful. But, when you think about it, that's a real group of people and customers, right? Reaching them with a real person who has real concerns and a genuine voice, that's not something that you could get a fake AI voice to do.
I think these are the kind of things where companies have traditionally dipped their toes in, but been afraid to tread. Whereas influencers jump in and make this area their own. They tackle social issues that affect them personally and are able to speak in a voice that is very authentic and arouses empathy and understanding. But that audience oftentimes is a viable market, too. So, companies should become aware of their needs and learn about them.
Listening is one of the biggest challenges for companies and we try and hammer it home in a number of different places in the book. Brands want to talk and they don't always want to listen. They broadcast their message or find an influencer to be a mouthpiece or a puppet for them, rather than working with an influencer to understand the group of people that usually they're a member of.
Using Kelvin as an example again, his audience is engaged and interested, so he has to say things that are meaningful to him and to them. He covers topics like politics and social justice issues, and he links them with fashion and body image. That's not something that organizations can do so easily, but that's what influencers naturally do. They bridge this big divide between the marketplace and between society and culture. And I think that's what makes them so exciting to study and to learn about.