Influencer marketing has explosively transformed into a $13.8 billion industry practically overnight. Projections put it crossing over $26 billion within the next few years.
But the factors allowing everyday consumers to hold influence are far from new – playing out in a high-tech game of digital telephone over centuries.
Let‘s rewind and follow the path that turned influence into today‘s data-driven marketing giant. I‘ll highlight the eras, platforms and campaigns that paved the way based on my decade-plus in branding and social media consulting.
The Origins of Influence: Fame as Currency
The basic human drive to emulate – whether styles, actions or purchases – laid the groundwork for influence to impact decisions.
Brands capitalized early…
In fact, the first recognized influencer marketing tactic dates back to 1760.
The trailblazer? Legendary British potter Josiah Wedgewood. His approach? Put the image of England‘s beloved Queen Charlotte front and center on his company‘s porcelain line, capitalizing on her fame, status and style iconography.
This early endorsement created a royal sensation, with Wedgewood‘s sales doubling almost instantly thanks to the cachet of influencer endorsement – even centuries before the term existed.
Over the next 250 years, celebrity cameos persisted as a highly visible way to shape public perception of brands. As the reach of magazines, radio and eventually television expanded, so too did the power of famous figures driving trends.
Limitations remained however:
- Expensive buy-in needed for mainstream celebrity deals and sponsorships
- Mass appeal to general consumers rather than niche groups
- Sales impact difficult to measure across mediums
This set the stage for the digital age – allowing influence to permeate everyday consumers through platforms we now can‘t imagine life without.
The Digital Land grab and Grassroots Influence
At the dawn of the internet, gaining an audience was as simple as an intriguing idea and some rudimentary coding chops.
Online forums allowed individuals to connect around interests in a way never before possible. And tools emerged enabling anyone to have a global voice.
The 2000s marked a pivotal shift towards everyday people attracting engaged, niche followings that drove trends from the ground up.
Web 1.0 presented new opportunities for influence through the platforms we now consider internet relics:
Heather Armstrong of Dooce stands out for turning blogging and chronicling life as a working mother into rapt readership – and real revenue. She was actually fired from her tech job for writing about work, but quickly pivoting her irreverent stories into speaking gigs and branding deals.
Armstrong and the pioneers across these text-based sites laid crucial groundwork for monetizing grassroots influence. But constraints remained with readers still passive consumers rather than communities that interacted.
The stage was set for the arrival of social media and the tools to foster true connections, engagement – and influence at scale.
The Social Era Takes Off
A seismic shift took place with the reckless pace of Web 2.0 platform innovation and adoption in the early 2000s.
suddenly, anyone could capture an audience and turn influence into serious money with some grit and the right message.
Social media meant people curating trendsetting content, actively engaging followers, and most importantly, seeing actual behavioral changes because of it.
Some standout moments in the evolution of social influence:
- 2006: YouTube launches, allowing influencer-created videos to engage millions
- 2007: Justin Kan livestreams his everyday college life to Justin.tv, birthing the concept of round-the-clock vlogging
- 2010: Instagram launches with a focus on lifestyle imagery and visual aesthetics – a natural fit for endorsed products
- 2017: The Fyre Fest debacle sees instafamous models drive millions in ticket sales for the failed event with a single hashtag
But the onslaught of platforms also fragmented audiences and influencer types. Specialization became crucial – as did wearing multiple hats to earn money from influence across sites.
Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter and beyond each enabled distinct ways for influencers to engage audiences…and for brands to harness word-of-mouth at scale.
No longer was having one big name enough. Everyday consumers spotlit by algorithms drove engagement and sales.
The Professionalization of Influence
By the mid-2010s, the Wild West era of chasing influence through fragmented platforms gave rise to an industry.
In 2013, dedicated software arrived allowing brands to manage influencer partnerships from end-to-end. AspireIQ kicked off the startup wave, with Activate following the next year to optimize campaigns.
Influence at scale had arrived – and billions in venture capital flooded in to build tools benefiting brands and influencers.
Fragmentation spurred M&A. Consolidation continues today, with players like IZEA, Julius and obviously InfluencerDB acquired by Linqia at high valuations this year.
Expect further consolidation as analytics and fraud detection mature.
Indeed, tracking real impact has professionalized influence. The industry cracked down on fake followers and birthed guidelines to ensure transparency around paid deals. Disclosure laws arrived in 2017 before expanding globally.
Trust and ethics became crucial for longevity.
And it has paid off. Influencer marketing shows no signs of slowing its explosive growth:
- $1.7 billion industry in 2016
- Nearly $10 billion by 2020
- Over $13 billion as of 2021 per InfluencerHub
- Projected to top $26 billion by 2025
The commercialization of influence has cemented it as a scalable, measurable marketing strategy – not merely a lucky break with a big celebrity.
Data and technology removed gambles by matching brands with niche influencers proven to resonate with target demographics and drive real impact.
The Future of Influence
Influencer marketing continues to rapidly mature thanks to advances in technology and analytics. But its core power persists:
Fostering emotional connections between consumers and voices they relate to – voices driving real purchases.
As virtual realities like the metaverse reshape culture itself, new forms of deep influence will emerge through formats we can’t yet picture.
Expect brands to invest billions more chasing mathematical formulas predicting exactly how and where to intersect desired audiences with money to spend.
Ethics and efficacy will remain crucial as data insights guide partnerships with relevant influencers – micro to celebrity and everything between.
The barriers between content, community and commerce are vanishing. This paves the way for integrated experiences where tapping into influence scales exponentially.
Just imagine – the next era of influence likely sits just on the horizon as creativity spreads instantly across digital realms.
The wild west days of influence may have ended thanks to commercial sophistication.
But opportunities for consumers to impact peers’ decisions will never fatigué so long as the human drive to relate persists.