Influence vs Influencers

Niki Bezzant weighs in on the subject of influence

I’ve been getting publicly grumpy lately.

It’s been building for a while; but it came to a head for me after the awful, despicable events of March 15th in Christchurch. That’s when I observed on social media, alongside the natural expressions of grief and shock, what I thought was some pretty off behaviour from people who might be described as online ‘influencers’. At best, some of this was just tone-deaf: posts about trivial, silly stuff within hours of an unprecedented terrorist attack. At worst, it was shameful: blatant self-promotion off the back of these awful events. Later came a wave of sickly virtue-signalling.

This caused me to look more closely and think more deeply about the influencer media culture we now live in. (It also caused me to unfollow a number of people, which has made me feel much calmer, but is not ideal when trying to avoid living in a filter bubble). Despite my love of Instagram, where I got to was that this reverence of and deference to people who have large online followings – especially when that seems to be their sole contribution to the world – has to end.

I don’t know how you become an influencer. Can you just call yourself one and start posting? Perhaps. Certainly some of the prominent people lauded as influencers now seem to have fallen into it through no particular skill or talent. Others seem to have genuine professions other than ‘influencer’, and have evolved into the role.

I wrote about this in my Herald on Sunday column recently and talked about it on The Panel on RNZ; I was dismayed to find that although lots of people agree with me, there are young people who apparently regard being an influencer as a viable career option. In a British survey of 13,000 school-age kids published earlier this year, ‘social media and gaming’ was the fourth most popular career aspiration. (Chef was number 12 on the list).

I think the term ‘influencer’ needs to be retired. What it really means in many cases, it seems to me, is ‘salesperson’. These people are there to sell us stuff. It’s stuff they are given by companies, or stuff they are paid by companies to promote. Sometimes this is not clear. Some – particularly in the vague ‘lifestyle’ space – appear to create nothing aside from this, and contribute nothing more to the world than pretty pictures of themselves, their kids, their pets and their food. Their online brands are highly curated, no matter how ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ they say they are.

To me, there is a huge difference between having influence and being an influencer. People with true influence would rarely use that term to describe themselves. They have influence through what they do, not through what they post online. There are some people who have influence in both ways, but I reckon that is a very few.

If you’re trying to decide whether someone has true influence and is worth following, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What does this person create? What good are they doing for the world? Is it self-focused, or outward looking? If it’s the former, unfollow.
  2. What are this person’s values? What do they stand for? Is it looking good in gym gear? Pretty pictures of raw cupcakes? If there’s no substance, unfollow.
  3. What is this person selling? If they’re an influencer, they are probably being paid, one way or the other. Is this disclosed? If it looks like an ad, don’t be afraid to politely ask – but be prepared to be blocked. I have been. Some influencers are a wee bit sensitive in this area. If they won’t answer: unfollow.
  4. What is this person’s expertise? This is important if they are giving health, or any kind of advice. Just because they have lots of followers does not make them an expert in anything. If they are over-reaching: unfollow.

In our food world we are vulnerable to the influencer culture. Especially as the lifestyle influencers cross over into our area.

So to people starting out in food media I say: aim to have influence, not be an influencer. Use social media as a means, not an end.

To marketers I say: be careful. Yes, you may get eyeballs on your product when you use an influencer. But really, when your brand is one of many, in one of many unboxing videos, how much value does that have? And could this kind of undiscerning coverage diminish, rather than enhance, your brand?

To those of you with loyal and engaged social audiences I say: use your power for good. Shine light on causes and issues you believe in. Don’t just post pretty pictures. Start conversations.

We could collectively do a lot of good by doing this. When we look at the enormous impact someone like Jamie Oliver has had, taking on the UK government over school meals and sugary drinks taxes – hugely important but not universally popular issues – we can see how the same could happen here.

I’m pleased to see Nadia Lim dipping her toe into these waters with her support of Garden to Table through Dancing with the Stars; I hope we might see her and other prominent food people using their enormous popularity and influence more to speak out on some important issues around food and health in the future.

And at a smaller scale, we can all have true influence, even if it’s just among our friends and family. Even if it means doing it the old-fashioned way: with a real conversation.

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