It’s early yet, but 2016 may turn out to be the year of the influencer. The online sphere is saturated with marketing coming from every direction and through myriad channels, disorienting consumers who are simply looking for guidance. When sources of information overwhelm, those individuals turn the people whose opinion they value: friends, family, and the people whose online presence they trust.
When it comes to influencer marketing, this third category of individual is essential. Social networks do function as webs of virtual connection between individuals maintaining real-world relationships, but Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms have also become resources to find trusted advisers and examples to follow.
Whether it’s industry experts, bloggers, or even celebrities, many online consumers trust these influencers to expose them to compelling content, products, experiences and ideas. Their impact is similar, if on a much smaller scale, to Oprah’s ability to turn a single product or individual into an overnight success. Few are graced with Oprah’s golden touch, but there are still plenty of online influencers who can provide a tangible boost, even if the end gain is modest.
We don’t need to belabor the value of influence in today’s digital marketing climate. A recent study by Tomoson identified influencer marketing as the fastest-growing and most cost-effective channel. According to Tap Influence, that’s because 92 percent of consumers turned to trusted online influencers for referrals in comparison to any other source of information.
The challenge for most marketers isn’t whether or not to invest in influencer marketing, but rather how to make that investment last. A short-term relationship with an influencer is easy to arrange, but its value comes with an expiration date, and that makes the relationship itself flimsy as a source of returns. What marketers need is something sustainable that can continue to build and produce dividends over time. That’s a more difficult channel to build, but it offers much richer rewards.
To understand the value of sustainable influence, it’s best to distinguish between influence and advocacy. Influence comes when someone with social networking clout helps advance your brand’s digital objectives, either by an outright referral, sharing of content, or other interactions that engage with your brand and encourage others to do the same.
This is a great asset for any company, and the bigger the influencer and her pool of followers, the bigger the return. But if this type of influence is fixed, then the benefits will dry up as soon as the relationship ends. Months down the road, the residual benefits will be modest, if they exist at all.
Sustainable influence is different. In this case, the influence isn’t established for a set period of time. Instead, influence is being driven from an organic place. IT Pro Portal notes that “cold outreach” to influencers typically draws low participation rates and poor engagement, and that yields tepid influence. Gradually, marketers have come to realize that the strongest selling point is a strong, organic relationship with those marketers. The emphasis is shifted away from the value of their influence, and is instead focused on cultivating a strong relationship with that individual.
The mentality here is similar to how marketers seek customer relationships. The strongest customers will always be the ones with an inherent love for your company and a willingness to advocate for your brand to the people they know. The average customer may not wield much influence on her own, but a targeted influencer does. By building that strong, organic relationship, brands have a chance to secure some of that sustainable influence they crave.
The trick is figuring out how to spark that desire on the influencer side.
J.T. Ramsay knows how to build a sustainable influencer culture. According to the digital media manager for Ford Motor Company, influencers are drawn to “incredible experiences.”
“When we bring people to Detroit [for the North American International Auto Show]…we just know that they’re going to want to share the content,” Ramsay tells Marketing Profs. “They’re going to want to create content on their own, and it’s going to make a huge impact in the reach of Ford’s story. We saw it last year, and I think that’s of critical importance. That’s why we’re always working with our influencers. We really value those relationships, and we’re always looking to find new, interesting people to help tell the Ford story.”
Experience is important currency when it comes to marketing a product or service. And brands should remember that influencers are also managing a product: their online reputation. They have acquired influence and social clout by delivering information, insights, and experiences that followers haven’t found elsewhere. Think of Scott Eddy, who has built a massive social following by exposing his audience to all things travel and adventure, or Joy Cho, a lifestyle blogger who has turned her influence into a growing line of products.
When a brand experience is truly singular and pleasing to consumers, companies won’t be as hard-pressed to build relationships with influencers. Instead, those individuals will want to position themselves as advocates to support their own brand and satisfy their own consumer base. A good example is how some celebrities are so enamored with their smartphones that they willfully gush about how much they love Apple or Android. Instead of trying to push for content volume, brands should shift their focus toward providing influencers with an experience they can’t resist. Create an organic appeal, and the influence will be much easier to find, while marketers will have to invest less time into building and maintaining relationships.
A good experience can support a self-sustaining influence machine.
Influence is an asset, but this can become too much of a good thing. As Forbes reports, brands that build relationships with too many influencers create a potentially septic marketing environment, and this can hurt both the company and its influencers.
“If brands become too exposed with too many bloggers, both parties will suffer. If the credibility of the blogger declines, the effectiveness of their advocacy is doomed,” says marketing strategies Mark Schaefer, to Forbes.
Similarly, influencers could become very upset at being one of a large group of influencers, since it could expose them as a social presence focused more on making deals than on providing authentic guidance and recommendations. The negative implications can snowball quickly, and a brand can be singled out as a dangerous association for other influencers, who will want to distance themselves from any potential controversy.
Instead, brands should focus on a small set of influencers—ideally individuals that occupy separate spaces—and focus on building organic, long-lasting relationships with them. The short-term gains may not seem as aggressive or impactful, but the long-term dividends are much more attractive, and the relationships picked up along the way will continue to produce well into the future.
Want to learn more about influencer strategies? Check out Skyword’s free eBook, The Ultimate Guide to Content Marketing and Influencer Strategy.