Updated July 27, 2021
Before online influencer marketing became a major thing (and way before it was legitimized as a structured technique or a lucrative career path), it was known as word-of-mouth marketing.
As a kid, I learned about the concept by way of a popular commercial for Faberge Organics, in which a smiling Heather Locklear shared her secret for bouncy hair with two friends, who in turn told two friends, and so on, and so on …
Though the underlying mechanisms of the “tell-a-friend” technique remain largely unchanged, social media has fueled its evolution into a strategic discipline infinitely more targeted, impactful, and scalable than anything the 1980s Faberge’s marketing team could have predicted.
But successful influencer campaigns can be tangled and tricky to manage, as more platforms and new complications due to influencer commoditization arise. Some businesses have even begun fighting what they consider to be exploitative practices.
The bottom line is if you want today’s social tastemakers to amplify your content’s reach and influence, keep the following considerations and cautions in mind. And since a lot has happened since we originally posted this article, I’ve added some fresh tips and inspirations to guide your efforts.
Speak your influencer truth to stakeholders
Influencer marketing relies on securing independent promoters who are responsible for their interactions for better or worse. You may have to do a little legwork to convince your content stakeholders to support a promotional technique not fully under your brand’s control.
Here are a few facts to cite in a compelling case for influencer marketing:
- Your marketing peers believe in it: In Influencer Marketing Hub’s (IMH) 2021 study of marketing professionals who run influencer campaigns, 90% believe the technique is an effective form of marketing, and 75% intended to dedicate a budget to it this year.
- It builds trust: In the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer report, 48% of respondents found influencers to be credible when it comes to both the quality and value of a brand and how well it fits with their lifestyle. Further, in Edelman’s special report on brand trust, 63% of respondents said they trust what influencers have to say about a brand much more than what brands say about themselves, and 58% said they bought a new product because of an influencer’s recommendation.
- It attracts qualified leads and quality customers: The Influencer Marketing Hub study also found 72% of marketing professionals who use the technique think the quality of the customers driven by these campaigns is better than from their other forms of marketing.
- It can deliver meaningful marketing value: Many experts now say ROI from influencer campaigns is a difficult metric to accurately gauge through quantitative data alone. It can vary widely, depending on campaign specifics. However, the tremendous growth – estimated by the IMH study to be $13.8 billion this year – is a clear indicator that businesses stand to benefit greatly from their influencer investments.
Exercise caution to avoid common traps
Though you want to accentuate the positive benefits influencer marketing can deliver, be prepared to discuss some of the technique’s rules and restrictions, and be realistic in its potential pitfalls, such as:
Of the myriad influencer marketing solution vendors, tools, and platforms available to connect brands with influencers, many rely on audience data to determine how well an influencer’s following will engage with a brand. Unfortunately, privacy regulations, like the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act – not to mention the end of third-party data collection via cookies – are making those insights harder to come by, and, thus, the vendors’ algorithms harder to rely on.
As this article in CCO magazine mentions, not only can big name influencers command the attention of actively engaged audiences, they can also command a hefty payday with rates of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single product-friendly social media endorsement. With stakes this high, it’s no surprise brands may be reluctant to disclose the back story behind their influencer-posted content.
But take note: Regulatory agencies like the U.S. Federal Trade Commission frown on brands that fail to distinguish paid influencer spots from organic brand advocacy posts. To uphold the highest standards of credibility – and place your brand firmly within your audience’s circle of trust – it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the FTC’s guidelines for proper advertising disclosures.
Characterized by the use of fake influencers or artificially inflated follower numbers to increase rates, influencer fraud continues to cast a shadow over marketers’ blue sky views of the technique’s value.
But there is a bright side: Though the IMH study reports this pitfall is a concern for 67% of businesses, it also finds incidents have dropped 30 percentage points in the past year (38% vs. 68%).
Ultimately, though, it’s up to the brands to pursue influencers with integrity and authenticity so you can grow your audience of followers, not your marketing spends and legal fees.
Build your influencer infantry
Your brand’s ability to find success with this technique largely depends on the strength of the influencer relationships you develop and how you enlist their assistance in your content initiatives. Here are a few pointers:
Find the right voices to amplify your best assets
Your team’s ability to identify the right people to work with and set the stage for a successful long-term collaboration is critical. Arguably, it may be the most challenging part of the process, as it involves multiple steps:
- Become familiar with the notable voices in your industry.
- Identify and vet potential partners who share your brand values and perspectives and resonate with your target audience.
- Engage top candidates to solicit their participation.
- Negotiate terms, fees, and deliverables.
- Seed, track, and manage their ongoing efforts.
While you can certainly take a hands-on approach to some (or all) of these tasks, you might want to consider enlisting the services of a dedicated influencer marketing agency. These experienced providers may have established relationships with the tastemakers you want to target, making it easier to interest potential influencers in a partnership. As reputable agencies can also manage other aspects of your brand’s influencer marketing (including the processes listed below), you can stay focused on supporting influencer success with additional content assets and initiatives.
However, if budget constraints, internal expertise, or other company conditions mean you’re going DIY, here are some tips to help:
- Filter your outreach based on mutual interests: With the surging popularity of influencer breeding grounds TikTok and Clubhouse, the emergence of creator-driven platforms like Substack, and Facebook planning to pour $1 billion into keeping influencer talent under its thumb, even lesser-known creators are quickly getting snatched up by your content competition.
To attract the attention of today’s generation of self-monetization masters, be more strategic with your initial outreach: Start a relevant, topical conversation on their favorite platform – one that will interest your target influencer personally, not solely based on their status as a high-profile trendsetter.
- Empower your internal and community influencers: Working with influencers doesn’t have to mean paying celeb spokespeople to promote your products. There are likely multiple pools of established micro-influencers you can tap, including your organization’s own employees who come with a built-in understanding of your audience and a relationship with your business. Their endorsement of your brand’s value can be more authentic and impactful than a room full of contracted creatives.
- Grow your influencer communities organically: Another point of entry into the micro-influencer realm is to build a community for your most vocal brand supporters. It’s an organic technique from which CMI’s Community Manager Monina Wagner has gotten impressive results. She even activated some participants as brand evangelists by empowering them to lead community conversations on our behalf:
Since we introduced our Slack community in 2018, our members and activities have grown. We selected our first-ever Community Host, Jeremy Bednarski. We held real-time discussions around our online ContentTECH event in August. We hosted a Super Bowl ad-watching party, then conducted a series of head-to-head voting challenges to come up with the ultimate winner.
As another example, Buffer grew a community with more than 4,000 members on Slack, then moved it to a dedicated home in 2019. Activities in the community (open to Buffer users) include weekly Community Mastermind discussions. Members trade strategies, advice, and monthly “CommuniTea/Coffee” Zoom meetings featuring discussions facilitated by a community member. Twice a year, members can apply for a six-month stint as community hosts who welcome new members, work on special projects, foster discussions, and more.
Equip and activate your content crusaders
Include your influencer program in your social media plan
Regardless of who you recruit to influence your audience, you want to ensure their efforts align with your overarching social media content plan and they are given the tools to succeed. Before you begin the collaboration, here are a few strategic to-do items to check off your list:
- Make sure your influencers’ top channels are ones that your business has built a compelling use case for.
- Provide your company’s social media guidelines and style guides, so they are aware of which conversations are appropriate and which topics and issues to avoid.
- Outline the impact evaluation process, including the performance benchmarks and tracking tactics, especially if compensation is tied to hitting traffic/engagement milestones. (You’ll find more details on metrics in the ROI section below.)
Fuel influencer success with tactical assistance
Time is short and sometimes influencer projects can suddenly become more of a burden than either party may have anticipated.
Fortunately, both Amisha Gandhi, founder of SAP’s global influencer marketing program, and CMI’s marketing team have shared a few tricks that can help external influencers meet their commitments and equip your internal content team to achieve the maximum benefit:
- Detail the program’s goals and the role of the influencer. That helps them feel more vested in your collaborative efforts.
- Create a pre-event briefing that outlines key terms of engagement such as relevant topics and keywords, target timelines, project deliverables and requirements, and even starter ideas to put their spin on.
- Write social media messages the influencers can pop into a post and publish.
- Craft eye-catching graphics, charts, screenshots, and other sharing-friendly image files that influencers might not have the ability to create.
- Develop trackable URLs/short codes for easier performance measurement (more on this later).
Go beyond the social content sphere
While most marketers might consider influencer marketing to be synonymous with the untamed nature of social media content, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, in this article on influencer marketing planning, Relevance co-founder Chad Pollitt shared two blog-based content co-creation models that can give your brand more agency over influencer initiatives, as well as provide helpful, step-by-step templates to make the editorial processes easier to manage:
- Influencer roundup posts: Your content team collects and features the thoughts of industry influencers who have spoken on your topic.
- A blog contributor program: Recruit industry experts to write original content for exclusive publication on your blog. Each influencer who contributes likely has an audience of their own – and a vested interest in helping the content to succeed.
Spin unsolicited evangelism into influencer gold
Keep in mind that influencer marketing doesn’t have to involve prearranged or contracted engagements. You can amplify naturally occurring acts of brand advocacy with content that promotes your promoters (and, by extension, your business).
For example, as you monitor your social media channels for relevant conversations, chances are you see a few influential voices that regularly reference or write about your brand. Top Tier Communications founder Madison Tierney suggests incorporating their reviews, comments, and feedback into your own content posts and pages, as social proof (with their permission, of course). Tag the influencer to get the attention of their audience and help drive increased traffic. She also reminds marketers to include third-party media coverage in these efforts.
Evaluate and optimize influencer performance
Whether your influencer marketing program takes off immediately or takes time to build momentum, regularly monitor and track its performance with the same diligence you would apply to any other step in the process. As industry trends, influencer popularity, and consumer behaviors shift, putting in the right analytics plan from the start enables you to identify potential trouble spots and course-correct before your efforts lose ground.
Start with relevant ROI calculations
As Jim Tobin points out, tracking influencer content performance based on direct attribution can be notoriously difficult because a linear customer journey doesn’t necessarily exist. He suggests a few other sales-related metrics useful for gauging effectiveness:
- Promotion code redemption
- Direct web traffic
- Lift in online mentions
- Branded keyword search volume lift
- Correlated sales lift
- Conversion tracking
- Ad recall lift rate
As I mentioned, accurately determining ROI using quantitative methods alone is a tricky affair. But the details outlined in Shane Barker’s five-step process for calculating influencer marketing ROI should apply even if you plan to add qualitative data into your measurement mix:
- Set your campaign goals– the more granular, the better.
- Define your performance targets. For example, if your goal is to increase revenue, specify a dollar amount or growth percentage driven by the influencers’ involvement.
- Outline goals and metrics for each influencer. Depending on the terms of engagement, you might expect different outcomes from some influencers compared to others.
- Choose a tracking platform to manage your efforts. Over the long term, working with an automation-enhanced solution will likely be more accurate and less time-consuming than manually tracking performance.
- Measure and compare influencer performance. Document the results of each influencer’s efforts and compare them to the collective group of influencers. Over time, this information will help identify your most valuable influencer partners, enabling you to filter out the rest.
With mass influence comes massive responsibilities
Remember, putting your content’s fate into the hands of a high-profile promotional partner requires a leap of faith – and plenty of legwork on your part to discover the right formula for success. Got a tip for getting more value from your influencer initiatives? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.
All tools mentioned in the article are identified by the author. If you have a tool to suggest, please feel free to add it in the comments.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute