The new influencers beat traditional advertising effectiveness

Ernie Meeks new influencers

Pilot Ernie Meeks is one of the new influencers building trust for brands

By Aaron Hassen, {grow} community member

The most difficult job in marketing today is determining how to effectively connect with our customers in a fractured media landscape. Fortunately, we have informative research and experts like Ed Keller to guide us on where to turn next … and that might include a surprising crop of new influencers.

Here’s a little story to set up the findings of Ed’s research.

100 percent human contentI was reading the news, and an article from The Dallas Morning News jumped out at me. The article, The new social media influencer? Pilots and flight attendants, tells the story of Southwest Airlines pilot Ernie Meeks. Ernie was disappointed when his daughter, who had dreamed of following in his footsteps, considered dropping out of pilot school. Meeks was determined to change her mind, so he created videos for YouTube and Instagram highlighting his daily routines as a pilot.

After a year, his subscribers had grown to 57,300 on YouTube and 130,000 on Instagram … and his daughter decided to remain in pilot training school. But rather than quit, Meeks expanded into podcasting, and his show is now fully backed and sponsored by his employer, Southwest Airlines.

Why would an airline invest in an employee’s social media presence? How does this connect to modern marketing realities?  The answers are found in Ed Keller’s latest research, Unveiling Influence: A Suzy Report on The Impact of Creators on American Consumers’ Lives.

Known for his groundbreaking studies on Word-of-Mouth Marketing, Ed Keller is the CEO of the Keller Advisory Group and Executive Director of Market Research Institute International. Recently, Ed turned his attention to the new influencers and their impact on consumer behavior. If you’re like me, the findings will excite you.

27 million creators … and counting

The Keller Advisory Group worked with research firm Suzy to conduct a nationally representative study of over 1,100 consumers ages 16-54. The study focused on the impact creators and influencers have on consumer attention and purchasing behaviors. Keller had previously surveyed thousands of creators to get their points of view. This time, he decided to take a look at the other side of the equation, which of course is most interesting to brands and marketing and advertising professionals like me.

Keller defines a creator as someone who self-identifies as one and makes money creating. An influencer is someone who posts content on social media regularly and has a significant following. Often, these individuals are one and the same, so I’ll be using the terms interchangeably in this article.

The study estimates there are 27 million paid creators in the U.S. or 14% of all consumers ages 16-54. But all creators are not alike, and the breakdowns are important: 

  • 12.22% (3.3m) are macro-influencers with 250k+ followers 
  • 25.18% (6.8m) are mid-tier influencers with 50k – 250k followers
  • 39.5% (10.4m) are micro-influencers with less than 10k followers. (This segment is reported to be the most influential)

Let’s move on to some of the key takeaways from the study.

Creators are far more influential than ads

According to the survey, 7 in 10 consumers follow creators, and 80% of those followers take some sort of action due to the influence of creator content. These actions are significant and include:

  • visiting the brand’s website (55%),
  • following the brand on social media (46%),
  • recommending the brand to someone else (42%), and
  • resharing the creator’s content (29%).

The best part? An eye-popping 43% of consumers report making a purchase! This meant that compared to advertising, creator content was 2.6 times more influential in purchasing decisions for those polled.

So, what exactly is driving these results? In a word, trust.

New influencers mean trust

The study finds that creator content outperforms traditional advertising across several key attributes.

Creator content is trusted 2.9 times more than advertising and is considered more exciting, unique, relevant, and shareable. Creator content also creates a stronger emotional connection, as 83% of consumers report that they like or love the creator’s content. These qualities appear to contribute to the higher effectiveness of creator content when influencing consumer perceptions and actions compared to ads. 

Brands follow the money

As Mark Schaefer highlighted in his recent article, How big is the creator economy? Three times larger than we thought, brand spending on influencers is surging.

Keller found that nearly 6 in 10 have an ongoing relationship with brands. In his latest survey, between 73% and 76% of consumers said that creator content influences their perceptions of both large, well-known brands and lesser-known emerging brands. So, it’s no coincidence that trusted brands like Amazon, Microsoft, Walmart, and Apple invest in creators.

Money is shifting away from advertisers and toward the new influencers. This year, brands will reportedly spend around $8.14 billion on sponsored social media content. According to Reuters, legacy advertising outlets like “Google and YouTube have faced competition for ad budgets from other online platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and”

The Washington Post notes that even “Well-known news outlets have seen a decline in the amount of traffic flowing to them from social media sites, and some of the money that advertisers previously might have spent with them is now flowing to creators.” The shift in investment from digital advertising to creators highlights the increased importance and effectiveness of creator partnerships for brands.

Ultimately, it’s clear that creators are funded because of their ability to create customers, which is why Southwest Airlines would eagerly support their pilot/creator. Creators are now the arbiters of consumer attention and trust, and brands are leveraging that trust to drive purchases. 

So, the next time you have your finger on the button ready to launch yet another ad campaign, consider the data from Ed Keller and invest in a social media word-of-mouth campaign with a micro-influencer instead. That’s certainly what I’ll be doing.

Aaron Hassen new influencersAaron Hassen is a well-respected marketing leader, strategist, and hands-on practitioner. In 2004, Aaron began his career by launching an online and print advertising service, acquired by a competitor four years later. For the next 18 years, Aaron led marketing for emerging B2B technology companies helping them multiply their annual revenues. Today, Aaron runs AH Marketing, a full-service fractional marketing team focused on Go-To-Market strategy, demand generation, and brand development for B2B revenue leaders with little time or sufficient help to address their marketing challenges.


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