Life is very ironic.
Bodybuilders spend hours in the gym trying to beat their natural physiology so they can bulk up. But a girl lifting 10 pound weights at the gym is worried she’ll accidentally become a bodybuilder herself.
Influencers spend hours on social media trying to beat the algorithm so they can grow their following. But someone posts one photo on Instagram and worries they’ll accidentally become an influencer.
You don’t get jacked from showing up at the gym.
And you don’t become an influencer from showing up online.
I’ve been thinking about this all week—the difference between influencers and thought leaders and how we’ve muddled them together without understanding the major differences between the two. Even worse, how so many non-influencers are measuring themselves up against influencer success metrics and feeling like failures.
The business model for influencers is that you get paid to create content for brands. The most basic explanation is that you’re an online sales associate for the brand. When I was in University, I loved to work in retail over the holiday season. It was only a three month commitment and I could build out a new wardrobe with a lovely 50% discount from my favourite stores at the time: Michael Kors and Aritzia.
When we showed up for our shifts, we were trained to represent the brand values, how to talk about each product, and which features to highlight to potential customers. The busier the store you worked at, the better your conversions.
Influencers build large followings on Instagram so that they can reach out to brands and say, “Hey look! I have hundreds of thousands of people looking at my posts each day, think of the exposure you could get on my virtual storefront!”
On the other hand, the business model for thought leaders rarely includes social media or follower count. These are more of an after thought.
Thought leaders are in the business of disrupting a way of living or working or thinking and they do this through books, workshops, trainings, speaking engagements, newsletters, podcasts, and coaching.
This is what I did at Mindvalley. I helped thought leaders step into the online world in a way that respected their work. Instead of being on the road every week speaking on stages, my team and I helped them run masterclasses from the comfort of their own homes. Instead of speaking on a local stage, we taught them how to organize a global stage online. It wasn’t about turning them into influencers, it was about connecting them with their community in a more efficient way (and to skyrocket their income and impact, because for the first time, they weren’t beholden to conference organizers for a speaking opportunity. They were able to share their wisdom on their own terms and with the masses).
Seth Godin is a great example of someone who has a strong online presence but who would never be confused as an influencer. Or James Clear. Or Brené Brown. Or the Ottawa native, Shane Parrish.
Their business models are writing blogs and books, consulting executives to think smarter, and running online courses and programs.
It’s never about spritzing the latest cologne on their wrist and giving you a 30% discount code. Not because there’s anything wrong with that, but because that’s not a part of their business model. (Could they one day move into brand partnerships? Sure! But that’s a new avenue they would be pursuing, not an inherent part of how they monetize.)
They are showing up online, yet no one would ever call them an influencer.
So what’s with our fear of showing up online and being called one?
Part of the problem is that the influencer industry isn’t well respected. (Today is not the day I get into the unfairness of society undervaluing a multi-billion dollar industry because it was created by women and is dominated by us, too.)
The part of the problem I do want to talk about today is how the term influencer has become so ubiquitous in the online world that it pushes everyone into a box that they don’t belong in. It’s unfortunate because there are a million and one career paths online. The online world has truly democratized careers. I believe that with my whole heart. If you want to reclaim your career, the online world is how you do it.
The thing is, a career in the online world is also still very new. Very misunderstood. How much easier it was when I worked at Shopify and could articulate what I did in one word. Now? Half my time goes into strategizing how I will explain my career through the lens of someone who doesn’t work online. And because it’s so much more difficult to explain, the natural thing for most people is to lean into the terminology that they do understand—often, that’s “being an influencer”.
And I’m very okay with that.
I’m very okay with that because on the other side of being given the incorrect “influencer” label is the power to reclaim my career. To love what I do. To leave jobs I don’t like and move towards opportunities that excite me. As a multi-passionate? I know that my entire life will be filled with new curiosities and the desire to pivot.
For some reason, a lifetime of hating our careers has been normalized and a few years of being misunderstood online is an unfathomable option.
Really. How have we normalized hating our jobs so much that the thought of being misunderstood for a few years is our biggest threat?
I want to reverse that. I want to denormalize hating our jobs and normalize feeling misunderstood on our journey to building our dream careers.
I remind myself of my options every day:
Would I rather stop building my personal brand and settle into where my career is today? Or would I rather continue showing up online and unlocking new levels for my career?
I hope that no matter how overwhelmed or insecure I may feel on a given day, that I will always choose the second option. That’s a promise I’m making to myself.
Which option are you choosing?