When it comes to product endorsements, influencers are the new celebrities. It’s no longer about Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio pitching coffee makers during the morning TV news. Today, brands are tapping social media users who hold sway over a large number of followers by paying them to use, photograph, and write about their products.
We think of Oprah as the OG of influencers: Before the term was widely used, she demonstrated the power that a beloved figure has to move a product, simply by dubbing it one of her “favorite things.”
What Is an Influencer?
First, let’s identify what an influencer is and isn’t. An influencer is an individual who has the ability to shape or dictate other people’s behaviors or opinions. They create a curated style and brand that means something to their followers. Influencers market the living daylights out of their personal brands by sharing selfies of themselves doing, using, and wearing stuff they love.
Influencers use social media to promote their personal brands, and they may reach a high level of popularity or even celebrity. But we consider influencers private citizens, not public figures like actors or reality TV stars or musicians. The difference between traditional celebrity and influencer endorsements is that influencers are building their brands based on their own personal equity, so they theoretically wouldn’t promote a product they wouldn’t personally use. While Kim Kardashian uses the channels of influencers, like Instagram and Snapchat, she’s a celebrity; she’ll promote anything if she’s paid to do it. It’s her job.
How to Market Your Brand via Influencers
Influencer marketing might seem like an easy and inexpensive tactic. Go on Instagram, search a few hashtags, find people who are using products like yours, send them some free stuff, and watch sales figures jump. Everybody and their brother thinks, “If I can just get enough influencers to use it, our product will move.”
It’s not that easy. Social channels are awash in “stars” with big followings. Brands are getting fed up with social media mavens asking for free room nights, clothing, and products. Agencies have sprung up to connect brands and influencers, for a fee. Social media users have gotten wise to branded content in disguise.
Influencers can work for your brand, if you’re smart about tapping them.
Four Strategies for Working with Influencers
Align with your brand.
Influencer marketing is about choosing people whose personal brands align with your brand strategy. They should be living embodiments of your brand’s ethos, not just mirrors of your audience. To find them, look for active social media followers who are part of your tribe. Who’s out there living the life your brand stands for? Are they already using your product?
For example, as we helped our client Essentia water reposition from a product for health-minded yoga fans to a product that helps anyone overachieve, we aligned them with lots of different people who aren’t yoga practitioners: music producers, artists, paralympic athletes. We selected influencers who could endorse the product because it helps them reach beyond their goals.
Look for the quiet influencers.
Whenever we encourage a client to get into the influence game, we tell them to zag, to find the as-yet undiscovered, untapped influencers. You don’t want to pursue the same people every other brand in your market is working with, and you don’t necessarily want Instagrammers with huge followings. A recent New York Times article calls these the ‘nanoinfluencers’—people with fewer than 1,000 followers who are especially willing to work with brands and whose lack of fame makes them more believable to their fans. They may not have prior experience with sponsored posts. But they’re genuine, enthusiastic, and really good at using social media. You want to identify rising social media stars and ride the trajectory alongside them.
Identify influencers who can drive sales.
One good influencer is better than 40 who won’t do anything for your brand. If you’re sending product and spending resources to shepherd influencers, make sure you know they’re going to move the needle for you. Otherwise, it’s the same as paying for advertising that doesn’t work.
Brands and their celebrity/influencer endorsers are drawing scrutiny for not labeling social posts as sponsored content. (DJ Khaled is a glaring example.) Social platforms, consumer watchdog groups, and the FTC are cracking down. Be sure your agreement with any influencer requires that the post or image be tagged as sponsored.
It’s still too early to understand what the return on an influencer arrangement can or should be. And the investment can vary widely, from free product to thousands of dollars for an extended campaign.
But we know that there is a positive correlation. Influencers who are just as passionate about your brand as you are make naturally credible spokespeople. These endorsement relationships are symbiotic, because your marketing partner is personally invested in supporting products they believe in—and their followers are, too.
Influencers create a halo effect, giving your brand street cred in their world.