For a number of reasons, influencer marketing has taken on bona fide buzz phrase status in recent years.
This feels a bit weird to me because the whole notion of getting so-called influencers to help market your brand has been alive and well for, well, seemingly forever! Maybe it feels familiar because dealing with influencers has always a PR thing and so it’s something that has been ingrained in me for much of my professional career.
But now it seems brand marketers en masse have seen – and are increasingly attracted to – the influencer ‘light’.
Whatever the reason, working with influencers to get one’s message out into the marketplace continues to be a hot topic of discussion, and rightly so, as it can be a very effective strategy if planned and executed properly.
I see there are two major themes driving this latest influencer marketing trend:
- Traditional advertising is losing its effectiveness – consumers are not seeing ads or being influenced by advertising like they once were; the reach of traditional media has diminished in the wake of the ongoing explosion of online channels and with it, the emergence of literally millions of professional and amateur micro-publishers (thus splintering people’s attention into a thousand different directions); consumers have also taken to avoiding advertising with gusto, employing digital ad blockers, or are subscribing to ad-free online services such as Netflix. Apparently you’re more likely to survive a plane crash than click on a banner ad! 🙂
- Today, everyone is an influencer – although obviously, some are more influential than others; regardless of the industry, you are pretty much going to find individuals who have the ability to influence people’s opinions and behaviour to varying degrees, and chances are these people have an audience or sorts nurtured via social media and online publishing platforms (but not always though; some people are influential by default of the position they hold in the community or the corporate world (the chairperson of an important industry body, for example).
A supporting reason influencer marketing has become popular with brands is it’s never been easier to identify, and connect with, popular bloggers, Instagrammers, YouTubers, TikTokkers and Snapchatters, with the prevalence of app-based marketplaces (such as Tribe), talent management agencies (including Viral Nation, The Remarkables and Ministry of Talent) and software platforms and online services such as Tap Influence or Traackr.
So what is influence anyway?
According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, influence is …
… the power to change or affect someone or something : the power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen.
An influencer, therefore, is Tribe states on its website:this definition can be reworked to fit a particular conversation. For example,
We classify an Influencer as someone with 3000+ genuine followers on just one of our three partner platforms: Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
I’m not convinced about Tribe’s definition for reasons I outline shortly. But you can see where this is heading.
Given the marketing profession is typically obsessed about numbers (i.e. reach, ratings, sales etc), it’s totally understandable therefore the number of followers a person has is often the default for ‘influencer’.
Yes, many genuine influencers do have an audience of engaged fans, followers, advocates, supporters and enthusiasts for their personal brand, for what it is they do and stand for. But just because you have a large following on social media doesn’t necessarily make you an influencer, or indeed, the right influencer for a particular brand or campaign.
Let’s unpack this:
- There are people on social media with huge followings on, say, Twitter or LinkedIn, who do not necessarily have the ability to influence people to take action in some way.
- Then you have those who do have solid and engaged followings on social media, maybe they are bloggers and podcasters who have an audience and the ability to influence, but their specialist area – i.e. what they’re known for – isn’t relevant to every brand. In other words, just because they are an influential public voice in, say, technology doesn’t mean they can sway accountants. Or maybe they are a hugely popular health and fitness Instagrammer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have any influence in the fashion industry, for example.
The issue I see with influencer marketing is that it tends to be short term, transactional and numbers driven, which is fine, but when it comes to working with bona fide influencers, I’m a firm believer in the longer-term proposition of building relationships.
Ticking the boxes
For many marketers, the extent of influencer marketing is to identify someone they deem to be an online influencer (and usually this is because they have a large following on social media) – someone who ticks many of the right boxes for the brand – and then enter into a commercial arrangement that sees the influencer posting content online on behalf of the brand.
This strategy can be hit and miss for reasons alluded to above:
Does the influencer genuinely have influence over others?
Are they the right influencer for the brand (and is the ‘fit’ a good one in terms of philosophy, core values etc)?
But it can also work a treat if the influencer really does have an engaged following and gives a plug to a relevant brand they genuinely are passionate about, in a way that’s respectful and not seen as a crass sales pitch; if done in the influencer’s own unique voice, that’s when this type of marketing can be super effective.
Here’s another ‘but’ though.
If your collaboration with an influencer is effective, why stop at a few simple online posts? If the influencer truly does love your brand (or product or whatever) and they genuinely have (potential) clout with their audience, why not turn a one-night stand into something more meaningful?
This is why I prefer influencer ‘relations’ to influencer ‘marketing’. It’s a personal thing. Here is my reasoning:
Influencer relations is all about identifying those individuals who are noted for their ideas, insights, expertise and the content they produce, within a certain field of endeavour, and who have sway with a particular audience that’s similar to the one you’re targeting from a brand marketing perspective.
The goal then is to build a relationship with this person in a genuine and non-sleazy way.
A few things to remember here:
- Once you identify potential influencers (however you do that, whether using an influencer marketing tool, or through a combination of desk research and word-of-mouth referral), it’s important you become part of their world – follow them, share their content, build an understanding of who they are (and who they create content for), what they are passionate about or interested in.
- Influencers might have a high profile, but they’re still people – they want to connect with people, not logos; thus it is important to humanise any dealings you have with them.
- Provide influencers with genuine experiences they otherwise wouldn’t get access to; invite them to events or provide pre-launch samples of a product before it’s released to the public, and do it without the expectation of getting anything in return.
- Give influencers early access to research (Content Marketing Institute has traditionally been excellent at doing this with its Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends reports).
- Contrary to popular belief, not all influencers are content creators per se – they may head up your industry’s professional association, for example, or be genuine experts or thought leaders in a particular field who journalists call up when they’re looking for a quote for a story. Depending on your industry, of course, but it pays to be expansive in your definition of ‘influencer’.
Is payment ever involved in influencer relations?
As a rule, I’d say “no”, not in the early days when you’re earning the right to connect and build rapport with an individual. But over the journey, there’s absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t enter into a commercial arrangement with an influencer to create content for your organisation, for example e.g. a blog article or whitepaper or ebook, or produce a video for you.
But again, even this aspect is not always black-and-white.
If your business has a solid communications platform – i.e. a sizeable audience across your blog readership and Twitter and LinkedIn accounts; if this audience is one the influencer wants to reach for their own professional purposes – then giving them access to this audience in exchange for content can be a fair deal for both parties.
Thus the key when dealing with influencers is to ensure a fair exchange of value, whether monetary or not. Respect is the name of the game, and it goes both ways.
Let’s tell it like it is: If an individual has a large following on, say, Instagram, they are a genuine media channel. To get them to say something nice about your brand – by paying them to do so – is more akin to a media buy with an added layer of credibility if the ‘influencer’ handles it right, with openness and transparency. If they genuinely have an affinity for your brand or product and this enthusiasm shines through, so much the better.
This to me is what influencer marketing is, or has become, and for some brands this strategy really works, especially those in certain categories in the consumer space e.g. health and fitness, FMCG etc. But for others (business to business companies, for example), some longer term thinking might be required. That’s when influencer relations comes into play.
There is no right or wrong here, it’s what works best for your brand and your business. And hey, no-one ever said you couldn’t do both, but it’s still a good idea to understand the differences and nuances between the two, not to mention the ‘shades of grey’ that sit in between.
FURTHER READING: Influencers vs. Ambassadors vs. Advocates: Stop the Confusion! via Entrepreneur