It’s been estimated that 100 million people or more, globally, have a following of over 10,000 on one or more social media accounts. Influencer Marketing Hub has reported that an estimated 1-Billion people worldwide identify as a content creator. With so many creators in operation, "influencer marketing" has reached its maturation phase and is widely accepted as a pivotal comms channel. The maturation of influencer media has placed an overdue emphasis on the trusted relationship between creators and their followers. Trust is why influencer marketing works. 

There is a quantifiable relationship between influencers and their followers that is measured in conversation, shares, loyalty and more. In today’s landscape trust is tenuous, but across the influencer landscape, we see it exchanged every minute—between celebrities, social celebrities, armies of micro and nano influencers, and all their followers. Brands need to be attuned to shifting cultural and demographic winds to ensure the programs built are structured to capitalize on this rare, trusted relationship. Edelman’s first-annual Gen Z survey unveils new considerations to ensure digital word of mouth (influencer) marketing is effective.  

We surveyed 9,600 Gen Zers ranging from 14-24 years old across six different markets, and conducted 1-on-1 interviews with 12 globally representative Gen Zers. To start, the survey recognizes the power of influence in people’s daily lives, but also unlocks an interesting shift. The data shows an evolution, a bit of a reality check and a reaffirmation of the importance of trust to create influence. It also shows the undeniable impact the last two years of COVID, economic and global strife, environmental concerns and political unrest have had on the people and institutions this generation chooses to trust.  

Three Key Trends to Act On:  

1. Gen Z Wants to Have Influence (and Make an Impact) More than they want to BE Influencers 

Gen Z want to have influence more than they want to BE influencers—which is somewhat contrary to all the 2019 data reporting that approximately one (1) in three (3) kids under the age of 18 want to be a YouTuber or an influencer. This data was instrumental in validating the popularity of the creator economy—and kids’ attraction to it. A common response to the standard kid question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was, “A YouTuber.” But today, Edelman’s Gen Z study shows that the past two years have weighed heavily on this generation and only 12 percent of Gen Z aspires to be an influencer. Yet they still have the desire to make an impact—70 percent of all Gen Zers globally are involved in a social or political cause. They acknowledge their own individual limitations, and the expectation is on brands to leverage their money, scale, and resources to help them.  

Our Hot Take: Brands can empower participation and shared passions. We can (and should) build communities of influence to scale creator impact-making tactics participatory, when the ultimate KPI sits mid-funnel as consideration or advocacy. Brands can diffuse the self-interest that motivates individual influencers by bringing them together as part of a community and giving Gen Z an opportunity to engage and interact at multiple touch points. Participation in a community gives Gen Z the ability to be a part of something larger than themselves, while achieving objectives only influencer marketing can achieve. Participation amplifies the trusted relationship, making it especially powerful when built with diversity, equity and inclusion as an imperative. Networking these communities and contracting them for their conversation and shares vs. impressions is a simple way to reframe (ROI) from return on investment to (roi) return on influence.  

2. Gen Z Is Inspired Most By The Real People In Their Lives  

How influencers show up, define themselves and treat others generates a perception that there is familiarity in the creator-audience relationship. We know consumers are more likely to follow creators who look, act and live lives they can relate to—like everyday people—vs. celebrities or even social celebrities. Even people who don’t monetize their channel(s) or trade experiences for advocacy become more persuasive than celebrities. Our data found the people that Gen Z trusts the most—family members (88 percent), friends (84 percent) and ordinary people doing good (81 percent)—far outrank journalists (47 percent), religious/faith leaders (44 percent) and politicians (42 percent) as sources of inspiration.  

Our Hot Take: Different types of influencers/creators perform different functions when built as part of a thoughtful influencer marketing strategy. Celebrities can deliver awareness and even sometimes sales, but real people, with real lives are the X-factor that delivers “trusted influence.” Everyday creators who are accessible to their followers move the needle. We encourage brands to build programs that utilize influencers that fall under the two “everyday” categories—micro/nano influencers to achieve scale and reach (people with a following in the 5K–50K range), but also hard-working, mid-tier influencers (creators that have 50K to 500K, and in some cases just under 1M followers) who can drive awareness and leverage cross-platform power to affect conversion. In both cases, these creators typically value the trust they have with their audiences, are relatable, and reciprocate the trusted relationship with their audiences that they’re friends or even family.  

3. Experts Can Deliver a Trusted Direct-to-Consumer Message  

Maybe it’s a sign of the times, of the political environment, of the strife Gen Z has witnessed since coming into their own, but Edelman’s Gen Z survey found reporters, government officials and CEOs are trusted least—when compared to family, friends and even professionals. Doctors/therapists (77 percent), scientists (75 percent), and teachers/professors (74 percent) rank as the people they trust most, while traditional celebrities (50 percent), CEOs (50 percent), and government leaders (47 percent) rank lowest. This showcases the opportunity to lean into experts in a variety of areas and converge with the broader trend surrounding the rise of financial influencers (finfluencers), skincare (skinfluencers), medical influencers (medfluencers) and more.  

Our Hot Take: The public relations/earned media field has always used “experts” to help drive credibility in building out a media story. Reporters trust these experts to validate a story, and provide credible, third-party perspective. Today, integrated earned media teams should use experts as a direct-to-consumer approach via the experts’ influencer channels—identifying those creators that are credentialed professionally. Professionals that have established social platforms have become a more powerful (and more trusted) alternative to press alone and can be a strong compliment paired with cultural influencers. Beyond utilizing their own channels, they can help validate and co-create content with cultural influencers to add a greater trust-factor to an influencer campaign.   

Corey Martin is EVP, Client Innovation and Business Development in Edelman New York's Blue Room Studio.