What is influencer Marketing picture

What is Influencer Marketing? Another Perspective & Historical Context

Jun 6th 2019 in Influencer Marketing

Influencer marketing has been termed the new kid on the block compared to its peers and other forms of marketing. Everyone seems to be talking about it. It is generating so much buzz among marketers, business communities and even teens aspiring to be influencers.

However, there seem to be many different views when it comes to what it is. Some of the definitions look at it only from one perspective or point of view. What else does it involve?

Make no mistake; influencer marketing is not as new as people make it sound. Well, at least its current form is not.

History tells us the contrary. Many examples dating as far back as the early 1900s show some form of influencer marketing. However, it wasn’t known by that term back then as the phrase has only been developed recently.

Influencer Marketing Examples From Lou Gehrig to Michael Phelps

Let’s look at Washburn-Crosby, a company founded in Minneapolis and later known as General Mills. They did something similar with respect to influencer marketing back in the late 1920s for its wheat-flake product, which it later called Wheaties.

They featured professional baseball sports stars on their cereal boxes such as the 1934 image of Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees. As in the picture below, they even named it “Wheaties - The Breakfast of Champions” just as Gehrig said in his testimonial for the product.

Influencer Marketing Example of Lou Gehrig

We still find branding of a similar nature today like Michael Phelps’ Cornflakes for Kellogg’s. Eighty years separates the creation of these ads, but they look remarkably similar in terms of marketing execution.

Even the marketing slogan, which for Kellogg’s is “The Original & Best”, sort of carries the same message as champion Michael Phelps, the most decorated American Olympian and swimming champion.

influencer marketing - phelps on Kelloggs

However, just as Phelps became the face of Kellogg’s, Gehrig called “The Iron Man of Baseball” and who later became a Hall of Famer, was used as the face of Wheaties with commercials on magazines and newspapers.

celebrity marketing - 1935 gehrig newspaper advert

Looks impressive, huh?

Wait until you see this one. Camel, the cigarette brand, ran an ad with the New York Giants in 1933 that would be considered outrageous today. At the time, the advert for the World Series champions was captioned “21 of 23 Giants” and stated that 21 of the 23 athletes on the team smoked Camels. If that’s not bad enough (in today’s times), just pretend you didn’t see the statement “It takes healthy nerves” to win the World Series in the same sentence with cigarettes. They included a picture of the New York Giants and other photos promoting their brand.

camels advert with the giants in 1933 - celebrity ad

There have been several other examples of celebrity endorsement over time from the 80s such as Michael J. Fox and Michael Jackson for Diet Pepsi to Jay Leno in a Doritos ads, and Jessica Simpson amongst others on a long list with the practice even more popular today than ever.

Word of Mouth Advertising

However, that is just one side of the “coin”.

Looking at it from another angle, which has been around for thousands of years, and has stood the test of time, is word of mouth marketing (WOM).

Word of mouth advertising has as its core foundation, personal recommendation.

With the advent of digitalization, word of mouth marketing, endorsements and advocacy have evolved into what we now term influencer marketing in both form and appellation.

So What is Influencer Marketing?

Influencer marketing is the process of utilizing (or using) persons with some sort of influence who possess a form of followership or audience to attain a marketing goal, such as gaining access to new audiences or increased sales. That audience then comes to trust or love the influential figures that influence their behaviour.

This brings us to the aspects of trust and influence.

Influencers gain trust by building a relationship with their audience, understanding what they need or are looking for and delivering it with the right message, at the right time and place. This ensures their message resonates with their audience.

Trust is also reinforced by expertise or know-how in the field which the audience seeks and the influencer possesses.

A majority of the audience of TV stars and celebrities that have gained fame look up to them as icons or role models.

As mentioned above, having an audience is as important as trust, influence and other factors. However, such an audience may vary in size ranging from a few thousand to millions. Also, they can come through different communication channels including both traditional channels such as TV, radio, newspaper to online channels such as social media, websites or e-mail.

The interaction of all the mentioned aspects above creates three important catalysts for every successful influencer marketing campaign:

  • influence
  • reach (audience)
  • resonance (responsiveness or engagement)

These will be discussed in more detail in another post.

Let’s take an example.

Say a business or company that manufactures printers wants to let more businesses know about its newest printer, which has a new technology that can save in costs, time and allow them to run their company better. Simply put this is increased productivity. Before it is market ready, they build relationships through various ways (face-to-face networking, online, etc.) with a few influencers.

For instance, they pick Neil Patel as an influencer who has worked with several businesses of all sizes. Such as business owners, entrepreneurs and executives of fortune 500 companies. The printer company thinks their new product may appeal to his audience or just want to explore new markets.

neil patel an influencer

Neil has over 250,000 followers on Twitter and close to one million followers on Facebook with a website that gets over 400,000 hits a month. The company is aware Neil is not directly into consumer electronics.

However, due to his expertise, he has established a reputation with the businesses he has worked with who now trust and see him as a thought leader thanks to the reputation he has built. They can collaborate to launch an influencer campaign.

One of the goals of the influencer marketing campaign may be to tap into this new type of audience (Neil) and increase awareness of the printer so they decide to collaborate. The business or company also must produce content probably with Neil showing how this new printer is going to change how businesses work because of its one-of-a-kind unique features.

Is that all?

Lou Gehrig and Neil Patel are two different types of influencers but they do have some things in common: an audience who have come to trust them due to their expertise, skill, talent or even fame in their respective fields.

However, the examples above highlight different types of influencers. One is a sports athlete (Gehrig) who has built up a reputation and millions watch him on TV while the other (Patel) has professional expertise and industry experience in a field with an online audience.

This raises the concept of different types of influencer marketing or outreach.

Paid/Sponsored Influencer Marketing

The first is sponsored influencer marketing represented today through the rise of internet stars on digital channels such as YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and others like health and fitness expert Denice Emoberg below. As in the case of Lou Gehrig, influencers are paid to advertise or distribute business content through any of the channels the influencer’s audience is active on.

social media paid instagram influencer

Denice has built up a reputation through her fitness regimes. She posts about her results and success from her personal experience on her social media channel. She has gained fame through her large base of engaged online followers.

As mentioned above, influencers can also be famous personalities with a huge TV presence like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, as has been the case with some recent trends. Or perhaps the person uses traditional channels like TV or digital ones such as social media, or both.

Organic Influencer Marketing

The other type of influencer marketing or outreach is organic influencer marketing. Like Neil, you build a relationship through various strategies and get to collaborate for no fee. And offering a free unit of the first model ever produced. This sounds similar to Google traffic when it comes to SEO and paid ads. Though, it should be noted it’s not always free and depends on the type of campaign. As can still lead to paid engagements.

However, it can be free and benefit Neil’s audience by adding value in other areas such as business productivity. Also, Alex Hern, a technology writer and journalist for The Guardian, is someone you can build relationships. And can reach out for organic outreach on a campaign.

organic twitter influencer

I explore both forms of influencer marketing in depth in my other blog articles.

With both cases, the audience does not need to be large. In this way, influencer marketing can be accessible to businesses of all sizes and made possible by the current digital evolution.


Influencer marketing involves using influencers to promote a product, service, event or content. It’s a proven type of marketing which has evolved despite it being around for decades. However, valuable lessons can be learned from the earlier forms of marketing to make them even more effective.

There are two major types of influencer marketing, sponsored and organic.

The return on investment for this type of marketing is higher than most types of marketing depending on how it is deployed. However, the right strategies need to be employed to get the best return from influencer marketing.

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