The Power of the Modern Digital Influencer

The Disruptive / Alexander Mendeluk


Today’s digital influencer can be one of the most powerful people on earth. Whether you’re a multimillion-dollar brand, a blogger, or an Instagram model with 100 million followers, we all have influence and we use it in many different ways.

And it shows.

A 2016 study from Google tells us that 70% of teenage YouTube subscribers say they relate more to YouTube creators than traditional celebrities like movie stars and television personalities. When a digital influencer looks and acts like a normal, everyday person, that authenticity resonates with viewers.

But how many of us take the time to really consider the effect that our influence has on others? When you write a blog, upload a story, or post to your Instagram wall, do you take the time to consider how your content and your actions as a brand influence those around you?

Digital influence isn’t exclusive to companies. On a personal level, your family, friends, and coworkers are affected by the content you produce in the digital space. When you’re a major influencer or brand, what you say can change how your fans and followers interact with the world.

That’s what makes today’s digital influencers so powerful.

Influencing Through Fear and Truth

A digital influencer thrives on content that connects with their audience. Creating content that makes followers feel something is a key part of the influencer-audience relationship because it builds trust.

As influencers, we can choose to influence with ego (fear) or love (truth). Influencing with ego can manifest in many different ways, but when content doesn’t go deeper than a Facetuned image or the latest Gucci bag, it perpetuates a desire for things that don’t bring love. Love is only found through truth. We influence with love when our content isn’t just about ourselves. When what we post is about our audience, we’re influencing through authentic purpose and affecting our followers in a positive way.

In short: we can either focus only on ourselves, or we can focus on empowering others through what we create.

It’s easy to open up Instagram and see endless photos and videos of people promoting egotistic content. If you search for it, you’ll probably find it. When every image is digitally altered through retouching software, how do any of us stand a chance of looking good enough when comparing ourselves to these unrealistic expectations?

But people do it anyway.

The fact is that many people using social media base their self-worth and self-esteem on how many likes they get on the content they post without truly taking into consideration the powers, algorithms, and tools lurking behind the modern digital influencer and social media platforms.

Social media is often demonized as a result of digital influence. Pundits and media organizations say that social platforms are “destroying our youth” and that social media platforms create false expectations of beauty or misconceptions about a “perfect” life.

While it’s easy (and sometimes justified) to blame social media for negativity in the world around us, digital media isn’t without a bright side.

Social media can be a force for positive change in the world when used correctly (Read on to see how!), and that’s something we often overlook.

With the same energy it takes to create a world of false expectations, a digital influencer could easily lift people up, give them hope, and inspire confidence. An opportunity exists for every brand and blogger to speak their full truth and elevate their audience with them.

That’s the power of digital influence, and it’s why influencer marketing and brand strategy are so important today.

It’s an Issue of Consciousness

Social media isn’t the problem. The real issue is a state of consciousness (or lack thereof) that’s been engineered by the companies who, until recently, controlled everything consumers could see and hear.

Since the invention of the printing press, the powers that be have used media influence to spread news and information (and misinformation) designed to inform and/or control anyone with the ability to consume it.

Until the rise of social media, gatekeepers controlled which ideas and concepts received national distribution. All messaging was controlled by the major media corporations who owned newspapers, radio stations, and television channels. These “trusted” news sources have curated their content carefully for decades, and their programming has been blindly trusted by the public at large.

We all know where that has led us because that’s where we are today. Messaging and propaganda are used to manipulate the population into buying into the latest products, electing the latest presidents, and supporting the latest wars.

But now, through digital influence and the power of social media, that is finally changing.

Democracy Through Digital Influence

Influence has been democratized for the first time in human history. The power to influence others has been given to anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection.

It’s an incredible revolution. Never before in the history of the world has an individual been able to pick up a smartphone and instantly produce a piece of content that can affect millions of people overnight.

This power has turned the media industry on its head, and brands have taken notice. In a recent Collective Bias survey, nearly 60% of individuals said they consult blogs or social media on their mobile devices prior to shopping and that 30% of consumers are more likely to purchase a product endorsed by a non-celebrity blogger than a traditional celebrity.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to cash in has led many digital influencers on social media to use their reach as a means to fuel their own egoistic desires.

Kylie Jenner, one of the youngest and most influential personalities on social media, chooses to build her billions off of eyebrow and lip kits.

The result? A nation of Kylie wannabes.

Now, that can be cool. I’m not trying to knock the hustle, but it’s only cool if you decide to do something of value with it.

With that same amount of energy, Kylie could shift her message and use her followers and her fortune to make a lasting change in the world. Instead, she tweets about her dislike of Snapchat’s redesign and the company stock price falls by 1.3 billion.

Do you see what I mean?

If a prominent digital influencer has that much power, they could be a huge force for good. Unfortunately, the most prominent voices in the digital space only seem to be in it for themselves.

Imagine if just a handful of Millennial and Gen Z influencers used their collective millions of followers to band together and make positive change. We could have a serious effect on government, corrupt institutions, poverty, and all the world’s most major issues.

So, how is your brand choosing to influence your fans and followers? Are you influencing with love or with ego? Are you hiding behind highly-produced content promoting an unrealistic lifestyle, or are you building your brand through authenticity and rational expectations?

This might not seem like a huge revelation, but “authentic” is trendy right now.

Many digital influencers are choosing to become more “candid” and “real” on social platforms. They’re discussing personal issues and struggles in order to connect on a deeper level with their audience.

When done right, brands and influencers often see the powerful effects of increased engagement as their followers identify with this newfound transparency. But this can be a slippery slope. While the choice to be more open about the issues we all deal with — eating disorders, mental health, depression — is generally well-received, oversharing can damage a brand and the need to share these truths may become a “fad” in and of itself.

But who the hell am I to be saying this, anyway?

Founding SpiritHoods

I have always been driven by the power of the for-profit model for giving back.

When I was fresh out of college, I caught my first “big break” in Hollywood as an actor in Twilight. I was Frat Boy #1, the guy who gets kicked in the balls by Kristen Stewart right before Edward Pattinson shows up to save the day!

I thought I was going to be a star! I packed up all I owned into my parents’ Chevy Tahoe and moved from Portland, Oregon back home to Los Angeles to pursue my dream as an actor. To make a long story longer, it didn’t work out as planned. (You can watch the whole story here.)

Instead, I got swept away into entrepreneurship. When I started my first company, SpiritHoods (@spirithoods), I had no formal business education or real-life business experience. SpiritHoods were meant to bring out your inner wild animal. Every hood represented a different animal, one that connected with your own spirit animal.

Incredibly, my team and I managed to create a multimillion dollar online brand using Facebook, Instagram, and digital influencers in less than a year.

How? We sent our products out to everyone under the sun on social media for free. This was before the term “influencer” ever existed

Using a digital influencer to build a brand is commonplace in modern marketing, but back then it wasn’t a cool thing to do. If you were sending your products out for free, it basically meant you were broke!

But in our case, it paid off.

Our product was worn by what seemed like every celebrity under the sun, from the Kardashians and Justin Bieber all the way to Snoop Dogg and Aerosmith.

We even landed the brand on ABC’s Shark Tank.


We also built a giveback component into our business model: For every hood purchased, the company would donate 10% of our net profits to nonprofit organizations supporting endangered animals. This was around the time that brands like TOMS and The Giving Keys became big and the “give back” model caught fire within Millennial culture.

Even though these “give back” business models have some inherent problems, I became obsessed with how they could actually influence positive change.

In the past, I’ve spent a lot of time working with nonprofits like The Ronan Thompson Foundation, Pandas International, and Polar Bears International. I’m still passionate about nonprofit work, but I’ve seen the flaws in the nonprofit model firsthand.

So many times, I’ve watched passionate, good-hearted individuals spend 90% of their energy trying to raise money for the causes they cared about so that they could devote 10% of their time trying to make a difference.

This didn’t happen because they were operating in bad faith (even though many nonprofits are just tax havens for the wealthy). It happened because the nonprofit model as currently established is flawed.

If a business is successful — meaning they are able to drive profits while leadership maintains a conscious business operation — making a difference while earning a profit can work.

During the time I was with SpiritHoods, we were able to raise close to half a million dollars for nonprofits we cared about. We gave back to helping endangered animals, the environment, and even children with cancer.

In 2014, I started the purpose-driven agency The Disruptive.

Disrupting With Purpose

The Disruptive is a purpose-driven marketing agency.

We help brands run social media campaigns that drive measurable ROI while helping creators and digital influencers grow their audiences in meaningful ways.

It’s naive to think that in order to do good in this world we need to renounce money, profit and material wealth altogether. As much as we might prefer it, people can’t build a career while working for free. The truth is that with the right business models, leadership and conscious intent, a business can be profitable while becoming a powerful driver for positive change.

With this ethos in mind, we help our brand clients solve the biggest issue when it comes to influencer marketing: driving and tracking a measurable ROI. (Check out the case study here!)

We also donate 25% of our profits to what we call “purpose projects” that create positive change (see the case study below)!

We help every kind of digital influencer — bloggers, entrepreneurs, and content creators — create meaningful relationships with their audience. That’s our primary goal. We help creators understand that there is a major difference between having a following and a true community.

If you’re a digital influencer, 5,000 likes might sound nice. But there is a huge difference between getting 5,000 likes on a picture of your ass and having a true community.

We define a true community as a group of people with shared values, who believe that what you do will genuinely help them live a better life and therefore will contribute to the betterment of the community as a whole.

When a brand or creator has limited experience bridging that gap, it’s easy to stick with what gets predictable results, or follow what others are doing and what’s trending, rather than trying something new. It’s easy to blame the Instagram algorithm for declining engagement when, in reality, the playing field is changing.

As a digital influencer, if you aren’t creating meaningful content that resonates within the hearts and minds of those who follow you, you won’t grow your brand in an authentic way that not only earns profits but also creates positive change.

When you create meaningful relationships with your followers, you’re not earning a number on a platform. You’re earning a long-term ambassador who will actively share and support your brand for a lifetime.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about.

Sammy Wilk: A New Digital Influencer

I first met Sammy Wilk, a young musician and social media influencer, while giving a talk at Los Angeles’ Soho House. The talk was geared specifically towards social media influencers and how they can use their influence, not only to create financial success but to inspire positive change while doing what they love.

Most of the Millennial generation is inspired by the concept of doing good. We would rather buy into brands and experiences that aim to serve a purpose beyond profits, and it’s an ideal that any modern digital influencer can tap into.

Sammy came to my talk at Soho House. We vibed over a few cocktails afterwards, and he expressed that he was feeling a bit disillusioned. He lacked direction and wanted to figure things out, despite the fact he had a few million followers across various social channels. (This is a common theme among Millennial influencers).

I ended up taking Sammy as a personal client. Through our personal development and branding program, I worked closely with him to discover his vision, mission, and purpose — not only as a musician but as a digital influencer. We dug into how those ideas related to his life, the actions he took, and the content he produced.

One day in the shower (where all great ideas are born), he had an “ah-ha moment”. He realized that his purpose was to help inspire the lives of kids through his music, actions, and words.

There it was. Simple. Beautiful. Powerful.

We began to craft a strategy — one that would help elevate his brand and bring more meaning into his craft while creating a profitable model that could fuel a project he cared about. Our aim was simple: Transform Sammy into a digital influencer with purpose and an incredible story to tell.

It was immediately clear that we could create a product line that his fans would love and use a percentage of the profits to fund an initiative that could help him fulfill his new purpose.

I connected him with Devon Dejardin, an incredibly talented artist and friend who has also been through our mentorship program. Devon works in the fashion and art industry in LA.

We got to work, redesigning Sammy’s brand from the ground up. We created new social content and produced the clothing line. Then, we connected Sammy with another friend of ours: Philanthropist Tiffany Persons.

While working as a casting director in LA, Tiffany also runs Shine On Sierra Leone, a nonprofit organization which specializes in creating educational opportunities for impoverished kids in West Africa.

Tiffany was working with communities and children in Sierra Leone long before the Ebola outbreak. At the time, she was in the process of building a school for young children who had to walk over 9 miles a day through horrendous conditions (war, disease, flooding) for their education.

This was a project, we had to get involved in.

We organized the brand, created fresh designs, and built influencer marketing into the fabric of what we did. We brought on other digital influencers to help promote the product and planned a trip to Africa, where we worked to raise awareness and funding to build Muddy Lotus Elementary School.

After we launched, we brought Hawkers on board to help sponsor the trip, placing the brand organically throughout the content to give them exposure and align them with a cause their customers cared about.

We flew out to Africa and spent a week on the ground covering the story via Sammy’s social media channels. This new content helped to position Sammy as a digital influencer with new content that resonated with his fans.

With the help of a local guide and the kids, I personally walked the 9-mile trek to their school in order to understand what their daily experience was like.

We shot day in the life episodes to recount the story in long format and pushed growth to Sammy’s YouTube channel. We even shot an impromptu music video for one of his songs.

On top of our own efforts, we partnered with D&G, another agency to help tell this story. D&G created an interactive website, where the user had to scroll the 9-mile stretch. Our real-time footage was paired with the scroll, so users could go through the experience via mobile. That’s over five hours of scrolling time on a smartphone!

I might have created the longest Steadicam one-shot in film history, but Guinness World Book of Records wasn’t there to testify to this, unfortunately.

Our campaign was also promoted by other digital influencers like Zoe Kravitz, Rosario Dawson, Fast Company, PSF, Adweek and more. Most importantly we helped raise enough money to build and fund the school for one year.

I’d be lying to you if I told you it was easy. It was hard, beautiful work. It was purpose-driven work, and it helped transform the lives of everyone involved.

While working on this project, I realized that, while you may set out with the intention to help others, in the end, you’re the one who gets helped.

The Results

Our work in Sierra Leone ignited Sammy’s fans and brought him a greater following. For a digital influencer, follower growth is a key metric.

Since his fans hadn’t heard from him in a while, the release of his new collection, new content, and new cause helped increase his engagement and follower growth on social media by 12%.

Sammy’s sales increased by 266%.

On top of that, Sammy had a new business model that would help support his career as an artist outside of traditional sponsored posts and music deals. Alternative streams of revenue are extremely important when looking at your brand as a digital influencer.

(Check out our School of Influence to learn to drive more revenue as a social media influencer.)

Most importantly, our campaign raised the money needed for the trip to Africa and helped to build the school.

A Better Digital Influencer

I’m not saying we’ve got it all figured out. Every digital influencer and brand is in this crazy mess alongside everyone else.

When I look at the state of brand and influencer marketing, I choose to see an opportunity for all of us to come together and use the power of digital influence for positive change.

The truth is, we are all broken, wounded, and struggling to find our way. Why not choose to do it together?

Why not choose to harness the power of our collective positive energy, our gifts, and our strengths for leveraging a unified movement that influences popular culture in a powerful and transformative way?

Is it a utopian dream? I don’t think so. If something can be imagined, it can be created. If we’ve imagined this current global mess, we can create the alternative.

At the very least, we should measure our success based on the lives we positively impact alongside the profits that we generate.

If this resonates with you. We would love to hear from you.

With love and positive force in the flow,

Alexander Mendeluk

Founder – The Disruptive

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