Say the word "influencer" among any social media or marketing crowd, and you're sure to generate a full range of fiercely passionate opinions. Though it may be the topic du jour, influence marketing is hardly a new concept. For decades, marketers have sought to identify and engage the opinion leaders, influencers, and voices who have the ear of their markets. However, in today's social landscape, the role of the influencer has become more important than ever in shaping widespread public impressions and consumer actions.

The Rise of Influencers

Let's rewind to the early days of the Web. Online branding was a relatively simple endeavor. Brands built a website and devised various strategies (from search engine optimization to banner ads) to bring visitors to their sites and marketing materials. Through it all, the brand controlled the experience. The company managed the message. Business leaders determined what was revealed or concealed about their products, company, and customers.

Fast-forward to today. The company website is not the sole source of information—far from it. More than half a billion people are using social networks worldwide. And they're discussing anything and everything from restaurants and cooking tools to "Dancing With the Stars," broadband service, business intelligence software, and Six Sigma certification.

The conversations are not new, but the discussions once limited to a handful of people around the dinner table or watercooler have been unleashed on a global scale. It's happening now on Facebook, Twitter, wikis, and thousands of niche networks. People look to their social graphs—to trusted bloggers and online communities—and they search for topics on Google, Bing, or Twitter based on the issues they're trying to resolve or the information they're trying to find.

As a result, no longer is there one main conduit into the brand experience. Connected consumers don't necessarily visit a brand's homepage or marketing materials for information on buying decisions, technical support, etc. And no longer is there a small group of select A-list reporters responsible for bringing content to audiences.

In this conversation-fueled world, reputation matters. But what counts is not what the brand says about itself, but what others say about the brand. That shift has given voices on the social Web unprecedented influence in shaping perceptions, raising awareness, and driving actions.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gary Lee is the CEO of mBLAST, which provides cloud-based solutions to help PR and marketing professionals better identify and engage with their key influencers.