Are Influencers Really That Influential?

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(By Tim O’Brien) This may sound like heresy to even question since I’m a PR guy, but are “influencers” really that influential? Of course, it all depends. Perhaps the best starting point is to explore why influencers should even matter to podcasters.

The conventional wisdom is that for anyone doing content marketing – and podcasts are a part of this – we need to tap the power of someone with 15,000-50,000 Twitter followers to amplify our work. If not Twitter, then perhaps Instagram, or Snapchat, or Facebook.

To be sure, if you interview someone on your podcast, and that person pushes it via social and YouTube, you will likely get a bump in listenership. But if they only appear on your podcast one time, there is nothing to indicate all of those listeners will return the next time.

So, you have to keep repeating this in the hopes that you will build an audience based on other peoples’ social followers, who can be extremely fickle.

One assumption that is usually not challenged is the claim that guests with a big social following automatically lead to audience growth. On this assumption, put me in the category of skeptic. Yes, I’ve experienced some things just shy of “viral” thanks to content that was retweeted and shared, but more often than not I’ve found that digital influencers do not provide the kind of sustainable support that is usually needed. In fact, some of my more-listened-to episodes featured a couple of people who had no social media presence. And I can think of a couple of guests who had huge social media followings who did not bring their audiences to the podcast as I had hoped.

In a conversation with one veteran podcaster about this, his sage observation was this: “Your mileage may vary.”

What he meant was, it takes much more than a guest with a big social following to have a meaningful impact on audience growth. As we all know, seeing your podcast land on the iTunes rankings has much more power than even a few thousand Instagram likes.

On the flip side, I know a couple of podcasters who get thousands of downloads a week, who have relatively small social media followings.

So, are influencers all they are cracked up to be? I’d say no.

Don’t get caught up in the thinking that influencers really have influence. Their power is temporary at best.

Real influencers usually aren’t called “influencers.” Many have no social media presence, but they do have followings. They may be book authors, academics, or frequent sources for the news media on topics where they are seen as experts. Their impact is far less immediate than someone with a verified Twitter account, but chances are it is more lasting.

So, if you want a real influencer strategy for your podcast, the best use of your time and energies would more likely be to talk to and about the people and things your target audience care about the most, and not to base your audience growth strategies primarily on people with large numbers of social followers.

Tim O’Brien is the producer and host of the Shaping Opinion podcast and the founder of the Pittsburgh-based communications consultancy O’Brien Communications. He can be reached at 412.854.8845 or timobrien@timobrienpr.com.