Wait, Does the “Influencer Strategy” Ever Work?

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Essays

I posed this question on Twitter this week:

Has a consumer software or internet startup that launched with an “influencers strategy” ever ended up successful?
— Kanyi Maqubela (@km) August 18, 2015

To be honest, it was a slightly cheeky post, as I expected the answers to look like “Of course there aren’t any. All successful consumer internet communities launch with a small, mostly-fringe set of early adopters that start solving their own narrow, niche need, and only then do the unwashed masses – including influencers – follow as the community takes hold and goes viral.“ 

The answers were surprising and led me to a totally different line of thinking. 

Medium was invitation-only, and they curated those voices who had already demonstrated cultural influence on another platform as the seeds of their community. 

LinkedIn started with Reid Hoffman, a PayPal Mafia member, opening his rolodex of VCs, business executives, and strategic partners. 

AngelList was, indeed, invitation-only as well, focused only on those angels or investors who had demonstrated good dealflow or track records. Product Hunt, even today, has limited posting capabilities to those who will ensure a “high bar” of quality postings.

Instagram purposefully targeted users with big Twitter followings to see the launch of the product. Quora, of course, splashed onto the scene with well-known experts in a variety of fields, though starting with the startup and venture capital community, answering questions themselves. 

Even Pinterest, the darling of the “new type of early adopter” conversation, found influential bloggers, with big audiences, to start collections in the early days as a way to generate audience.

To wit, *many* digital communities started with influencers, and in fact leaned heavily on them as a way to seed their networks. So many did, in fact, that I started to wonder if *most* had? Facebook famously went viral organically, among people who were just connecting with their friends. But are they in the minority, unlike I had previously considered? My advice to startups has almost universally been “influencers will be artificial acquisition, and are not the smartest way to seed a community. Start with your friends, seed random networks, watch their usage (or lack thereof) and build from that; you must let the community grow that way.” Was my advice wrong?

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