I can’t count the number of calls with marketers who’ve asked, “What exactly is influencer marketing? Also, should we care?” It’s a fair question. Influencer marketing, as it currently exists, is new, complex and rife with younger consumers and marketers.
It’s also a foreign concept from the outset. I’m barely an influencer in my own household and there are only three of us. Envisioning how a 27-year-old travel photographer can affect the buying decisions of thousands of consumers doesn’t come with a straightforward explanation. Especially when you, your team, your friends and your community have never heard of this so-called influencer.
Let’s take a look at how influencer marketing works. Future blog posts will cover what consumers get out of the system and what marketers need to keep in mind when jumping on board.
As a note, you can engage social media influencers on any platform, but this post focuses on Instagram, as it’s the easiest place to see the system in action.
What Is Influencer Marketing?
At its core, influencer marketing is expert-centered marketing. Consider the diamond engagement ring. Between World War I and II, Americans saw the stones as something for a rich upper crust, not a middle-class cobbler.
To counteract this, the diamond industry — led by De Beers — pushed a new vision of diamond engagement rings as part of the American dream and the fabric of a typical American wedding. They did this by working with celebrities (to whom they gave diamond rings) and journalists (who covered those engagements and weddings).
But that’s just normal celebrity marketing — Air Jordans or Oprah’s Book Club. De Beers and the diamond industry went further. According to a memo from N.W. Ayer & Son, the ad firm De Beers worked with, there was a push to bring visiting lecturers to high schools to extoll the virtues of diamonds.
“All of these lectures revolve around the diamond engagement ring, and are reaching thousands of girls in their assemblies, classes and informal meetings in our leading educational institutions,” the memo said.
Then the agency recommended layering in socialites — a near perfect precursor to today’s Instagram influencers — to help “spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer’s wife and the mechanic’s sweetheart say, ‘I wish I had what she has.’”
Influencer marketing is the use of admired, aspirational and connected individuals to increase the awareness and desirability of a brand, product or service.
You’ll notice that I didn’t say “famous” or “beautiful” or “smart,” or anything else to narrow that group. The goal of influencer marketing is to align a brand with a personality, and that alignment doesn’t depend on the person’s absolute metrics.
First, you need to find the right mix of admiration, aspiration and connection in your marketers. Having a million average American followers on Instagram is clearly valuable. Having 50,000 Disney devotees as followers may be even more valuable.
Think of influencers as an important part of the overall brand message. If you wouldn’t think about paying for a full-page ad in Southwest: The Magazine, the cleverly named Southwest Airlines’ in-flight magazine, then you shouldn’t be working with an influencer whose whole message is about airline points and travel tips.
If you head to E3 every year to get out your brand message, a Twitch streamer might be the perfect fit. Influencers aren’t exceptions to your brand’s rules; working with social media users with massive followings but nothing to do with your industry reads as inauthentic and woefully oblivious or, even worse, desperate.
So once you understand the what of the system, how does your brand actually engage in influencer marketing?
How Does Influencer Marketing Work?
First, this isn’t some get-rich scheme for you or your influencer. You’ll be paying for exposure, in most cases. Social media platform Hootsuite suggests that brands can expect to pay $100 per 10,000 followers, plus any extras — agency fees, free products for the influencer, travel, giveaways used, etc.
The goal is to find an influencer who has the ears and eyes of thousands of your potential customers. By working with them, you cut through the social noise that normally fills consumers’ social feeds.
Common tactics for influencer marketing include:
- Having the influencer use your product in a number of their photos, mentioning your brand and the product in captions. This is the most straightforward version of the celebrity in your fancy hoodie.
- Running a contest or giveaway with the influencer acting as the spokesperson. If you remember Publishers Clearing House — or maybe it was American Family Publishers — you’ll be familiar with this approach.
- Throwing a party and inviting the influencers you’re trying to get the word out with. If it can work for a downhill skiing competition in Austria, it can probably work for your brand.
Each of these options comes with challenges and payoffs. Featuring your products in influencer photos, for instance, is an inexpensive and easy system, but that means a lot of brands are already doing it. It’s also clearly less attractive if you don’t sell photogenic products.
On the other end of the scale, getting influencers together in a beautiful, photo-ready space and throwing a great party taps right into consumers’ desires for authenticity and experience. But it can be costly, logistically challenging and/or less relevant beyond hospitality brands.
Finding the right balance between hands-off and over-the-top influencer marketing will ultimately come down to brand tone and budget.
Watch for future blog posts about the research, implementation and consumer sides of influencer marketing (drop a line in the comments if you’ve got any burning questions). For now, keep these three tenets in mind:
- Influencer marketing isn’t about finding the biggest fish in the pond, it’s about finding the fish your customers are most excited about.
- Building an influencer relationship requires more than just throwing free stuff at a person or mentioning them in your captions. (Hey, @markruffalo! See? Nothing.)
- Scale will determine the best way to work with an influencer, but the sky is basically the limit. Keep in mind, again: Bigger isn’t always better.
This overview of consumers lays the groundwork for implementation of influencer marketing.
Video and mobile are rising in popularity, with Instagram’s IGTV potentially playing a larger role in influencer marketing in the future. This piece provides a quick overview of mobile’s current status.
Remember, social influencers are just one part of a larger content strategy.