I can hear the chorus from Twitterati now: ‘Absolutely nothing!’ But I wanted to take a step back and examine – without ego or bias – what role people who have a flair for communication and a significant social media following play in an industry like FinTech.
We all know what ‘influencer’ means in the general consumer, Instagramable sense. Most people will think of a conventionally attractive young girl, promoting the latest diet fad or beauty product on their social channels. FinTech companies, aimed at the consumer market and see themselves as fully invested in the startup culture mindset, have tried to capitalise on promoting vignettes of young, hip people using their brightly coloured cards. In the UK, digital bank Monzo actively promoted a referral link so current customers could benefit from friends who opened an account with the new bank. (a promotion they have since scrapped).
In our more, insular FinTech bubble world – many of us are well versed at being named (or not named) on a series of click-baitey ‘influencers lists’ of varied credibility and importance. In simpler times, before lockdowns and global pandemics, nothing could get the great and the good of vocal FinTech in a twist as much as the promotion of a new ‘list’.
Arguments usually followed along the lines of: If you and your mates were listed high on ‘the list’ – it was a great list. Cue an avalanche of navel gazing ‘congrats’ and ‘well-deserved’ from your very own social FinTech bubble. If you, or someone you admire was not listed – well, that only served to prove the ridiculous of, not only this particular ranking of ‘names’, but influencers lists in general.
Such was the bruhaha during the height of the ‘social media FinTech influencer list’ era that well-known social advisory consultant Jay Palter has ceased publishing them. “Basically, people were misunderstanding what these lists were about,” says Jay. “What they are measuring is a certain amount of social capital. They are a ‘starting point’ for users.”
What these ‘influencer lists’ are not, continues Jay is a definitive ranking on who are the top decision makers, and most interesting and creative forces shaping the industry. At its most basic definition, an influencer is someone who has had success gaining engaged followers on social media channels.
My personal pet peeve with ‘influencer lists’ is when you see people like Elon Musk listed a ‘Number 3 Global FinTech Influencer’. My first thought is ‘Really? Have any of you sat next to Amber Heard’s ex-boyfriend at a recent roundtable? Has he connected with you on LinkedIn? Is he able to do that ‘warm intro’ to the digital head at Barclays you’ve been following?’
In my view, this is where people with knowledge of the sector should go in and adjust the algorithm that determines the social ranking on these lists. People like Brett King or Jim Marous may have tens of thousands of Twitter followers, but I have met both of them. In fact, I could probably call either of these men up right now and they would accept my call. If I attempted to grab five minutes with the Tesla founder, I would need to refrain from holding my breath.
The other type of ‘List’ that tends to gather controversy are those dedicated to gender. There are many groups that have been excluded from positions of power and ‘influence’ in many aspects of society for centuries. (Please alert me to all Black woman VCs, BAME in STEM and Non-Able-Bodied Founder lists – I will Tweet the shit out of them). But nothing causes as much wailing and gnashing of teeth as a list dedicated to women.
There are lots of reasons for these concerns, ranging from legitimate to outright misogyny. Is a list filled with white, Oxbridge educated women in senior positions doing anything to broaden definitions of diversity and inclusion? Why ghettoize the varied and complex experiences of women in a ‘ladies-only’ list when it is more powerful to note the accomplishments of people in AI or payments or identity and include people who ‘just happen to be women’?
I bumped into an old friend at an ‘awards night’ a few years ago. She told me she was up for one of the ‘real’ awards, not the Women in Tech Leadership award. I understood what she meant. If she was to receive an accolade later on that evening, she wanted to be judged against her peers – in general – and not against a segregated group of people.
In a perfect world, women would be judged on their skills, experiences, and leadership abilities against the same standards as men. It is a world that many of us aspire to and are actively working towards. But we do not live in that world. For better or for worse there are those who are blind to the contributions made to various industries from women. My DMs are often filled with, well-meaning, requests from people asking me to recommend some interesting women in InsurTech or investment or crypto. While I am happy to assist, many of these people would be better served conducting a five-minute Google search and finding that ‘Women in…’ list. Sometimes you need to ringfence and point an arrow at a group of people who are been excluded from visibility and power in the past, if you hope for any of this inequality to lessen.
My good friend Theo Lau, founder of Unconventional Ventures hates the term ‘influencer’. “Honestly, the word influencer reminds me of those who post product endorsement on Instagram … but is that really relevant in financial services? And is it implying that these individuals don’t really do much other than post on social media? If that’s the case – is that really helpful?” she says.
While I share Theo’s distain for the word ‘influencer’ and all its Kardashian connotations, I do see a role for people who show a certain flair for communication and tend to be ‘good on social media’ (and I count myself as one of those people).
I was a journalist, in this space, for over 20 years. My name and face were on numerous articles, event pages and videos. I would have a digital footprint and social presence in FinTech without much effort on my part. I see people like myself as a node on a web that links various parts of the ecosystem. It is part of my job to keep an eye on the conventional wisdom, changing priorities and interesting projects going on in FinTech at banks and tech providers all over the world. If by following me you find out about a cool bank project from the Middle East or a buzzy, new FinTech entrant – that you might not have known otherwise – well then I have earned by place as a static node in the pulsing, vibrating ecosystem.
Because I have a fairly reasonable social following, and have been told that my writing style is pleasing, clicking on a blog post I create may lead you to my company, and working on a project that gets you that meeting with the ‘digital head at Barclays you have been following’. Would you call that ‘influence’? Or is it just a content marketing strategy to find your way through a FinTech network of information, contacts and projects?
Theo agrees. “Social media is just one of the tools that I use to get my points across. I have an opinion – and I don’t mind sharing it. Does that make me an ‘influencer’ though? Just because I get views on social media? Because I have the ‘privilege’ to be heard – and the privilege of time to post?”
But Theo makes a good point about privilege. Creating a digital footprint and gaining social capital leads to exposure, which can lead to calls from the press for comments for articles and requests to speak at events, which in turn leads to expanded job opportunities.
However, for many people (canvass a few of your black women friends who express viewpoints on Twitter) social exposure leads to abuse, harassment and an emersion in environments so toxic that many feel their presence on ‘social media’ is not worth it. Think about that the next time you offer a paid for keynote speaking to slot to someone based on their follower counts and influencer rankings. Who are you missing out on that doesn’t have the advantage of ‘social media privilege’?
What are influencers good for? Well, if they point you towards information or people you might not normally have access to or who are just an interesting point of view on Twitter for a bit of a chin wag – then that is not bad a thing to be good for.