Every industry has its share of jargon, words freighted with meaning for executives in that field, even if they happen to leave the rest of the world guessing. Every so often, however, business jargon—if enough people use it—makes its way into mainstream English.
And that’s what has finally happened to “influencer.”
The lexicographers at Merriam-Webster recently announced the latest crop of words to be added to their vaunted dictionary, which has been in regular publication for the last 172 years. Among them were a hefty bunch of marketing terms (more on that in a minute), including what’s possibly the most over-used utterance in the age of social-media: influencer.
Aside from the general definition (“one who exerts influence”), it’s the dictionary’s secondary entry that will ring truest to those in the business of hawking goods and services: “a person who is able to generate interest in something (such as a consumer product) by posting about it on social media.”
Of course, influencers by whatever name are hardly a new thing; we just used to call them celebrities or paid endorsers. So how did influencer make its way to mainstream English?
“Marketing and branding are fields that are now better understood and studied than ever before, and awareness of the terms used in the profession goes along with awareness of visual imagery and messaging for informed readers,” explained Merriam-Webster editor at large Peter Sokolowski. “All of us are consumers, even if all we are consuming is information.”
It’s also probably no coincidence that influencers are making up more of the advertising mix than ever before, which makes them more visible and, er, influential. According to the 2019 State of Influencer Marketing report, the last 12 months saw the creation of 320 new influencer-marketing platforms and agencies. A whopping 92% of industry respondents say that influencer marketing is effective—not least because a dollar spent on an influencer can yield up to $18 in earned-media value.
Given the sheer prevalence of influencers, then, it was only a matter of time before the term became official. “It’s been a hot term for a number of years,” observed digital strategist and branding consultant Shane Barker, “and what happens is it gets to the point where if enough people start using it all the time and building businesses around it, there comes a point where you can’t ignore it.”
Meanwhile, the vocabulary gatekeepers at Merriam-Webster have also decided that a number of other digital and marketing terms have also reached that point, among them buzzy, tweetstorm, gig economy and on-brand (“appropriate to, typical of, consistent with, or supportive of a particular brand.”) Also joining the English language officially is impression—the digital understanding of impression, as in page views: “An instance in which a specific element (such as an advertisement) is displayed on a web page accessed by a user.”
Sokolowski added that it’s often the specialty press (including Adweek, in this case) that has a hand in bringing an industry-specific term into the mainstream. “It’s natural for writers covering these fields to adopt the specialized language of the people they cover,” he said, “and that use spreads to fans and followers and all readers paying attention to this coverage. The simple fact is that we are all dorks of one kind or another, and professional jargon spreads quickly, often becoming less specific along the way.”
We’re sorry for our role as jargon influencers.