There has been a great deal of buzz lately about the new influencer. From Variety Magazine's study that showed that YouTubers are more influential than traditional celebrities, as well as their cover story this month featuring YouTubers Shane Dawson and Jenna Marbles 're-writing' the rules of fame, to New York Magazine's exploration of what YouTube fame looks like, to Fast Company's coverage of the YouTube's 'fame factory', everyone seems to be waking up to the idea that online influencers are, well, influential. This is not a new phenomenon, but the numbers are finally big enough for the world to sit up and take notice. To drive these numbers home, Jonathan Davids, founder of the influencer collaboration tool Influicitycompiled some amazing statistics for me a few months back that show a damning comparison between the digital influencer and the traditional influencer:

But numbers alone aren't the whole story. Influence, as anyone who has ever worked in this area knows, is also about trust and engagement. As I'vewritten before, influencers have an audience that trusts them, but we can't simply buy this trust. It also has to be earned. It's not as transactional as buying an ad spot. Paying someone with a large audience to sell your product will only work if their enthusiasm is authentic and on-brand.

Old Skool Marketing Isn't Dead, But It's Definitely Not As Effective

There has been a long history of tapping into influence, even pre-famous YouTubers. Some of them are:

A. Buying ad spots during popular programs. The data on how well this works has always been a bit sketchy, but we do know that this is a pricey strategy and that many agree at the declining effectiveness of this tactic.

B. You could pay for product placement in popular programming (or celebrity sightings). Product placement (or "Embedded Marketing") done effectively (meaning the product aligns with the plot and audience expectations) can have wonderful outcomes. But it's a multi-billion dollar business and if it isn't done right, it'll work against you.

C. Through your own influence, you could target media influencers and celebrities to endorse your product, through magazines or appearances. Otherwise known as Public Relations. This area is still quite effective, but the influencer is changing as explained above (and many PR agencies, the one I work for included, understand this and are leading the way).

Advertising, embedded marketing, PR and celebrity spokespeople are still widely used tactics for driving brand recognition and sales. Blending these tactics and adapting them for online media has become pretty popular in the past few years, giving way to native advertising, search engine marketing, retargeting, contextual advertising, guerrilla marketing, word of mouth marketing, addressable media, and much more. I can't list everything here and I won't go into the intricacies, but in my experience, these are all ways to adapt the traditional means of interrupting an audience to the digital space. Still very push marketing.

The owned/earned side been all about content marketing for the past few years - "pull, not push marketing". Though some brands have really excelled at this (LuxyHair, RedBull, Samsung, etc), most brands really struggle with it. Between not following the YouTube Brand Playbook, and the increasing "pay to play" message on other social platforms, content marketing is so far out of the traditional marketing wheelhouse that most brands have all but thrown in the towel. I still see promise in content marketing, but you have to have heart and aptitude for it. And you need to respect the new media.

Which brings us back to this new digital influencer.

I liken this breed of influencer to a little bit media, a little bit celebrity, a little bit entertainment programming, a smattering of advertising, and a whole lot of word of mouth. The new influencer truly does break the rules. She is authentic and crafted all at once (Just check out this completely unedited episode of the Vlogbrothers - this stuff ain't 'off the cuff'). She is amateur and professional at the same time. Her audience loves that she is just like they are. She's accessible (sort of). She's just polished enough to inspire, but not too polished as to be unattainable. Most of the time, she has no goal, no plans, no strategy...she just is and does. She wakes up one day and says, "Holy crap, I have an audience. Now what do I do with them?"

I find it fascinating and amazing. But where I see beautiful disruption, many see red.

"But They're Just a Bunch of Amateurs!"

I have to admit it, I'm more than a little envious of people like Bethany Mota. She's 18, has over 7 million people subscribed to her YouTube channel alone, is estimated to make over $320,000/year on YouTube advertising alone (I'm sure she doubles that in brand endorsements) and looks like she has an insane amount of fun. When I was 18, I was working at a clothing store making minimum wage and my boss was a jerk, so I hated it. I barely made enough to live with two roommates and all I could afford for fun was cheap beer nights. Hell, 22 years later, I can't touch Bethany's career!

So I can definitely understand the rising resentment from the ranks of trained and experienced professionals who have spent their lives building a reputation and paid more than their fair share of dues. But resentment isn't going to get anyone very far, especially since everyone under the age of 35 is listening to the Bethanys of the world.

I walked up to one of my favourite YouTubers at a party a few months back and, sounding like a complete idiot said, "I'm kind of an influencer, but only in business!" I'm not sure whether that established credibility or made me look like a dried-up has-been, but for the first time in a long time, I felt like an awkward teenager. The feeling was both disconcerting and lovely.

I was immediately inspired to dust off and start to post, but after only a few weeks of this, I realized how much dang work these kids put into their content. I'm not giving up yet, but I have a new found appreciation for what goes into building an audience online. This isn't your Momma's blogosphere.

So What's a Marketer to Do?

If you can't beat 'em and you can't join 'em (not without the energy of an 18-year old!), then what? Well I say we welcome this new breed of influencer. She's your future boss. You need to get into a position where you will be able to influence the influencers.

I have great respect for Bethany and Gigi and Hanna and Jenna and Matthew and Grace and all of the others who have built audiences online. There are 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. Many of these YouTubers get hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views every week. Some of them every day. Brand videos without paid boosting tend to get fewer than 500 views in a lifetime.

Getting a mention from one of the influencers will create brand recognition, sell products and build trust for your brand. Building relationships with these influencers is key. Unfortunately, all of the brands are dying to build relationships with them now, so money talks.

And DON'T just focus on the top of the charts when it comes to influencers. DON'T just talk to the popular kids. You never know who tomorrow's popular kid will be. DO start early and build relationships with the up-and-comers before your competitors do. DO make it a two-way conversation. DO learn to think like the influencer's audience. DON'T make it about you. That's the opposite of thinking like the influencer's audience.

But I'll go into more of the DO's and DON'Ts and HOWs in future columns. I'll also be covering more than merely YouTube as I look at the WHO and WHERE. I'm looking forward to doing a deep dive into the day-to-day and growth of a family of Viners - this one is near and dear to my heart as the dad is around my age (it's possible!). And, of course, I'll continue to focus on the WHAT, which means Digital Culture - without understanding the cultures that are driving this shift, you will continue to stumble in this brave new age.

Share, subscribe and let me know what you'd like me to explore and/or what your experience has been (whether an influencer, someone being displaced by this new influencer or a brand/marketer trying to figure out how to navigate these waters).

Photo: bikeriderlondon / Shutterstock

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