Why The Difference Between ‘Creator’ And ‘Influencer’ Matters To Brands

May 30, 2024
Why The Difference Between ‘Creator’ And ‘Influencer’ Matters To Brands

For the past decade or more, the terms “influencer” and “creator” have been used more or less interchangeably to describe online personalities who’ve built big social-media followings. But there is a difference, one that can matter a lot to the brands that spend billions of dollars partnering with them, a new study argues.

“The way we always thought about it, we think ‘creator’ is a bigger bucket,” said Austin Pollock, SVP and head of brand partnerships for Doing Things, which conducted the study with Kantar Media. “’Influencers’ are creators but a different sub-category. The definition of a creator that's emerged is they’re content creators, more entertainment-focused, driven by having a point of view or voice. Influencers take more of a meticulous approach to (curating) their image, trying to sell an image or brand to followers. It's created confusion, and we're at this inflection where this is a recognizable difference.”

Influencers tend to be big personalities – actors, athletes, other kinds of stars – who’ve built a largely aspirational base of followers who admire the personality’s life and lifestyle and want to be like them. Think sex-tape participant turned reality TV star turned wealthy entrepreneur Kim Kardashian as perhaps a perfected version of the form.

The content Kardashian posts online is, generally, all about her and her life and experiences. Her audience, and brand partners, are along for the ride, wanting to be more like her in one way or another.

“That image she's created has allowed her to have a lot influence on people who aspire to have that image or lifestyle,” Pollock said.

By contrast, creators actually create online entertainment, in the broadest possible definition of that term, that often but not always features them, said Pollock.

MrBeast has built a massive audience of 263 million YouTube subscribers who watch his elaborate, often philanthropical video productions. Online pioneers Rhett & Link have made more than 2,500 episodes of their Good Mythical Morning sort-of talk show since 2006, among much else. Dylan LeMay built a massive TikTok following (and New York City retail outlet) thanks to his love of all things ice cream.

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Creators like them regularly make online content that audiences want to watch, shaped in part by their own personalities and careful stewardship of their followings and their expectations. For brands, it’s not just about dropping their own message and style on top of the creator’s existing work, said Kantar Chief Media Commercial Lead Nicole Jones. The difference is crucial for brands trying to reach online audiences.

“There’s a lot of confusion in marketplace,” Jones said. “But at the core of it is, What is their purpose? The creators are really building these authentic communities. That authenticity is so much higher than the influencer-led content. Trust is built. Trust for any brand is really important. People are going to believe what is said in that clip. They are going to believe that, they’re more likely to purchase that.”

Effectively, with influencers, brands are “renting” the massive audiences that have influencers can build, usually because of who they are somewhere else besides online.

But when it comes to working with creators, brands need to let go of the tight control they typically exert over how their product messaging is created. The creators know far more about how to effectively reach their own audience with any message than an outside brand could hope to know on its own.

“There’s a natural distrust of large media and brands that creates this distrust of ‘Who do I turn to?’” Pollock said. “There starts to be this larger opportunity (with creators) that brands are starting to turn to.”

A creator is not just a person at the head of a large audience. The creator and audience tend to build up their own internal language of inside jokes, memes, and experiences. Doing Things, for example, creates brand-connected content that works well within a string of “meme pages,” online tags focused on specific areas of interest that have generated long histories of insider conversation, Pollock said.

For brands venturing into these communities, there are lots of complications. But done right, “the warmth and love that’s created for that brand is unprecedented in my experience,” Pollock said. “It really comes across as authentic.”

Jones said brands need to focus on the specific audiences they’re trying to reach, and how specific influencers can help. The “core” influencers in a specific sector are an obvious place to start, but is there an opportunity to expand reach with relationships with other kinds of creators who might, for instance, just be fans of the brand. Regardless, attitude matters in venturing into an online community.

“The approach should be self awareness,” Pollock said. “Don't present to an audience that doesn't know you. The brands that come in that don’t come in with the wrong attitude, maybe are self-deprecating, can have some success.”

Audience trust is the currency, and complication, Jones said.

“People trust these creators,” Jone said. “They want to be part of that community. It’s a chance for that brand to get introduced. All the metrics move for all of the creator-led content: brand awareness, authenticity, persuadability.”

That audience trust makes creators particularly effective with genre types such as product reviews and comedy/humor.

Influencers, by contrast, tend to be more effective at the bottom of the marketing funnel, particularly for luxury and aspirational brands, “products that can make you look a certain way, feel a certain way,” Pollock said.

Among the study’s findings:

Doing Things specializes in creating meme-driven online content alongside brands such as McDonald’s, Paramount, Corona, Duolingo, and Cheez-It. Kantar specializes in audience measurement, targeting and analytics in 80 global markets.

The study used a “control vs. exposed design” methodology to measure attitudinal differences, comparing two matched groups of consumers and their responses to brand content.

Source: forbes