A quick dive into culture, history and marketing to explore the nature and significance of modern influence.

Influence, as a commodity, is no longer what it used to be. It used to be something rooted in expertise or knowledge acquired over time. It was wielded by teachers, leaders and experts. There were always smaller spheres of influence composed of peer groups, of course. And mainstream media – largely print in the past – represented a stodgy but reliable source of information that shaped public opinion.

There were trendsetters – across areas like fashion, product adoption and thought leadership – to illuminate a path that the rest of us could
then take. It was very clear who the established influencers were in all of these instances.

A couple of things have changed now from those arguably more innocent times. In the last 20 to 25 years, there has been a proliferation of media of various kinds. There is now information and content coming at us from every possible source. Along with content production, there has been a parallel leap in technology and infrastructure which means that a person sitting in Villupuram, Tamil Nadu can download a movie or music video at will. They are now exposed to and influenced by cultural ideas and images that are far removed from their world – spanning everything from food and fashion trends to moral and behavioral codes. Unsurprisingly, this large-scale spread of content has had an impact on thinking, behavior and aspirations across the board.

Influence is also manifested in many surreptitious ways today. Opinion leadership is a democratized role these days. The rest of us follow without realizing we are doing so. It’s not like following a general into battle but it’s a form of unquestioning followership nevertheless.

Modern influence is also transient in nature. Influencers rise quickly and disappear just as quickly. In an increasingly polarized world divided into haves and have-nots, there is an audience for any kind of motivation and doctrine – marginalized anger, jingoism, nationalism, male chauvinism, fundamentalism and more.

This is where things start to fall apart. Here we are not talking about the influence of any one person or group but about the influence of content per se. From whatsapp forwards to fake news on Facebook, the toxic potential of splintered bits of untrustworthy information cannot be disputed. We are still trying to gauge the fallout of all of this on elections, security, sentiments and our daily lives.

This is because it’s now up to people to decide which sources they want to attach credibility to. They can believe whoever or whatever they choose to believe.

That’s welcome news for aspiring social media influencers, youtubers, instagram stars and others. They don’t need to spend a lot of time building a reputation and a solid body of work. Instead they need to focus on content and presentation techniques that strike a chord with a given audience.

For another group of ‘influencers’, it is possible to hide behind online avatars and pontificate on a variety of issues. A Time magazine article from two years ago highlighted this problem and the negativity spread by trolls on the internet.

Anonymity allows people to express views that they would not otherwise have had the courage to express. In the past, you had to have a certain type of personality in order to weigh in publicly on an issue. Now you can be a quiet person in real life who transforms into Johnny Bravo when online.

Of course, it’s not all negative. One area in which current forms of social influence can be effectively leveraged is in social or consumer advocacy. From a marketing perspective, there has never been anything more powerful for a brand than an endorsement from a trusted influencer. People leaned on friends and family for such recommendations in the past. But with the rise of social influencers – bloggers, youtubers and others – brands now have the option of using them to deliver endorsements. The whole area of influencer marketing is driven by such relationships.

There are some ethical dilemmas involved in these arrangements. For brands, clearly the purest form of influence is exerted by those who don’t have an incentive to peddle their products. And so when a commercial organization transacts with an influencer to promote their products, the very act of leveraging an influencer in this way dents the latter’s credibility. So therein lies the paradox.

The only way to navigate this is to ensure that whatever agreement is in place is very clear and transparent – to both consumers and followers. In today’s open world, it’s important to be honest and it certainly doesn’t hurt to be viewed as fallible and human.

In the dictionary, influence is defined as the power to affect change. By that yardstick, when we compare modern influencers to what Gandhi pulled off more than 70 years ago, there is no comparison. It doesn’t even come close. He moved a nation; pushed people to tremendous physical lengths in order to achieve an incredible end. Even in an age when it has become fashionable to question the man and his methods, there is no denying the sheer force of his ideas.

Where is it possible to see such pure influence today? A kind of influence that is not hijacked by technology and muddled by extreme ideologies. Maybe we can see it in the sporting arena where the achievements of a Lionel Messi, PV Sindhu or a Roger Federer can inspire and motivate countless others without any of them firing off a single tweet. Even in an age of fleeting influence and fake news, genuine achievements and expertise do speak for themselves. The good news is that when a person of this caliber comes along, they have many tools at their disposal to expand their sphere of influence.


VL Rajesh is a marketing leader and the former CEO...