The Myth and Magic of Influencers

Forbes crowned Kylie Jenner crowned the youngest self-made billionaire in 2019. It was exciting because this was a female billionaire. Exciting because the money came from media and fashion, and not from a tech startup that just went public.

One year later, Forbes discovered that she wasn’t worth what she claimed. Much like everything in the entertainment industry, they found that there was a lot more hype than substance to the revenue figures she boasted. Suffice to say, not everyone was surprised since this were the Kardashians after all. Nobody has mastered the art of self-promotion quite like they have. 

That’s not just criticism. It’s also math

Kylie Jenner made 1.2 million for each sponsored Instagram post in 2019, while Kim Kardashian took home a little south of a million. That’s more money than someone without a bachelor’s degree is likely to make over their lifetime. 

You don’t have to be a fan of them to find this interesting. I’m certainly not. Living in Singapore, they don’t show up on the news, and I definitely don’t go out of my way to keep up with them. 

What piques my interest — besides that eye popping number — is that advertisers keep coming back to them which suggests that the Kardashians are worth every dollar (or million) that they charge. They are influencers in the truest sense of the word. People pay attention when they speak, and do what they say. 

Influence. That’s what I want to discuss. 

There’s a lot of research done on this topic, but nothing arguably comes close to what Robert Cialdini has done. In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he highlights six principles of persuasion, three of which are particularly important when it comes to the Internet influencers of today.

Let’s see how we can recreate that in our daily lives. 

 

Authority

It’s not surprising that we listen to people who seem more credible and knowledgeable. What’s surprising is the medium in which such authority is conveyed by influencers. 

I don’t mean subject matter experts. There are plenty of economists and professors on Twitter who have found a way to convey their expertise beyond academia. For these people, the primary way is still through their credentials and pool of work they’ve built up over the years. The only difference is that they’re not speaking to other academics — they actually want to speak to the layperson and so they speak in a way that’s easily understood. 

Instagram influencers don’t have such credentials. They don’t need to. You’ll take workout and diet advice from someone if he has six pack abs and a 315 pound bench press even if he doesn’t have formal qualifications in nutrition or sports science. 

In many ways, that’s as credible as it gets. The only signal that influencers can broadcast is themselves. They take risks by putting themselves in the spotlight and under scrutiny. There’s nowhere they can hide when things go wrong.

This is the way that any of us can build authority. You don’t have to rely on formal credentials or institutions. Work in public. Share what you’ve learned. Become the embodiment of whatever you’re selling. There’s nothing quite like seeing something for you to believe it. 

Social Proof

Humans are mimetic creatures. We don’t know what we want, so we look to others for guidance on what we should want. When we’re young, this means family. But as we get older, it becomes our peers

Celebrities also step in here to provide that form of social validation. If Nikes are good enough for Lebron James, it’s probably durable and comfortable enough for myself. Ditto for Blaze Pizza and Beats by Dr. Dre. 

This doesn’t work on just the emotional. On the contrary, it works because it’s rational. In his fantastic essay, Ads Don’t Work That WayKevin Simler argues that ads change the cultural meaning of a product, and more importantly, everyone knows that. When this happens, it makes sense for people to buy the product as a signal of their identity. As he explains:

“For each of these products, an ad campaign seeds everyone with a basic image or message. Then it simply steps back and waits or you to decide to use the product (or not) based on whether you’re comfortable with the kind of cultural signals its brand image allows you to send. 

In this way, cultural imprinting relies on the principle of common knowledge. For a fact to be common knowledge among a group, it’s not enough for everyone to know it. Everyone must also know that everyone else knows it — and know that they know that they know it… and so on.”

Against this backdrop, it makes sense to purchase a product that reflects your values. If you don’t signal that you’re part of an in-group, there’s a good chance you’ll be considered an outsider. Hence this conclusion: 

“Before seeing the ad, the product wasn’t worth very much to us, but after seeing the ad, we find ourselves wanting to buy it (and at a premium, no less). The problem is that there’s no escape, no immunity, from this kind of ad. Once we see it — and know that all our peers have seen it too — it’s in our rational self-interest to buy the advertised product.”

This is some powerful stuff. It’s quite impossible for you and I to replicate it on a daily basis because we don’t have the reach necessary to turn a message we want to convey into common knowledge. The closest thing to cultural imprinting as described above is the use of our reputations, and even then it’s only effective if it’s in a niche. 

Think of it as Munger fame vs Kardashian fame. The Kardashians might be more famous, but Charlie Munger is legendary in the investing circle for his wit and wisdom. His pithy quotes have even been popularised as Mungerisms. Not too bad for someone who knows nothing about social media.

Liking

People prefer to say yes to those they know and like. You’re much more likely to help your friends and family than a stranger on the street. It’s not rocket science. 

What drives likeability? A number of things. But it shouldn’t surprise you that attractiveness is one of those things, and indeed, is probably the main reason why influencers are successful. A convincing argument can be made that beauty is the greatest privilege that we don’t talk about: 

“Attractive people are more likely to be seen as competent and be hired for a job (Busetta, 2013). They are perceived as smarter and having more social grace (Kanasawa, 2010). They are perceived to have better personality qualities like trustworthiness (Dewolf 2014). They are perceived as kinder (Snyder, Tanke and Berscheid 1977). They are more persuasive. They are more likely to benefit from acts of kindness from a stranger. They have greater self esteem (Thornton, 1991).

[…] In a meta analysis of the role of attractiveness in criminal sentencing, it was found that unattractive people received 120–305 percent longer sentences than attractive people. As a comparison, another study found that black people received 6–20 percent longer sentences than white people. Yes, in criminal sentencing, looks were over 10x more important than race.” 

Attractive people sure live in a different world. 

I’m not sure if this is something we can recreate but there are other things that we can control. We don’t only like people who are attractive; we also like others who share the same interests or values as us. We like wit, personality, and someone who’s willing to listen to us. This is why influencers exist outside of Instagram, the land of aesthetic pictures. Whether it’s Twitter, YouTube or Twitch, many people have carved out a living as an influencer that isn’t primarily dependent on how good looking they are. 

So do interesting things. Have a story you can tell. Reach out to people; ask them questions. Provide interesting tidbits of information that most wouldn’t understand. Do the little things that seem boring and tedious. There’s bound to be something that others can get behind. 

“I’m not a businessman — I’m a business, man”, Jay Z once rapped. 

Same goes for influence. Being an influencer isn’t just about having a following on social media. It goes beyond that to being able to persuade people around you.