Thus far, it seems like no one has a clear answer as to what an influencer actually does. However, there are a few things that we do know about them. One, they’re self-employed. Two, they’re digital creators, who, on average, make $46,358 per year (according to a 2023 report from Glassdoor, a platform for job seekers). Three, they’re categorized as “mega” influencers if they have at least one million followers. And finally, they started being called “influencers” as recently as 2005.

Also there is a distinction between a content creator, who deals with long-form content (for YouTube, Facebook, etc.) and influencers, who work with short-form content (for such platforms as TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter/X). Most content creators don’t like being called “influencers” (apparently, they find it “dated”). There are also “bloggers” who focus on written content.

Companies now have divisions that deal with branding for content creators and influencers, usually through talent agents, who are also actively recruiting creators, bloggers, and influencers.

All that said, there are many unanswerable questions like: What is an influencer? Is it a real job? And if it is, what kind of work do they do? Is an influencer a celebrity? And, how do you become an influencer?

Well, to answer the latter question, folks can become influencers by simply declaring that they are influencers (or be recognized as such with a certificate from a social media platform –– as YouTube does). They can then feel free to post words of wisdom (or simply be entertaining) on various social media platforms — the more the merrier. Celebrities (who are called to do TV commercials and endorsements) are the original form of influencer marketing, but influencers are not necessarily celebrities. Of course, they can become famous for being famous.

Influencers, bloggers, and content creators usually start as posters of vertical content (e.g., sports, food, fashion, and lifestyle). Success is obtained once they become “macro” influencers (with 500,000 to one million followers), and “mid-tier” influencers (50,000 to 500,000 followers). If they manage to become “mega,” they can expand horizontally, and brand a multitude of products, spanning from food to shoes. A good number of them have production houses they operate with teams of people who help storyboard, film, edit, and upload the content.

Ultimately, influencers, bloggers, and content creators monetize their audiences by actively selling their followers to brands that have different marketing strategies: from just having an influencer wear the product (e.g., shoes, bags, shirts), or using the product (candies, olive oil, pasta).

Since the world “influencer” comes from the Latin “influere,” (which means to flow in), VideoAge found out that the Italian press ran reports claiming that those who have one million-plus followers can demand up to 80,000 euro (U.S.$88,000) per post, with YouTube being the most rewarding, followed by Instagram and TikTok. Each post on TikTok that reaches just 5,000 followers can demand 50 euro (U.S$55). In Italy, the volume of social media influencer marketing (the so-called “creator economy”) has reportedly reached 348 million (U.S$380 million) per year. It is interesting to note that, despite the Latin origins, in Italy they use the English word “influencer.”

Today, in the U.S., financial rewards are increasingly on performance-based options, rather than “pay per post” or a set fee upfront. Nonetheless, media reports indicate that up to 72 percent of U.S. marketers will use some form of influencer marketing.

For brands, the use of an influencer has to only have upsides, so they have to be careful not to engage someone who could inadvertently create downsides, like what happened in the U.S. to Bud Light, which endured a boycott over a transgender influencer.

In Italy, both law enforcement and the press went after influencer Chiara Ferragni over a product endorsement mispresented as a vehicle for fund donation.

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