Why influencers are shifting away from the term 'influencer'

Yet another influencer has managed to irk tourists for posing for a photo in front of a moving train - this time at Thailand's Maeklong Railway Market. While the train was said to be moving in a slow manner, many netizens have nonetheless slammed her for being inappropriate.

Influencers feeling the wrath of netizens is not new. Earlier this year, the local online community was rocked with the SgInstaBabes scandal, which saw the shutdown of an Instagram page featuring sometimes scantily-clad young girls posing provocatively.

The controversy also cast light on the ongoing sentiment towards the influencers in Singapore, many of whom are labeled mockingly labelled as "influenzas" instead of "influencers" on multiple occasions. This sentiment also prompted SgInstaBabes founder Lai Wee Kiat to clarify that SgInstaBabes was “not an ‘influencer collective’ and [did] not want to be recognised as ‘influencers’”. This is not the first time public online personalities have taken on this stance, with more choosing to identify as content creators, video makers or marketing themselves as marketing or production businesses.

When asked about the changing perception of the term “influencer”, several internet personalities and PR practitioners Marketing spoke to unanimously agreed that the term has taken on negative connotations over the years.

Host and content creator Jemimah Wei said there is “definitely a lot more animosity” towards the term these days. In the past, there was less emotional involvement in the term despite it being viewed as frivolous.

“Today however, it almost feels vicious when someone calls you an influencer because there is an undercurrent which feels like people are saying you have no real talent and the hard work you do is not seen as ‘real’ or ‘legitimate’,” Wei explained.

By association, it also seems like an influencer is some kind of a ‘leech’ on society.

This sentiment can be seen in almost any comment section on social media about articles involving influencers. As such, it is not surprising why content creators would distance themselves from the term, she explained.

For YouTube personality and creator Jianhao Tan, who the term “influencer” has garnered a lot negative connotations because of many incidents that blew up in the space. The perception of an "influencer" has now become someone who is often sponsored free things, has a higher following than the average person and leads a glamorous life. He added that:

Most of the time, people even struggle to understand why they are ‘famous’.

“I have never been really fond of the term influencer. I believe an influencer is someone who has the social and moral responsibility to provide a positive impact to the community and their audience in someway or another.  This is also someone who provides a certain value to brands or their audience,” Tan said.

Influencers “destroy credibility”

Tan explained that many content creators he knows also do not want to be associated with the term "influencer" because it destroys credibility. “Influencers” are also damaging for the industry because brands become reluctant on opening up to content creators, he added.

Wei added that content creators are also distancing themselves from the term as they desire to have the hours and work they put in recognised as legitimate and not dismissed as “fluffy”. For Wei, she said she would personally never identify with the term even if she recognises that she is being hired to produce the same consequences as what one assumes the term produces.

“This is because I started out as a host and the social media work is a side effect. Yes, it brings in an additional stream of income, but isn't the main body nor where I derive ‘production of meaning’,” she added. As such, she explained she feels “very alien” whenever someone uses the term on her even though logically she can see where they got that association from, as she is doing work on social media.

Breaking down the etymology of the word "influencer"

On top of the negative connotations and potential backlash associated with the term, many also disagree with the etymology of the word, Wei explained. This phenomenon calls into questions what the term “influencer” really means. Given her background working in the ad industry, she says that the term "influencers" was an industry term for internal use in advertising agencies – which then became popularised in mainstream lingo. In agencies, “influencers” just meant people who have influence online.

"When defining jobs, people often use words that directly indicate their effect or skill set, for example a person working in banking is called a banker. Similarly, a person working with accounts is called an accountant, and someone who acts in shows is called an actor/actress," Wei said.

Agencies use the term “influencer” because of the effect they distil from these people, who have influence in certain spheres. It is also easier than referring to this group of individuals as key opinion leaders (KOL).

"But, when you export the term 'influencers' to the public it becomes, 'this person thinks their job is to influence you' which eventually leads to defensiveness and questions if the influencer is really influential," Wei said, adding:

That being said, the term doesn’t really signal towards something, it is somewhat of an empty term in and of itself when taken out of the agency context.

"It’s like calling yourself an activist without outlining the context of a situation or a political cause you feel passionate about. It does not make sense to 'just be an activist' because that means you protest about anything which needs protesting," Wei said.

Similarly, one can’t just be an “influencer” because that doesn't mean anything without context. The individual needs to be an influencer in the realm of their passion or expertise, which means one would never start out as an influencer, but start out doing something such as YouTube beauty reviews or Instagram travel guides which then leads to influence in that sphere.

"However, no one breaks it down that way because the train of reasoning gets stopped immediately when the word 'influencer' is being heard. People just think 'Oh my god lame bimbos' because of all the existing negative connotations," Wei added.

A PR perspective: Has the value of the word "influencer" has dropped?

Also weighing in was Edwin Yeo, GM of SPRG Singapore, who said the term “influencer” has been “hijacked by anybody” just starting an Instagram page or a blog and labelling themselves as one. This is even if said “influencer” did not garner any kind of real following.

“At some level, being an influencer became synonymous with not having a real job and just going around taking photos and asking for sponsorship, gifts and invitations to events,” Yeo said, adding:

Obviously, there are really those that do have a big following and can influence mindsets, but the value of the term has dropped a lot.

For Lars Voedisch, founder of Precious Communications, the term "influencer" has been "used and abused" for far too long with far too many social media users throwing the term around loosely. This mainly driven by a on large follower numbers and transactional relationships.

This has caused a misconception among the public and brands (and even some agencies) that all social media users with large followings are considered influencers. "The self-entitled behaviour of some "influencers" in recent times have also perpetuated this divide, causing more and more creators to want to steer away from the negativity and stigma that comes with the term," Voedisch added.

[Brands] need to understand that social media users with large followings are just that - social media users with large followings.

He explained that an influencer is an individual whose effect on the purchase decisions and actions of others is in some way significant or authoritative, regardless of their following.

"Hence it all starts with doing your homework and identifying the right fit of content and reach partners. Any brand would do the same for traditional media – so why take short cuts and just hope for the best in the social media space?" Voedisch explained.

Will the negative association persist?

When asked if the negative perception of the word would persist into the future, Yeo said it was entirely possible. Similarly, the term “financial planner” was too in the past hijacked by insurance agents who didn't have much financial training and were literally just salesmen.

“The financial industry has done a lot to take the term back, including introducing stricter regulations, providing proper training and certification and so on. Financial planners today are certainly of a higher standing than they were some 20 to 30 years ago,” Yeo explained.

He added that the same was not impossible for the influencer industry if those in it would get together and set the right standards. That being said, Yeo said personally he would prefer the term “influencer” be reserved for opinion leaders, rather than just anyone who can take a good photo.

“Certainly, one can be a photographer or even an Instagrammer, but an influencer really should be someone who, well, influences. Maybe they do at some level, but that probably speaks more about the type of content we consume and are influenced by than it does them,” Yeo added.