As the internet’s established species go, the influencer is a somewhat ancient one. We had them back in the aughts, perhaps even as far back as the 90s, when to be one required having a blog. 

You also typically had to write at least one book, haunt all the conferences, do some speaking gigs and partner with companies if you could, especially if you were a member of the mommyblogger subspecies.

What influencers have morphed into… I don’t really get it. Seems to be largely predicated on being famous for being famous, and basically endlessly viewing strangers’ vacation pictures (except they’re not on vacation).

Influencer marketing has been around forever, too. Companies and high-profile folks have been cooking up deals together to sell more stuff to us plebs since long before the internet existed. 

When the influencer decides to cut out the middleman and become the centre of their own retail empire rather than just shilling for someone else’s, things get more interesting. And complicated.

There are two sides of the influencer marketing equation, and the marketing part is what makes the machine go, far more than the influencer part. It’s not as simple as deciding to sell stuff and then just throwing it out there.

Aside from all the backend business work that needs to be done to become a retail tycoon, most fundamentally, there’s a difference between a follower and a customer. And even if influencers have lots of the former, doesn’t mean they have, or will get, the latter.

That difference has always been there, but it was a lot less visible before the internet. Now followers vs. customers can be tracked, dissected and have dollar values assigned to them. All fans matter, but some matter more than others. 

While it’s pretty common to buy followers, you can’t really buy customers, though there are some review scams on Amazon that get kind of close. You certainly can’t buy loyal or repeat customers. 

Developing vast hordes of devoted customers, rather than just followers, is what marketing is already about. It will just continue to evolve to fit our online habits and platforms.

Easily and cheaply reaching these potentially huge numbers of largely invisible followers has a lot of potential. Easily and cheaply influencing them (ideally to do more than “like” stuff) is better. And easily and cheaply getting them to spend money is the best. 

Transforming followers into customers is tricky. It’s still part of marketing, but will require some new strategies and perhaps a little black magic.

This Buzzfeed article about an influencer’s failed foray into retail makes her mistakes and incorrect assumptions pretty obvious, even to a non-marketer, I think. I also don’t think she is or will be alone in these gaffes.

Now, she’s 18 years old, so I don’t expect her to have mastered the skills outlined above yet. As it is, it sounds like she bought into her own hype and just tried to do what she’d seen others doing. Retailing seemed, per the Gospel of Kardashian, like a great idea to level up in influencer-dom.

Far as I know most kids don’t launch social accounts with the specific goal to become famous. Or who knows, maybe that’s the thing now. If people do happen to find you and like what you’re doing and you end up with several million followers, that’s awesome. (Be careful what you wish for…)

As your account, content and brand grow, so will your follower base. And, to some degree, your relationship with those followers. You’re not likely to be actual friends with most of them. Nor do you generally have expectations of each other that go beyond entertainment. Post pictures/video, get likes and comments, repeat.

In general, we as online humans also still value money over time. We don’t think of the time spent mindlessly scrolling through social feeds as comparable to blowing $20 or $50 or $100.

But if you want a large customer base, you are going to have to get people to think of money where you’re concerned, and be enthusiastically willing to part with it. You have two options.

Make building a customer base your main goal right from the start. Develop your strategies and tactics toward that goal, then work your butt off.

But, if you’re already an influencer or trying to become one, it’s too late to start there. So you’ll build… whatever, and hopefully you have or will end up with a large follower base. Then you have to figure out how to morph them into customers. This takes time and care, as there’s very little chance that attempting a hard pivot will work.

Changing followers into customers is tricky, because it has to seem organic and transparent, even though, by necessity, it’s very calculated. People hate feeling like they’re being used or like the game was suddenly changed on them, especially when it’s only to someone else’s benefit.

It should be said, most people who fancy themselves influencers aren’t going to be very good at this and it’s not going to work. And besides trying to morph followers into customers, most influencers fade into irrelevance in a relatively short span of time, so there’s that added pressure.

Now, if you’ve been out in the world for a while and have rolled with life and work’s ups and downs, it’s probably not going to crush you as a person if you get into this and it doesn’t work out. Either as an influencer or a retail tycoon, or both. Assuming, y’know, that you haven’t ruined your credit score or friendships trying to play the game.

Of course, based on the frequency of satire about the more over-the-top influencer types and their shenanigans, one suspects that this particularly cultural bubble is on the way to bursting.

For kids, I can’t see how that world can be healthy or a good education in life. Spending your formative teenage years learning how to beguile and manipulate people while viewing them through a lens of dollar signs isn’t going to produce empathetic, functional adults.

A lot of success that young, especially without good adult supervision, also rarely goes well (see: child stars). Endless attention (and criticism), maintaining “the brand” 24/7, being endlessly complimented and told you’re amazing… What happens when that bubble bursts? Because it always does.

Man, life was easier when you just had to maintain a blog.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at