Remember the days when your social media feeds were dominated by cat videos, requests to play FarmVille and news from reliable sources?
Since then, social media has been taken over by influencers—people who monetize their massive followings by accepting promotion requests from brands, vlogging from trendy destinations or posing in well-lit rooms with products as commonplace as deodorant, toothpaste and acne serum.
Though we may poke fun at the highly filtered lifestyle of an influencer, we can’t deny that what they’re doing works. Market research company Morning Consult found in its latest report that influencers are increasingly becoming a central driver of millennial and Gen Z consumer decisions.
Based on over 2,000 interviews with members of both cohorts, ranging in age from 13 to 38, 88% of millennials and Gen Zers learn about new products through social media.
Respondents said they follow influencers because they’re inspiring, post interesting or fun content, and highlight the latest trends. (There’s a healthy dose of vicarious living, too.)
Because of their power, influencers have become an integral component of the social media brand marketing formula. To be successful, influencers must understand how to present themselves and which platform is best for the audience they’re looking for.
Here are five key influencer insights from Morning Consult’s Influencer Report:
1. Age and gender affect how you engage with influencers
More than 70% of young Americans follow influencers online, but the types of influencers they prefer to interact with—and the platforms they choose for engagement—varies based on age and gender.
Men gravitate toward influencers who post regularly about gaming (62%) and fitness and sports (41%), while women reserve most of their likes for beauty/skincare influencers (59%) and self-proclaimed fashionistas (49%).
The third most preferred influencer content for both men and women? Food.
Moreover, 44% of millennial and Gen Z women are more likely than men to learn about new products to buy from social media influencers, whereas 41% of millennial and Gen Z men learn about new products from friends and family on social media.
And where are men and women following the most influencers? For millennials and Gen Zers of all genders, YouTube and Instagram reign supreme as their favorite sites.
Facebook remains somewhat relevant for millennials (19% of men and 26% of women), but for Gen Z, Facebook influencers barely make a dent on their newsfeeds (1% of men and 4% of women).
2. Influencers are more trusted than celebrities
More than half of Gen Zers (52%) and exactly half of millennials believe reviews by influencers on social media—yes, even if their product or brand promotion is a paid advertisement.
They trust these influencers more than their favorite celebrities or athletes, though not as much as their friends and family, or reviews on other sites.
However, the line between what separates a celebrity spokesperson from an influencer is blurry and subjective.
When Morning Consult asked respondents to name their favorite influencers, most recalled people who gained celebrity before their influencer status, such as The Rock, Will Smith, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Bernie Sanders and Kevin Hart.
Gen Z women consider Zendaya, Rihanna and Ellen DeGeneres all to be highly favorable female influencers, while Gen Z men consider Justin Bieber, LeBron James, Steph Curry and Elon Musk to be highly favorable male influencers.
Both Gen Z women and men regard certain YouTubers as more influential than major celebrities: Shane Dawson, PewDiePie and Jeffree Star are mentioned repeatedly throughout the study. Still, through YouTube, these vloggers have achieved enough stardom to join the ranks of traditional celebrities.
Maybe the question to consider here is: Are celebrities de facto influencers, whether or not they’re spokespeople for brands?
3. Micro-influencers are the next wave
If you’re confused about what exactly makes a top influencer, try to wrap your head around the concept of a micro-influencer.
There’s disagreement as to who can deem themselves a micro-influencer. Some companies, like influencer marketing platform Scrunch, define a micro-influencer as an individual with an audience of between 2,000 and 50,000 people, while inbound marketing blog Impact says the follower number can range anywhere from 1,000 to 1 million.
Putting those disparities aside, one thing is clear from the survey: The potential micro-influencer market is massive because 86% of young Americans are willing to post sponsored content for money.
When the demographic variables of gender, race, income and education were factored in, survey results consistently showed that over half of millennials and Gen Zers would promote a brand’s product if they were promised a paycheck.
Among 13- to 38-year-olds, 61% are already likely to post organically about the brands they like, so stepping into micro-influencer territory isn’t a leap. In fact, if given the opportunity, 54% of young Americans would become influencers.
4. Influencers you love to hate
Say what you want about them, but the top five influencers named by respondents are also some of the most controversial stars:
- Jeffree Star
- Shane Dawson
- Kylie Jenner
For instance, 40% of Gen Z women have a favorable opinion on beauty YouTuber and cosmetics entrepreneur Jeffree Star, while only 15% of Gen Z men do.
(Jeffree Star has made racist comments in the past, including talking about throwing battery acid on a black girl’s face to lighten her skin to match a foundation.)
And in spite of her overall popularity, Kylie Jenner, the “youngest self-made billionaire” (per Forbes) and half-sister of the Kardashians, has 35% of Gen Z women rooting for her while 41% of Gen Z women find her unfavorable.
5. Authenticity matters
The most important trait an influencer needs to have is authenticity, according to 58% of respondents. Per the report, influencers need to “genuinely care about their interests” and come across as “relatable.”
The second-most important trait was having a sense of humor (53%), while being knowledgeable came in third (48%).
How do mega-influencers demonstrate their “authenticity” to consumers? Whether it’s genuine or performative, perhaps authenticity is relayed best when influencers express care for their interests.