Headshot of Diana Pearl

Influence wasn’t always quantifiable. Sure, celebrities and models could sell magazines, and there’s no question that Oscar-winning actors, superhuman athletes, chart-topping musicians and globally known politicians can convince people how to think (or to buy certain products). But the idea of influence as a measurable metric is a newer phenomenon, one predicated by normal people with large social followings putting content on the internet.

While celebrities still hold a tremendous amount of societal influence, a 15-year-old with a knack for making YouTube videos can wield as much leverage with certain audiences as a popular movie actor. And this has upended the way marketers look at the power of suggestion.

“It’s somebody that had the ability to connect and engage in an authentic way with a community that ultimately brings them in and makes them feel a part of their life,” said Alli Guglielmino, vp, client services at entertainment company Fullscreen. “That builds this one-to-one relationship, so they can engage and create these fan relationships, but also have a very strong ability to influence and encourage their community to do things, purchase things and even have the voice they maybe haven’t been able to have in the past.”

Trends and taste used to be decided by the upper echelons of society. Now, an otherwise ordinary person with an extraordinary amount of followers on social media can wield that power. And with that, they’ve also become a major tool for brands looking to connect with consumers. Look at Nordstrom’s collaborations with bloggers like Rachel Parcell of Pink Peonies and Blair Eadie of Atlantic-Pacific, both of whom have more than 1 million followers on Instagram, for proof.

It’s easier than ever to gauge what consumers are resonating with. Though questions about influencer fraud are still pervasive in the industry, having easy access to metrics that showcase whether or not content is doing its job beyond likes means that brands are able to better understand what—and who—is moving the needle.

“The public doesn’t lie,” said Carter Baldwin, vp of content and creative at FabFitFun, a brand that has leaned hard into influencer marketing over the past several years. “It’s just an immediate litmus test.”

a sidebar showing the growth of influencer marketing

But while the concept of the influencer is still a relatively new phenomenon, Amber Venz Box, co-founder and president of affiliate network and monetization platform for influencers rewardStyle, said that more small-scale influencers have always existed in their own communities. Today’s influencers bring the feeling of getting a recommendation from a friend or an online acquaintance and scale it.

“Most of our influencers have established their own wealth through their earnings, but that’s not where they started,” Venz Box said. “They’re very relatable and also highly entertaining. … That makes them essentially a ticket to a larger peer group.”

For brands, that authenticity is paramount. Erik Torstensson, co-founder of FRAME, who credits influencers with playing a major role in the rise of the company, said that these natural endorsements can be a powerful tool.

“Everything you do has to be an authentic fit for the brand,” he said. “It almost has to come from an organic relationship, a will to do something.”

The rise of influencers has changed celebrity culture, too. As influencers have grown to fame by sharing more about their own lives, people have looked to celebrities to do the same.

A-listers like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney, for example, have a limited presence on social media and occupy a role that’s more traditionally associated with celebrities. And while brands aren’t exactly shying away from working with Clooney, it has meant more pressure on the latest crop of actors, musicians and models to embrace social media to build their own brands. Appearing in more traditional media, like on TV, is simply a gateway to starting a more lucrative career on social media.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 9, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Diana is the deputy brands editor for Adweek.