Online Influencers: An Old Idea in a New Medium

This post is some thoughts pulled from a talk that I gave this week at Ryerson’s Start Up School. For more great resources for entrepreneurs, and to see the slide presentation that I gave, check out

Since the dawn of PR, influencers have been an important tool for those people and organizations who want to reach others with their message. This is not an exaggeration. The practice of public relations was basically invented when Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, hired women to march in the 1929 Easter Sunday Parade smoking cigarettes that they called their “torches of freedom“. Why did Bernays do this? Before this moment, smoking for women was considered taboo, dirty. Bernays effectively linked the act of smoking with the women’s equality movement, and changed public perception for decades to come.

a black and white photo of a woman holding a cigarette, circa 1940
Unidentified Woman with a Cigarette: Public domain. Photo from wikimedia commons:

Since that first “experiential marketing” campaign, influencers have played an important role in public relations. In fact, a large part of working in PR involves connecting with those people who might be influencers: Journalists, professionals, academics, politicians, celebrities, and community figures; and ensuring that your relationship with them (the second word in PR is, after all relations) is strong so you can call upon them in service of an organization or brand. Social or participatory media have changed the act of professional communication insofar as they have produced new types of influencers (YouTube celebrities for example), but at the same time, online influencer marketing is simply an old idea in a new medium.

The basic premise is the same. To be good at this, you need to FIRST focus on building relationships with those people who might be influential. The way you build relationships might be different. Whereas a traditional PR consultant may take a journalist or community figure out for drinks after work, new communication media necessitate an online approach, social listening, and a willingness to engage with a person like a human being, before approaching them with a possible business partnership.

The influencers are also a little different. Whereas traditional media necessitated the use of celebrities known and loved by the largest number of people possible, effective online influencers tend to appeal to a specific niche. In that sense micro-influencers can be as effective or even more effective than celebrity spokespeople.

Overall though, online participatory communication really represents a return to relationship building as a brand building tactic. Or in other words, social media puts the relations back into public relations.

Online Influencers: An Old Idea in a New Medium

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