Three things a 97-year-old can teach us about influencers

'What makes an influencer?' is a question that has been debated in our industry for some time, but what makes someone truly influential remains somewhat subjective.

Previously, PRs and clients have been guilty of oversimplification, focussing on reach and engagement, to determine someone’s influence.

What is an influencer? (Even the PR industry can't seem to decide)

However, we should be spending more time interrogating what actually makes someone influential, beyond the ‘like’ culture, particularly now we know the reality of the behemoth bot world that lies beneath.

Recently I worked with 97-year-old fashion icon, Iris Apfel (pictured), an experience that made me re-evaluate what it truly means to be influential.

Agency 'thrives' after ditching social media and influencers to focus on traditional PR

So what did I learn from Ms Apfel and how has it come to pass that a 97-year-old fashion icon is arguably more influential than some of our reality TV contemporaries:

Straight talking is invaluable

Iris is from a generation where free speech meant free speech, so she has no qualms with saying it how it is. Her self-assured, no-nonsense approach to life can be especially lucrative for brands because if she believes in the message, she will talk about in the most authentic and genuine way, but if she doesn’t, you’ll soon realise you need to seek advocacy elsewhere.

Relinquishing some control can make for beautiful message delivery

Within five minutes of being on set, Iris was telling us how she wanted the script to play out, because "I wouldn’t say it like that". Enlisting this type of outspoken, diverse personality to communicate your brand purpose might be seen as risky but the opportunities are endless. Brands pay for personalities and as PRs we should push ourselves and our clients to embrace the authenticity factor, rather than using influencers to reel off brand messaging that would sound better coming from a marketing manager. It’s the authenticity of this type of unconventional influencer that will spark a conversation and get brands heard by the audiences that really matter.

Diversity and life experience create a richer narrative

Spend one hour in the presence of someone like Iris Apfel and it soon becomes clear that the possibilities can be so much richer with someone who has an alternative view on the world. When preparing to go to set on our day of filming I asked Iris why she still had Christmas decorations in her apartment in February, to which she nonchalantly responded ‘Christmas is just a state of mind’. A comment that got me thinking about my own view on a traditional holiday that I have never really questioned!

So while it’s true that ‘Age is just a number’, what we can learn about influence in Ms Apfel’s case is that the most powerful influencers, whether 90 or 20, embody an attitude that cannot be taught or learned.

While a more unconventional influencer may not have the ‘reach’ or the ‘like’ status, they have a story to tell, that when shared in the right way, inspires us into action and makes us challenge our decision-making and even our view on the world.

These are the influencers that brands should be looking to, because it’s these people who have the ability to shift the dial.

So the next time you’re looking for your latest ‘on brand’ ambassador, look for those gems outside of the confines of ‘the next big thing’, because the right person to communicate your message might not be the most obvious.

Sophia Boudjemaa is a director in the consumer team at Golin

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