Are influencers celebrities?

Chiara Ferragni (pictured here at Cannes in 2017) has amassed over 25 million followers on her Instagram (@chiaraferragni)

Earlier this month, YouTuber Philip DeFranco asked his 6.23 million subscribers a simple question; “are Youtube/TikTok/Etc Influencers Celebrities?”.

This question was one I had not thought about before and I think many, including myself, are still figuring out exactly where influencers lie in the realm of celebrity and pop culture. When I looked at the breakdown of answers I could tell that the answer was not obvious. This was reflected in the fairly even split of Yes/No. The most popular answer was ‘Influencers ARE celebrities’ (57%) with 43% stating that ‘Influencers ARE NOT celebrities’.

I think it’s a shame there weren’t more options. I would be intrigued to find out what those who said no would class influencers as. I fear some answers would not be flattering, many still refuse to see professional YouTubers as anything more than jumped up teenagers who get paid to sit on over-priced gaming chairs and “play computer games all day”. There is still a lot of ignorance around the professional world of YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.

That being said, in this article, I want to explore where influencers fit into the landscape of celebrity culture.

What is an influencer?

It’s important to first define what an influencer actually is. As a brand new and emerging profession, there is still a lot of debate about this but I’ve tried my best to define it below.

Merriam-Webster define an influencer as “a person who is able to generate interest in something (such as a consumer product) by posting about it on social media”. In nearly all the definitions I could find online a link was made between the person and their ability to  sell products. My favourite definition however is from Influencer Marketing Hub which defines an influencer as “[having] the power to affect the purchasing decisions of others because of his or her authority, knowledge, position, or relationship with his or her audience.” I like this definition the most as it highlights the importance of the relationship that influencers have with their audience. Influencers are not simply interactive billboards or actors in adverts. They are people who have spent time curating and nurturing a community based around themselves and/or their interests.

Now that we’ve defined what an influencer is I think it’s also important to differentiate the different levels of influencers. Like in football, not every influencer is in the Premier League, able to boast audiences in the millions and with a bank balance that reflects that.

Whilst many are now much more aware of what influencers are and what they do, compared to say 10 years ago, the industry is still in its early stages and therefore definitions are still being developed. Typically however, influencers are split into four main categories: nano-influencers, micro-influencers, macro-influencers, and finally mega-influencers.

Nano-influencers (<1000 followers)

These are people with only a small number of followers, but they tend to be experts in an obscure or highly specialised field. In many cases, they have fewer than 1,000 followers – but they will be keen and interested followers, willing to engage with the nano-influencer, and listen to his/her opinions. Brands use these rarely and, if they do, they tend to use a scatter-gun approach, using a number of nano-influencers to reach a broad audience.

Micro-influencers (1000 – 100,000 followers)

Micro-influencers are the next level above. They still often operate within a niche field however they boast a following of between 1,000 and 100,000. This increased following makes them much more attractive to brands, especially those brands who operate in niche markets themselves. Their audiences are typically very interactive and have a strong connection with the influencer and what they stand for.

Macro-influencers (100K – 1 million followers)

Macro influencers have between 100K–1M followers and tend toward a broader appeal than micro influencers. Macro influencers not only have a large audience but it’s likely that they’ve developed that audience over months or years of nurturing relationships while growing followers.

It’s at the macro-influencer-level that you also start to see influencers diversifying their portfolio – branching into other avenues such as podcasting, streaming, or blogging to compliment their main channel (typically Instagram or YouTube).

Mega-influencers (1 million+ followers)

Recognise this face? Charli D’Amelio is the biggest star on Tik Tok with 127 million followers.

Now we’re into the big leagues – mega influencers. These are the likes of Zoella, Chiara Ferragni (pictured at the top of this post) Logan Paul, and Charli D’Amelio. With millions of followers these influencers demand hefty paychecks because their content promises to consistently reach millions.

At this level many would consider some of the big names as celebrities. We’re now seeing mega-influencers making on our TV screens and even silver-screens. Whilst they might be the most recognsible faces, they’re just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the influencing world. As of this month, there are an estimated 29,000 YouTube channels with 1 million subscribers. In theory, that’s 29,000 mega-influencers however it is worth bearing in mind that within that number is a mix of individual creators and also brands/media companies. There also are channels with over a million subscribers that no longer post regularly – for example Danisnotonfire or nigahiga.

Are they the same as celebrities?

Now that we’ve established what an influencer is, and the various kinds of influencers there are, it now begs the question of where they fit in the realm of celebrity. Referring back to Merriam-Webster, a celebrity is defined as “a famous or celebrated person”. I think going by that definition you could definitely include mega-influencers as celebrities – they’re famous not only in their realm but in the wider media through television and film. I think this can be proven by the fact that if you stop most people on the street they would have heard of Logan Paul or Kylie Jenner.

Lower down the levels I still think that macro-influencers can fit into the category of celebrity. Macro-influencers are famous within their niche, they represent the key opinion leaders in the space that they occupy online. For example, if you like consuming climbing or bouldering content on YouTube, then you would have almost certainly come across Bouldering Bobat (177K subs). If you like consuming football content on YouTube then you almost definitely would have come across Hashtag United (584K subs). Within the wider pop culture space, macro-influencers are not famous but I don’t think that means they still aren’t celebrities in their own right.

I think the cut off is micro-influencers. To use a football analogy, micro-influencers are at the semi-pro stage of influencing. Typically, they’re at the early stage of their influencing career, still trying to break through and not yet earning enough to make a living out of their social media or YouTube channel. In other words, they’re not famous but they might be if they keep going in the direction they’re going.

Ultimately, does it matter?

I think it’s important to emphasise that becoming a celebrity is not the main goal of influencing. Like with any profession in the spotlight, such as actors or footballers, the driving force for those looking to make it should always be the love of their craft. To rise to the top of the influencing world you have to fall in love with the process. You have to love creating content and you have to be dedicated. There is a misconception amongst many that being a professional YouTuber or Instagrammer is an easy job. That you just film for an hour or two, or have a quick photoshoot, and then post it and boom you get followers and money. Many influencers, such as KSI, emphasise how much hard work it takes to earn millions of followers or subscribers. It’s not a typical 9 to 5 job and it requires you to develop skills in a variety of fields including video editing, graphic design, marketing and PR. If you can put in the work however and get to the macro or mega influencer stage, money and celebrity status await.

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