by Tim Sweeney
Influencer marketing has been around forever, really. From sports-marketing pioneers such as Arnold Palmer, to celebrity endorsements for presidential candidates, the idea of using people with influence to promote products is not a new concept. Thanks to social media and the proliferation of content marketing, today’s influencers can come in a variety of formats, with social media bubbling to the top as a leader. Sure, with the right budget, you can still turn to NFL quarterback Tom Brady in his UGGs, but nowadays, your influencer can even be a mom with a blog.
“Those are influencers!” says Lynzee Jablonka, Influencer Marketing Manager at Everywhere Agency, a social media agency in Atlanta. “Influencers can be someone with hundreds of followers or someone with a million. If people are listening to what they have to say, they are social media influencers.”
It should not be a news flash that, according to research, consumers trust a referral from their personal network at a 90 percent rate. Eighty-one percent of referrals are found online. What’s more, 92 percent of consumers also say they rely on referrals from people they know above all else. And the power of influence doesn’t end with B2C relationships. According to LinkedIn, 84 percent of B2B buyers begin the process of making a purchase with a referral. Jablonka says influencer marketing is the modern-day word of mouth. “Influencer marketing campaigns involve a select group of individuals who have a certain influence over their community,” she explains. “When used correctly, these influencers can help a brand drive sales, encourage conversations, and build awareness/loyalty. Today, we see advertisements everywhere; it’s such a saturated market. With influencers, it feels like we’re sitting in a coffee shop having a casual conversation with friends. It’s authentic and refreshing.”
But what is it exactly, and how can influencers help you? Influencer marketing involves partnering with people who have an audience and influence within a specific segment of consumers. They can help you —usually via the content they create—reach and engage with audience members that your brand might not reach normally. Often, they are experts on a particular subject matter. They can be bloggers, speakers, or authors with an audience that values their opinion on their subject matter of expertise. And they can be at their most effective during new product launches and store openings, in building new followers for your brand, and even as an advocate for you in the event of a public relations crisis.
If you’re reading this thinking: “Yeah, all that sounds great, but what if I can’t afford to get a ‘real housewife’ to use my product?” there’s good news. Influencer marketing is a table just about anyone can get a seat at. “It all depends on what you’re looking for. If you want to work the Kim Kardashians of the world, of course that’s going to require a big budget,” she says. With a smaller budget, you simply have to be a little more strategic. She cites the work that Everywhere Agency is doing with OshKosh B’gosh. “We don’t have bottomless budgets—everything we do is very thought out,” she explains. “We choose micro-influencers—influencers with more targeted audiences who will generate more meaningful conversations around your brand—to take photos of their kids wearing OshKosh. It’s as simple as that.” The campaign was so successful that the agency just won a PRSA Georgia Phoenix Award for excellence in PR.
For John Melican, who held sales and marketing leadership roles at Nike and then Callaway Golf, what he learned by using athlete influencers to drive brand and product awareness was still quite applicable when he went to work for a small start-up brand. “At Nike and Callaway, we used these big athletes, schools, and endorsers as visible signs of the brand, because it gave us broad visibility and awareness with consumers and in their sport,” he says. “We partnered with them to show how our products are authentic to that sport, while also driving emotional attachment.”
When Melican went to a small sport-technology start-up company that specialized in connecting everyday golfers to their own statistics via their phone, he called on a different type of influencer. In the golf landscape, there is a certain pyramid of influence in which advice trickles down to the masses from teaching professionals and even the best players at a country club. “If the influencer in a regular foursome uses the product, the students or other foursome members will have an interest,” he explains. “Hopefully, that interest will lead to trial and then adoption. What I learned at Nike was that putting the athlete first is key to the equation. Once you have the right influencers using your product, this leads to gaining awareness, which leads to trial. Once you have trial, you usually gain acceptance and use of your product.”
If you’re ready to dive into the deep end of influencer marketing, or at least dip your toes in the water, Jablonka says to start with identifying your goals. Specific ones. Start with your area of interest, location, and the voice you want to portray. “Do you need fitness enthusiasts nationwide, or do you just need fitness enthusiasts in Denver, Colorado?” she asks. “If you’ve established a quirky voice, working with someone who takes themselves very seriously probably won’t be the best option. Do you want influencers with amazing photography or someone who can push a coupon? The list goes on and on, but it all comes back to what your end goal is.” You should also have a thorough understanding of your own social strengths and weaknesses. What channels are your followers or potential customers using? Perhaps you want to step up your game on Instagram or reach a slightly older demographic on Facebook. It sounds simple, but deciding what channels you want to be seen on is critical. Whether it’s only one or two, or many of them, that will influence whom you recruit to influence. Once we talk social media marketing, the natural next question is how you might measure success if you decide to rely on influencers. The answer: it depends. Jablonka says the way influencer marketing campaigns have been measured at Everywhere Agency has depended greatly on the client’s needs, and yours should, too. “With OshKosh, we were tasked with tracking the sales associated with a specific coupon,” she explains. “With Macy’s, they track traffic in the store at specific events. No matter what the goals, the agency always tracks number of social media posts published, engagement rates, sentiment of the conversation, locations of interactions, and total number of impressions.”
Melican and his team at the small start-up company had a slightly different goal. They were attempting to rely on coaches to help introduce the product to golf students who wanted to get better. It was a different approach than, say, using a big-name professional golfer to promote the product so it gains visibility. Of course, at a start-up, budget has a way of shaping strategy. “Hopefully, an approach like this leads to content that we can build and then push out via social media and in videos,” Melican says. They also found influencers to be helpful in another manner—product development. “We did a beta test panel of golfers, teaching pros and other influencers, and we learned a ton. We took the information we received and put it back into the product.”
The difference between a brand spokesperson and an influencer can often be found in the way they tell the story. Using your influencers creatively means avoiding leaving the bad “sales” taste in a consumer’s mouth. In short, that means letting them tell their own stories. Language, pictures, and posts that are too “salesy” in tone—as opposed to delivering value to the reader/viewer/listener/follower—can have a detrimental outcome. “With our OshKosh campaign, we are ultimately driven by sales from a coupon, but does that mean that our messaging is purely promotional? Absolutely not,” says Jablonka. “In fact, it’s the opposite. We weave intricate story prompts for the influencers to create their posts off of.”
In a back-to-school shopping campaign in 2016, they challenged the influencers to create five outfits from OshKosh using one staple piece. Within their post, influencers touched on points of affordability, quality, and the trendiness of the brand’s clothing. “We let the influencers tell their own story in a way that would be relatable to their readers, so as to encourage them to visit OshKosh and purchase clothes for their own kids, using the coupon our influencer provided,” Jablonka explains.
If, based on your audience, you’ve chosen the right channels to be active on, it’s a good idea to allow your influencers to post on your branded channels, too. Jablonka sees great opportunity in allowing influencers to be part of the brand for a campaign. She points to a Gap campaign called “styld.by” in which influencers created outfits for the everyday person, which were then displayed across Gap’s social media channels. She says the influencer program that www.LIKEToKNOW.it uses is another innovative approach. “They allow self-proclaimed fashionistas to create an account and send their followers to the stores where they purchased their clothes from,” she explains. “If their readers make a purchase, the influencer gets a cut of it. It’s basically an affiliate program, and it seems to really be working because it doesn’t seem ‘salesy.’ Rather, it’s like shopping through your friend’s closet.”
Unfortunately, just having a great product is hardly ever enough, especially if nobody ever hears about it. Melican falls back on the original universal truth—people believe one another. “Even if you have a great product, you need these types of people to test, use, and promote your product,” he says. “Word-of-mouth influence is huge for most people. Learning about something from someone you trust opens up the possibility for consideration. For a small company, this is especially true. People want things from people they trust.”