Influencer marketing has already made itself the butt of too many jokes. When a so-called influencer makes news today, it’s usually for the sake of public derision, whether it’s someone pretending to attend Coachella or being shooed off a stoop in West London.

The problem here isn’t influencer marketing itself. It’s always useful to have a well-known person publicly vouch for you or your brand.

The problem is many people don’t understand what influence actually is. One hundred thousand Instagram followers don’t necessarily comprise an influential audience. Five thousand LinkedIn followers, however, might.

When brands mistake one for the other, they end up spending time and resources chasing a relationship that’s ultimately worthless for their marketing goals.

The Basics of Influencer Marketing

Influencer marketing is nothing more than finding ways to have a trusted person promote your brand, your product or your content.

We call those trusted people influencers because they already have audiences who turn to them for advice. If you were marketing an initiative to promote healthier lunches in schools, for example, a word of support from Michelle Obama would be quite influential in that initiative’s success.

There are two ways you can get influencers to promote you:

  • By paying them.
  • By finding common cause with their own missions.

People who agree with you are much more willing to promote you for free. It takes time to establish and nurture those connections, however. So, you’re effectively making a choice between spending money or spending time when building influencer relationships.

What you’re promoting largely informs which direction you choose. If you’re promoting a consumer product, you would approach influencers differently than if you were promoting an article. People pay good money to Instagram influencers to get a single product placement on those channels.

We market content, which follows very different rules than product marketing or brand marketing. Content doesn’t need to tell a product story or a brand story. It can exist independently of those narratives.

Someone can find common cause with a piece of content without having that feel like an endorsement of a company’s products or brands. You can like a Budweiser Super Bowl ad without liking the company’s beer, for example.

Content marketing allows brands to make these kinds of connections at scale.


Why Would Influencers Promote Content for Free?

A piece of longform content might contain dozens of novel or noteworthy ideas, any of which can resonate with the right influencers. And if someone can find common cause with one of those ideas, they will be far more likely to share your content — to retweet it, to link to it, to include it in their newsletters.

If we write something that casts a specific company in a positive light, it’s pretty easy to get that company’s CMO to share our content. If we write something that makes a consultant appear especially knowledgeable about a topic, it’s pretty easy to get that consultant to share our content.

And they’ll do it for free.

The key to all of this, however, is understanding how to recognize and foster those alliances with potential influencers. That’s why we’ve built influencer curation into the foundation of our content-creation process. We don’t write a word of copy without first understanding who might be able to promote that piece of content, and what their potential motivations for doing so are.

Identifying Relevant, Motivated Influencers

“You don’t need a Kardashian to pitch your product,” says Barrett Wissman, principal and co-chairman of IMG Artists. “While influencers with big audiences make big impressions, those impressions don’t always last.”

Wissman’s point holds true for B2C markets as well as B2B markets. In both cases, someone capable of elevating a marketing message is someone whose influence can leave a lasting impression.

In our five-plus years of influencer marketing, we have found that the best influencers share a common set of traits:

  • Audience overlap. An influencer’s audience must be interested in the same things as your own audience. This seems obvious, but we’ve seen many brands lose sight of this rule in pursuit of bigger, shinier influencer relationships.
  • Audience engagement. An influencer needs to regularly interact with their audience. If they just broadcast messages or link-dump content to their followers, then it’s likely that no one is actually paying attention to them. We look for people who converse with their audiences. When doing influencer research, make sure to look for a few likes and shares on their social timelines. This behavior is probably a better qualifier than the number of followers.
  • Skin in the game. The best influencers are the ones who are still growing their audiences. They will have an incentive to work with brands, even smaller brands, if that means they can reach new audiences.
  • Credibility. This is the most subjective trait, and there are plenty of people online who are experts at faking their own credibility. Eventually, good content marketers develop a sixth sense for discerning authentic domain experts from the charlatans hoping to fake it ‘til they make it.

Introducing Those Influencers to Your Audience

There are two ways to get an influencer’s thoughts into your own content: Ask for an exclusive quote, or cite something they’ve said on the record elsewhere.

Citing on-the-record statements is the scalable option. After all, dozens — sometimes 100-plus — influencers get vetted according to the rubric above every time we write a piece of content. That translates to between 10 and 25 influencers mentioned in a published piece of content.

Exclusive quotes are valuable, but they take time to source. That’s why reporters spend years working their beats and building source relationships. (More on that in a moment.)

For now, understand that quoting influencers in longform writing is an excellent way to make your content inherently promotable, and a great first step in building long-term influencer relationships.


Getting an Influencer’s Attention

We’ve found that the best way to reach a busy influencer is to offer them something of value up front. In most cases, the thing we can offer is a platform. When we quote an HR consultant in a piece on the challenges of recruitment, we get that person’s ideas in front of a relevant audience.

When the piece goes live, we send out a quick email that essentially says, “We featured you in a recent article.” If the influencer is actively trying to grow their own audience, this will be a valuable introduction for them.

And if we have vetted our influencers properly, those emails will go to people who have overlapping audiences and skin in the game. They will be glad to hear from us and will be likely to respond. (According to our historical data, about one in four influencers respond to that email.)

Once you have made that initial connection, offered something of value and received a positive response, then you can begin to nurture that influencer relationship.

What an Influencer Relationship Looks Like: 3 Examples

Influencer relationships are a lot like customer relationships: They’re all at various levels of awareness and engagement. As such, an influencer relationship might be able to impact your campaign directly and immediately, or the relationship might be an asset worth nurturing over time.

Below are three recent examples of brand-influencer relationships we’ve seen that demonstrate what an influencer can do for a campaign:

Content Promotion

At the end of February, a client published a piece we wrote on the importance of good customer service. In that piece, we cited Shep Hyken, who has written several books and consulted several companies on how to build stronger customer relationships.

Hyken shared the piece with his Twitter audience of 116,000-plus followers, which gave the post’s share counts a nice boost. More importantly, it opened the door for us to ask Hyken for an exclusive quote the next time we write about customer service. When we publish that exclusive quote, it’s a good bet that Hyken will promote that article.

Active Content Collaboration

In 2018, SAP SuccessFactors published an eBook on employee wellness that was built around exclusive quotes from some of the biggest influencers in HR. These included Sharlyn Lauby of HR Bartender and Josh Bersin of Deloitte. According to Lee Odden at TopRank, influencer shares “represented 86% of all ebook views and 69% of the conversions.”

Even for brands as established as SAP, having industry influencers distribute content on your behalf can drive conversions and introduce you to new audiences.

Industry Networking

Sometimes, an influencer relationship is valuable because it puts your brand in front of some of the smartest people in your industry. These are the people who can potentially open numerous doors for you.

Case in point: In early 2018, a client published a piece we wrote on micromanagement and the insecurities of leadership, a piece that featured a TEDx talk by Ohio State University researcher Tanya Menon.

When we reached out to let her know we’d featured her talk, her first response was enthusiastic and gracious. Later that morning she followed up to let us know that her talk was being featured that day on the main TED page. She was excited, and she was happy to share that excitement with us — and to offer her availability for future collaboration.

Our chat with Menon during the outreach highlighted just how big a role serendipity plays in networking and influencer marketing.

Recognizing and Wielding Real Influence

So, who has more influence, the person with an Instagram following of 100K, or the person with a LinkedIn following of 5,000?

The answer, as always, is “it depends.”

If you have a consumer product you’re trying to market, the Instagrammer might be your best bet. Be ready to pay for each product placement.

If you have a software company you’re trying to position as an industry authority, however, the person on LinkedIn will be more likely to influence your audience. And with the strategy outlined above, you have all the tools you need to build and nurture a relationship with that influencer.

Images by: Rémi Walle, Austin Distel, Timi David Fregene

Eric Barrier