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Authentic Content, Engaged Audiences, and Product Placement, Oh My!—What Marketers Can Learn From Influencers

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Recently, an exciting new character has entered the marketing story: the influencer. Though experienced marketers may be quick to see “influencer” as a four-letter word, it’s important to take a step back and see the value of this growing, ever-changing workforce. In a business climate where social traction is key to success, these individuals have figured out how to amass millions of followers and transform this engagement into a variety of money-making opportunities.

Contrary to what some may believe, influencers don’t just spend their days eating free lunches and taking pretty pictures. They have to build their businesses from the ground up, which often requires them to break into new spaces—and in some cases, create new industries entirely. (After all, who knew “YouTubers” would be a thing when the video platform was first released?) As you build and grow your own content marketing channels, be sure to look beyond fellow organizations for inspiration. From the travel blogger to the beauty vlogger, social media influencers have a lot to teach us about building an audience and creating authentic content.

Establishing Trust

In today’s advertising climate, consumers are more and more aware that companies are trying a multitude of different tactics to promote their products and services. As such, no platform or channel feels truly safe for readers and viewers who just want to enjoy quality content without being sold something. When it comes to product placement, take a page from the influencer’s book and prioritize authenticity to establish trust.

“Most influencers are very particular about what they will and will not post because their audience trusts them to only post content that they truly believe in and products they feel good about promoting,” notes Adweek.

Consider fashion bloggers: When they create sponsored posts, they must seamlessly incorporate clothing items and accessories they receive from brands into the types of outfits they would normally wear. Keeping that sense of personal style consistent is crucial. The minute these influencers promote a pair of shoes or a piece of jewelry that doesn’t fit well within their well-known aesthetic, they risk losing their valuable followers. After all, the message in these cases of sponsored-posts-gone-wrong reads loud and clear to the influencer’s audience: “I prioritized a big paycheck over providing you with the content that you have come to love and expect from me.” Or, to put it in even simpler terms: “I value money over providing you with authentic recommendations.”

So how does this apply to marketers? Well, though you’ll be leveraging your channels to promote your own products and services rather than that of an outside party, the same expectations of authenticity must be met. In order to use your marketing platforms to move people along the sales funnel, you need to build an owned audience—and you can’t build this pool of engaged readers and followers without gaining their trust.

Your aim must be to introduce and speak to products and services the right way.

Let’s say you’re about to start a new content marketing initiative by creating a blog through which you can drive traffic to your various promotional landing pages. While you may be tempted to call out your products by name and use this content to speak to your offerings in detail, it’s important to keep your audience in mind. They’re weary of sales-first approaches and tired of being bombarded with advertisements everywhere they go.

When considering exactly how and when to introduce products on your blog, think of your readers as potential customers: What do they need? And how can you provide them with the knowledge and information to fulfill this need? If you offer technology software, your target audience may be looking for cybersecurity best practices. If you sell homeware and decor, your ideal readers may want some design tips and tricks. By creating content around these topics, you can attract potential customers and lead them to your product pages in an organic way.

Both of the examples above also provide ample opportunities to seamlessly link to your offerings on strong anchor text—without producing product-focused copy. In the end, it’s a straightforward formula: By providing readers with valuable, authentic content over sales pitches, you’ll gain your audience’s trust, allowing you to use your blog as a powerful marketing platform.

Fashion Blogger

Image attribution: Melody Jacob

Keeping Your Audience Informed

In order to build and maintain the trust outlined above, bloggers and vloggers must strive to keep their audience in-the-know. Today’s biggest influencers have accounts on pretty much every social platform imaginable—and they’re extremely strategic about how and when they use each channel to keep their followers informed.

They’ll typically turn to Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram Stories to give their audience quick, real-time updates. Influencers often use these platforms to share exciting developments, such as new brand partnerships or product launches. But they also leverage these channels to explain any delays or kinks in their regularly scheduled content.

If the circumstances in question will have a more extreme, lasting effect on their work, influencers will often turn to more long-form content—such as YouTube videos and full blog posts—to give their audience an overarching “life update.” For instance, in YouTube personality and activist Ingrid Nilsen‘s recent video, she explained to her followers that she was about to embark on a cross-country move. Ingrid’s genuine personality shines through in her content, making it feel as if you’re listening to a close friend discuss her nerves and excitement over a big life change.

Some influencers even choose to share a large portion of their personal lives with their online communities, occasionally broaching more serious topics through long-form videos. For example, after some radio silence on her channel, Alix Coburn of I Covet Thee bravely chose to create a video in which she shared the heartbreaking news that her mother had passed away from cancer. Soon after this video was posted, the comment section filled with heartfelt condolences and messages of love from her followers. Others who had lost a parent even shared their own stories—empowering the creator’s online community to band together and support one another.

Influencers leverage various social channels to keep their audiences updated on their lives and businesses as a whole—striving to keep their followers in the loop on everything from the mundane to the deeply personal. By establishing this constant, open line of communication, they are able to create a community of followers who feel valued and engaged.

As a traditional marketer, it’s equally important that you strive to keep your audience informed. Keep your channels of communication open, and leverage press releases, corporate social accounts, and other platforms to ensure your readers and followers are up-to-date on your latest initiatives. Any big news that you want to break to your followers should come from your team first.

The minute your audience finds out about a major shift in your company or offerings from an outside source, you risk losing the trust and sense of community you’ve worked so hard to develop. Furthermore, by addressing any legal mishaps or corporate challenges head on, you give yourself the opportunity to own the narrative and set the record straight.

When it comes to nurturing your community, take a page out of the influencer’s book and don’t be afraid to show your audience the “real,” unfiltered side of your company and team. Share a behind-the-scenes video of a day in the warehouse on your blog. Leverage your corporate Instagram account to highlight star employees who are making a difference. Create Facebook events for corporate-sponsored volunteer outings. By using your various channels to introduce the real faces and personalities that make your company tick, you position yourself to create a deeper, more personal relationship with your audience. Down the line, this will serve to increase engagement and interest in your content initiatives and product offerings.

Facing the “Haters”

Whether you leverage your online channels to discuss a personal brand or a global corporation, it’s important to have a strategy in place for responding to negative comments and feedback. At a time when so many of our daily conversations happen online—and people have the ability to hide behind an anonymous screen name—you must develop a thick skin if you choose to put your content out there for the world to see.

Influencers understand this on a deep level, and recognize that dealing with “haters” comes with the territory of their industry. They must decide what types of viewpoints and aspects of themselves they’re willing to share—and determine how they will tackle any adverse or unfavorable feedback that comes their way. In today’s tumultuous political climate, this is more important than ever before. Marketers of all kinds must decide whether or not they want to share their brand’s thoughts on major nationwide and global issues, because the second they do, they risk offending a portion of their audience.

Of course, this all varies on a creator by creator basis, but many influencers stick to their guns when they face criticism over posts expressing their moral or political viewpoints. For instance, when Cathy Anderson, the blogger behind Poor Little It Girl, spoke out against President Trump on Instagram Stories, she received a slew of negative backlash in her comments and DMs. How did she handle it? Cathy confirmed her stance and posted a new video to her Stories in which she explained that she didn’t mind losing followers who didn’t agree with her.

Obviously, not all influencers choose to share their thoughts and concerns about hot-button topics and touchy subjects. That being said, those who don’t shy away are often perceived as more genuine and even more reliable by their audience. After all, these influencers are essentially saying: “I have nothing to hide from my followers” and “I want you to see the real me.”

As is the case with influencers, businesses need to decide if they’re willing to take a stand on today’s biggest issues (and at what cost). And then we as marketers must develop a thoughtful strategy for expressing that point of view through various channels. While some organizations may choose to stay mum about all topics that go outside their offerings, others take pride in taking a stand and establishing widespread initiatives. For instance, Eastern Bank recently created its “Join Us for Good” campaign, which puts the spotlight on real people who are doing good in their communities. As the Boston Globe highlights, Eastern Bank’s associated ad campaign shows the financial institution’s “true colors on social issues.” Their billboards and TV commercials touch upon a variety of sensitive topics in today’s political landscape—from immigration to gay rights. Though a portion of Eastern Bank’s audience reacted negatively to the campaign, because they perceived the messaging to be pushing a liberal agenda, the company did not back down. Eastern Bank continues to use this initiative to sponsor major volunteer efforts and speak up about the causes and initiatives that they are passionate about.

pride city protest

Image attribution: Dmitrij Paskevic

It’s become abundantly clear that today’s marketing landscape is changing rapidly. New social platforms and networks are constantly being produced. New players are entering the game and disrupting the status quo. And just as you seem to master one channel, an updated algorithm or advanced feature gets released that totally throws off the original plan you had in place. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: In a world where consumers are bombarded with ads everywhere they go, creating authentic content is the key to building an engaged audience.

As social media influencers teach us, it all comes down to trust. Your readers and followers must trust you to present your organization in a genuine, honest way. They must trust you to make heartfelt recommendations based on what you truly believe in and stand for. And they must trust that you take their needs and interests to heart. Once you establish that trust, it will be all the easier to take your reader’s hand and guide them through all that your brand has to offer.

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Featured image attribution: Anthony Ginsbrook

Sibel Bagcilar is an Editorial Manager at Skyword. After earning a BA in English from Boston University in 2012, she gained experience working on both digital and print copy before entering the wonderful world of content marketing. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing, traveling, and visiting dog parks.

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