Influencers versus thought leaders

There is a fundamental difference between influence and “thought leadership.” I’ve been spending some time this week getting a better grip on the social media platforms for my new travel writing blog, I registered the names back in March, and had the basic visual identity created in June, but I’m still very much flushing out content and gaining a following on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (@thecarryonqueen). I’ve initially focused my efforts on Instagram. My rationale is to give some love to all, but focus on a specific platform initially with more effort to gain a sense of who plays there, what hashtags work, and what leaders in my niche seem to be doing effectively.

It’s been a fascinating process.

Instagram, perhaps more then any other platform, has a plethora of travel bloggers. Many are young, “digital nomads”, travelling endlessly, with large followings that seem to swoon at artistic staged selfies from exotic locations. The economic model is one where their “influence” is often purchased by destinations and tourism companies, and that exchange helps fund their travel. In theory the more people they can reach (followers they have), the better and stronger the influence they have.

But what does a follow actually mean? Especially in an age where likes and follows can by purchased. And honestly, if an influencer is accepting money or travel in exchange, what are the chances that the review or recommendation is negative? It’s a bit of a flawed model, but it seems to be flourishing. What I’ve been able to very quickly observe is how big follower influencers work, and how those with a smaller followings, but genuine thought leadership work. Often it’s in the narrative within the post, but the thought leaders always drive links back to their additional content – a blog site, podcast platform, or published article, where they genuinely display knowledge, thought leadership, and have cultivated over time a body of work that demonstrates their passion for the topic. Big number influencers get lots of likes and numerous comments, but it’s just an endless stream of “look how amazing I am, don’t you wish you were here?” type content. The writing also seldom reflects good journalism quality.

Fundamentally, influencers are about follower numbers, thought leaders are about expertise and knowledge.

I think that’s a point worth noting in your own marketing efforts, especially if you’ve ever been overwhelmed with feeling you’re not doing enough on social media.

Thought leaders are people who care about their niche enough to invest time and money to become experts. They work in the industry, they learn all the time, and they generate quality content – not for profit, but to educate others about something they are passionate about. Often, there is profit opportunity in that thought leadership, but that’s not the immediate or direct driver.

The thought leadership model is one I know well, since it’s what I’ve employed at since 2008 and through this weekly newsletter. As I look at my initial relatively small Instagram numbers for COQ, I’m reminded of this longer vision process, and the value of slow, steady and targeted niche follower growth, while developing articles and content on the site that grow a community of readers.

It’s an interesting process to grow something new from scratch, and apply marketing strategy concepts to a whole new industry. I’ll be attending my first TBEX (travel bloggers expo) in New York State in September. I’m looking forward to meeting others who are passionate about storytelling and community development, and not just their follower numbers!

When I shared this post out initially with my weekly e-newsletter group I received a lot of favourable feedback, particularly from folks who I would consider established or aspiring thought leaders. What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below, or on social media where this post has been shared as well.

Mary Charleson


  1. Thank you for this article. I was googling the difference between being an influencer and a thought leader because I believe there is a huge difference and some of my clients are so caught up in the number of followers they are missing the point. Great article!

    • Thanks for the comment Kim. I have been away and am only now catching up on post comments. It’s always great to hear when content resonates with readers!

  2. Thank you for the article. I was actually googling, influencers vs. cult leaders after listening to a different podcast and glad there’s an alternative to contribute. Good read!

    • Thanks for the comment Gabriela. Glad you found the post useful. Thanks for finding and following the blog too!

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