But how much do you know about this history of the influencer phenomenon, or the science behind why we care so much about their posts, lives, and products?
Influencer marketing may seem like something brand new, but the principals behind it are as old as human society. While social networks gave rise to the terms "influencer", word-of-mouth marketing is much older.
We can trace the idea of "word of mouth marketing" back far into history. The Latin term "Vica voce" means "with living voice" and refers to the oral or written transfer of information between people and groups. It’s helped us pass along traditions, recount the history of our world, share things we love with friends. People have been recommending products and places ever since societies were first formed. You can imagine how back in tribal societies people would need to share the best plants to eat, or where to find a good patch of fruit. Or who in town makes the best bread. Passing information is part of human nature.
What began to change this natural process was the adoption of mass media. The invention of television brought us a whole new form of communication and advertising. This caused a deep change in society and increased the impact one voice can have.
Academic researchers began to study the effects of this mass media to understand exactly how this new type of mass marketing works. One of the first to study word of mouth marketing was George Silverman. Dr. Silverman was a psychologist who was given a job gathering feedback about new pharmaceutical products from physicians. In the early 1970's he built "teleconferenced peer influence groups" to bring doctors in different places together to talk. Their conversations were carefully monitored in video and audio, then analyzed. During the process, Silverman noticed an interesting phenomenon:
"One or two physicians who were having good experiences with a drug would sway an entire group of skeptics. They would even sway a dissatisfied group of ex-prescribers who had had negative experiences!"
This was big news for marketers because it meant that just a few positive comments from the right people could help sell their products. Unlike ads, word of mouth marketing was so authentic it could overcome a negative experience.
The principals of this research formed the school of thought around what we call "word of mouth" marketing. The impact of "word of mouth" marketing was proved over and over again in scientific studies, much to the delight of advertisers. One study in 1981 done by Harvard Business School looked at how a group of farmers would use a herbicide after being influenced by positive comments. Half the farmers in the study were enthusiastically told about the herbicide's benefits from other farmers; half were not. Both groups saw standard ads and heard about the uses of the product from a commercially produced video. It turned out that the farmers who were told about the benefits from their peers were 20% more likely to use the herbicide, and when they did use it, they used 30% more!
This was strong evidence for marketers to start focusing on word of mouth and peer influence as a part of their advertising plans. Teleconferencing - bringing people together over video and audio conference - was the method of choice. Groups of peers within a demographic group were brought together and told to discuss the product, while paid advocates were placed strategically to guide the conversation. The advocates were able to share their positive experiences and sway the rest of the group.
This was the standard way word of mouth was done - until the Internet took off in the late '90s. As more and more people were able to talk, unique peer groups were formed for the first time, no matter the distance. Not only was it people like farmers and doctors, but new niche groups who loved specific music, hobbies, fashion and food could all find each other. Even the most specific interests could find a vibrant community. Unlike the teleconferences or peer groups of the past, corporations didn't control these conversations. This means they couldn't rely on the old tactic of strategically placing brand advocates to help promote their products. Now, the communications lines were open to everyone. Brands and marketing companies had a hard time making sense of this new disrupted world.
As different groups emerged, networks like MySpace built up social ecosystems where popular users gained millions of followers. The profiles were of real people, posting their real experiences. Music was often posted and shared on the site, and the more popular the person posting, the more likely it was the increase the sales of the song. Record labels began to take notice and started to nurture these relationships with real people on MySpace. They would send them CD's, t-shirts and other promotional items to encourage a positive post.
At first, this was a small group of people online. Die-hard fans of certain music genres or unique fashion subcultures found homes on sites like Myspace. For someone in an isolated area town, this was the only way to access their community. But it took expensive equipment and tech know-how to access the internet and find these peer groups. This first wave of social networkers was mostly young teens or very tech-savvy older people. At the time desktop computers were costly and challenging to operate for the average person. Setting up and coding a profile was even more difficult.
In the early 2000s, the vast majority of people went online looking for information or work - not to chat with friends. But young people loved this new way to stay connected. They were teaching themselves to thrive online. MySpace got more and more popular, and new networks like Facebook and Friendster joined in. YouTube was launched in 2005 with a video of one of the founder's at the zoo. The conversations were now not just happening on carefully created websites, but on posts by real, everyday people. And those people kept growing. Every year, companies were innovating to tap into this new market. It was in technology companies benefit to get people online, so they started to make it easier and easier. Computers got less bulky and cheaper to buy, and services like AOL made getting online and finding friends as easy as a few clicks.
In 2005, just 10% of people on the Internet were part of a social network. By 2015, that number went up to 76%. This means that people on social networks went from one out of every ten people online, to nearly 8 out of 10! That's a lot more conversations than ever before. To Dr. Silverman, it must have seemed like a million teleconferences, all happening at once. His vision of a peer group had exploded into many online subcultures, all with their own set of recommendations. But this time, brands weren't invited. At least not yet.
All that would change with the introduction of advertising on social media.