For the last ten years, I’ve helped people travel the world on a budget. I’ve visited around 100 countries, slept in thousands of hostels, and flown hundreds of thousands of miles. Along the way, I’ve documented my journey to help others live their dreams. I have hundreds of thousands of social media followers and a million visitors to my website each month. In the last 10 years, I’ve written a New York Times bestseller, a memoir, opened a hostel, been featured in every major newspaper, was the spokesman for Asiana Airlines, and made a few million bucks through it all.
You might say I am living the dream, specifically the “influencer” dream.
Except I wouldn’t say that. Not because my life isn’t wonderful but because being an influencer is not a job.
According to Google, an influencer is “an individual who has the power to affect purchase decisions of others because of his/her authority, knowledge, position, or relationship with his/her audience… an individual who has a following in a particular niche, which they actively engage with.”
Conversations with “influencers” usually go like this:
“What do you do for work?”
“I’m an influencer.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, I just talk about [insert self-centered topic], people follow me on social media, and then brands pay me to promote their products to my audience.”
“So you’re a marketer for brands?”
“No, I’m an influencer.”
“But it sounds like you just promote brands that pay you?”
“No, I’m an influencer. People value my opinion and look to me for advice.”
And on and on it goes, until you want to bash your head in or run off to a bar and drown your sorrows.
And if you call yourself one, it is because you don’t actually know what you do — if you actually do anything at all.
And, while people on social media will tell me I’m wrong and living in the past, I’m not.
Because the conditions that create influence are timeless and universal.
It is something you have when people listen to you and take some action.
Stephen King has influenced a generation of writers, George Lucas a generation of sci-fi fans, Gloria Steinem a generation of women. Ditto to folks like Gene Roddenberry, Ernest Hemingway, Tim Ferriss, Carrie Fisher, Gal Gadot, LeVar Burton, Mr. Rogers, Steve Jobs, and countless others.
They got people to do something. To take some action in their life.
To read more, follow their dreams, change society, or strive to be better.
When I find myself thinking “What would Bill Bryson do?” — that’s Bryson’s influence. My friends have influence over my life when I follow their recommendations. In some ways, I have influence when I suggest something travel-related and someone does it.
You have influence when you provide value and make someone’s life better.
You do NOT have influence because 20,000 people “liked” a photo on their way home from work.
True influence comes not from calling yourself an influencer but from what you actually do and the example you set.
If you do video, you’re a vlogger.
If all you do is post pictures on Instagram, you’re an Instagram photographer.
That is something you do. That is a definable job.
Does your doctor call him/herself a “medical influencer”?
No. He’s a doctor. That is a job with a description and a function.
For example, I am a writer. I write books on budget travel that help people travel better. Over the last ten years, we built a million-dollar business without sponsorships or brand deals. We created products, ran tours, and got people to purchase their travel through our website. We did it by creating useful content that solved someone’s problem.
They needed to know how to travel on a budget.
We provided the tools to do so.
It didn’t happen overnight. It took years to create. But it meant that when marketing dollars shifted from sponsored content, when brands got more particular about who they worked with, when social media services like Vine disappeared, we were still here. Yeah, we left a lot of (easy) money on the table.
But building a business slowly around real people – not me – we build something that stands the test of time and the fickle nature of the Internet.
And, as someone who provides lots of useful information to people, I do have influence. I’ve been doing this a long time, and people listen to what I have to say and use my advice. When I have a new book, they tend to buy it because the last one was helpful to them. I have a track record.
But calling yourself an influencer is all about you. That means all you’re doing is talking about yourself and trying to show your best life on social media — while then often complaining about how many hours you work and how hard it is.
You know why it’s hard? Because, since you don’t really create anything of value to others, you have to hustle for every dollar. Because if your goal is to get free travel and do cool stuff for yourself, the internet will quickly tire of you. No one wants to read endless stories of someone doing things they can never do.
“Inspiration porn” only goes so far.
On the other hand, do you know who the most successful people are? The ones who wake up and think about how they make someone else’s life better. The people who do whatever it is they do for a reason beyond themselves.
Because everyone wants people — and businesses — that solve a problem in their life. That can be anything from the mundane (“How do I dress better?”) to the esoteric (“What do I do with my life?”).
So no matter what you do, do it for your readers. Think about how to solve their problems.
Do something that makes your audience go, “Because I came here, my life is better.”
For me, that’s helping people travel cheaper. Figure out what it is for you.
If your mission is reader-centric, you’ll stand the test of time.
Your mission should never be “How can I make my life better?” People will see through that. Being a personality on the internet only lasts as long as your shtick is in vogue.
If all you do is post pictures or videos of yourself in awesome destinations with inspirational quotes, the internet will move on.
And folks like me will be there to welcome your readers when they do!