“Every day there are brands that go from $0 – $15 million in sales with no overhead or infrastructure, on the back of influencers on Instagram. If you’re not working with influencers, you need to be.” Gary Vaynerchuk offered this pearl of wisdom back in 2019, and went onto talk about how influencer marketing campaigns were at the cusp of change. At the time, It became clear that not all influencers yielded equal results, and micro influencers were on the rise. That was far from being one of the first shifts in the influencer marketing space. In fact, we would need to go back a few centuries to get a sense of where influencer marketing got its start, to appreciate where it is now.

Let’s start at the very beginning: The 18th century

According to advertising folklore, the earliest documented influencer-figures mostly consisted of 18th century royalty, and the pope. As influencers, they were deployed to endorse various types of medicine for the benefit of the common folk. The way they promoted the use of new medicines to people who weren’t yet believers is akin to the influencers of today promoting different products and services to the general public.

Then there was Josiah Wedgwood, a British potter, and marketing genius who was in a league of his own. Wedgwood’s cream-colored artwork won the approval of Queen Charlotte in 1765, earning him the official title of “Her Majesty’s Potter.” Knowing the Queen was the ultimate influencer at the time, Wedgwood leveraged his new status and promoted his pottery as “Queensware,” inherently making it the world’s first luxury brand. The royal endorsement accelerated the growth of his brand, and people started flocking to his business to place orders for his work.

The baroque, classical, and romantic composers that we still listen to serve as additional examples of brands that benefited from the early days of influencer endorsements. The royal families of their respective times frequently commissioned the composers to compose pieces for the general public for cultural purposes, and to mark royal events.

Celebrities and fictional characters in the 19th century

The beginning of the 19th century marked the start of many of the endorsements we still know and love, such as Aunt Jemima, the Marlboro Man, and Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus. Even decades later in the 1970’s, brands conjured up fictitious characters like Quaker Oats’ “Little Mikey” in order to sway the decisions of consumers. Celebrity endorsements, particularly from actors, musicians, and athletes, soon made their way to the top, but not for very long, as people couldn’t always relate to their over-the-top lifestyles. Audiences also didn’t feel much of an emotional connection with the celebrities that were collaborating with major brands, thereby lessening the potency of such campaigns.

Reality TV and social media influencer marketing in the 2000’s

The celebrities that are featured on reality TV shows are generally perceived as more relatable and authentic than traditional celebrities. This is what made stars on shows such as “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” and “The Bachelor” perfect for influencer marketing purposes. The overnight stars got products and services in front of many eyeballs, and sparked tremendous engagement from viewers worldwide, both on-screen and through their social networks.

The increased popularity of social media platforms led to the rise of the social media influencer, whom audiences ended up identifying with the most. After all, social media influencers post relatable content about the good, bad, and ugly in their lives. Their consistent authenticity earned them the high level of trust and authority given to them by their followers.

The numbers speak for themselves: 70 percent of teens trust influencers more than traditional celebrities. Influencer marketing earns 11x the ROI of a standard digital campaign, and 74 percent of people use social media to discover products and make purchasing decisions. Influencers are typically categorized into four groups:

  • Mega-influencers: Over 1M followers, but don’t necessarily have an intimate relationship with their followers
  • Macro-influencers: 100,000 - 1M followers, and generally have a good understanding of their audience due to their strong connection
  • Micro-influencers: 10,000 - 100,000 followers, generally seen as highly specialized in niche interests, and are highly trusted by their loyal followers
  • Nano-influencers: 10,000 followers or less, and possesses great influence within their tight-knit community

The roles of influencers are undergoing another shift these days, by converging with that of marketers. Influencers have become their own marketing channel, and they are consistently looking for new ways to monetize their brand and audiences by selling their own products or services. Meanwhile, marketers are looking for ways to monetize their knowledge and skills through their social media platforms.

We as a collective have only just started dipping our toes in the water regarding influencer marketing and what it represents as a channel. What it is now, compared to what it may become in the future may end up being completely different things. It’s all about tracking the evolution of where it was, and where it is headed based on the demands and sentiments from the public.

Written by Liav Chen, CEO of Humanz