There’s a window of opportunity that exists today in influencer marketing that won’t last long. Instagram organic reach will continue to fall. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will increasingly crack down on influencers who don’t properly disclose brand affiliations and sponsorships. Influencers are increasingly acting as cause marketers, activists, and political protestors. And the tactic itself runs the risk of over-saturation, lack of authenticity, and diminishing effectiveness. So what’s the right influencer marketing strategy for today’s media landscape?
Here’s the process I advise to develop and action a successful influencer marketing strategy:
Step 1 – Influencer Research and Identification
Start with your target audience, customer profile or persona, which would be defined by factors and demographic elements like:
- Household income
- Family status
- Job role / title
As well as cultural and behavioral traits like:
- Personal values and goals
- Consumer needs
- Cultural influences
- Media preferences
- Purchasing frictions
The two areas to focus on are “Cultural influences” and “Media preferences.”
Where do conversations about your product and/or brand’s themes happen on social media (and the broader internet)?
Who are important voices or cultural presences in those ecosystems?
How big is the ecosystem?
Is most of the audience loyal to a few publishers, forums and content creators, or is the market more fragmented?
Who’s creating content related to it already? Who’s the best? Who’s got the most loyal and engaged following?
If you’re marketing a health or fitness product, it could be fitness magazines, YouTube and Instagram vloggers, and community gyms and shops.
If it’s a video game, maybe it’s Twitch, YouTube (multi-channel networks and gaming influencers) and gamer events.
Need to drive awareness around a political or social message? Your best influencers may sit in the podcast space.
While effective marketing and advertising broadly is about acquiring lots of audience reach on your message, often the best influencer marketing strategy starts on the opposite end of the spectrum by targeting very specific, niche follower groups, then builds additional media reach from that base.
Once you’ve mapped out your target market and customer profile, start your influencer research.
There are many different ways to approach this, but here are a few I’ve found useful.
SocialBlade. Good, free tool to see follower and channel rankings on different social platforms.
Google. The world’s best research tool (particularly when you include YouTube). With the right searches it’s fast and easy to find accounts relevant to your brand and product.
Instagram search. This one can be fairly manual and doesn’t scale too well but it’s a tactic I like a lot for Instagram. Just find one influential or important account on a topic and then stalk who that account follows. Repeat as necessary. I’ve found some excellent, under-the-radar relevant interest accounts and micro-influencers doing this.
By using Ctrl + A (select) all on an Instagram account’s followers in the desktop version, then pasting them into a spreadsheet or Google Doc, you can easily format those searches into an influencer ranking spreadsheet. Here’s a short video tutorial from Nicole Mintiens that shows how:
BuzzFeed. The internet’s largest collection of listicles (by a mile) is another great way to tap into researchers who have already compiled instagram influencer collections and rankings and done a lot of your homework for you.
Other research tools. Just using the resources I listed above should be all you need, but if you’re looking to do some heavy-duty influencer research the Mention team has a good writeup of other influencer research tools you can look into.
Then of course there’s the agency route. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
Once you’ve got your target list of influencers in a spreadsheet, doc or notepad, next you need to do some due diligence. For each influencer, one by one, answer the following questions:
1. What type of content do they share? Are they working with brands already? Who? What’s the quality been? How has it performed?
2. What motivates them to share the content they do?
Generally, I would break likely motivations down into:
Growth. They want to grow their reach and attract more followers.
Personal brand. They want to be seen as the smartest, most innovative and forward-thinking, most authentic, best-looking, best-at-the-skill-they-do, or _________ [insert other qualitative vanity metric that influencer values] and use their content to build and shape that perception.
Reward their followers. The influencer wants exclusives (which might include first looks, coupon codes, etc.) and unique content to set them apart and make following them a rewarding experience for their fans. Ties back to growth and personal brand development.
Giving back. Helping others and contributing to causes and communities that are important to this influencer. Also an aspect of their personal brand.
3. How engaged are their followers? This one is particularly important and a common mistake in influencer marketing campaigns. Followers can be bought. Bots are prevalent. Audit accounts and look at the % ratio of post comments to followers, as well as the quality and engagement of the comments.
Many times the best-performing Instagram and YouTube partners will be with smaller accounts with more devoted and loyal followings. Spread your bets and look for accounts that really understand what their fans want. Don’t just immediately go to the biggest celebrities in your space.
Step 2 – Commercial Relationship and Partner Terms
The best partnerships come from building real relationships. Before getting into commercial terms and proposals, try to build some initial rapport via DM, a call, or an in-person. Of course this will depend a lot on who you are and who the influencer is, but the more you do your best to understand where they’re coming from, what their needs are, and how the relationship can add value for their own brand, the better footing you’ll be on.
A common question that pops up at this stage (or potentially even earlier) is whether or not you should hire an agency to action your influencer marketing strategy, connect you with talent, and coordinate the brand-talent relationship.
To me, the answer is case-by-case and depends on where you are with your influencer marketing maturity and goals.
If you have real budget to throw around and are already working with a digital or social media agency that’s done this work for other brands, stick with them. They’ll know what they’re doing and can handle any sub-contracting and talent management (and it’s a big red flag if there are signs they don’t).
Similarly, if you or your client is looking to work with genuine celebrities, it may simply make the most sense to reach out to a talent agency like CAA directly. There are also many niche agencies out there who rep specific talent groups, like DJ’s or famous Instagram pets for example.
Otherwise, if you’re a startup or smaller brand targeting less established influencers, I would recommend going direct and not using an agency.
Once you’re in touch with your influencer and found some common ground, here are a few principles to keep in mind.
Negotiate. Most athletes, models and artists with millions of followers will have a rate card that likely stretches into $10,000s of thousands per post. Don’t just accept their rate card price. There are often opportunities to negotiate, particularly in cases where it’s a longer-term relationship, the talent’s personal brand closely aligns with yours, or you can offer in-kind benefits like free product or other brand perks in lieu of cash compensation. Get creative with the resources you have; I’ve seen it work well.
I’ll also say generally that while it’s more work, research and coordination, typically I see better performance (CPM, CPC, CPA) and return on spend working with long and mid-tail influencers, or at least including them as a meaningful part of the overall campaign.
Strike the right creative balance. You want the influencer to sell your product. The influencer wants to get paid and keep it cool without alienating their fan base. Work with the influencer early on to decide how you’re approaching the campaign or placement.
Are you going to create the content and creative for the influencer to post directly? How much input does the influencer have in creative direction of your work (or your agency’s work)?
Or are you going to send product to the influencer and give the influencer creative direction to showcase it in a more subtle, native or “in context” placement?
Both can work depending on the relationship and the talent but make sure to clarify that up front in the partnership agreement to set expectations correctly. Then brief campaign participants clearly.
Step 3 – Endorsement and Content Compliance
I’m not a lawyer, this is not legal advice, and you should talk to a real lawyer about proper endorsement disclosure and follow their advice. The main point here is that the FTC and other regulatory groups are increasingly looking unfavorably on situations where a brand pays an influencer to promote their product, and the influencer does it without communicating to their audience that they’re being paid.
If you’re doing influencer marketing at any reasonable scale, make sure the influencer is properly disclosing the relationship. As the brand (or agency), that’s your responsibility. Under FTC rules, any “material connection” must be disclosed. You can read the actual rules here, summarized in the below image for information purposes only.
Work with your talent to help them describe the partnership or endorsement as something they’re proud of that fits with their own personal brand or values. Hashtags are a short method of disclosure, and influencers can also describe a brand partnership in the post caption. If the paid relationship between an influencer and a brand is widely known public knowledge, the person doesn’t need to disclose it every time they mention the company.
Paid influencer disclosure isn’t just a problem for brands either. It’s also common in the news media and politics. For example, Koch Industries and its owners, the brothers Charles and David Koch, operate a major political lobbying and influence network. In 2014, Freedom Partners, a non-profit political action organization run by the Kochs (who operate many of these entities), paid Republican strategist Frank Luntz a $1.5 million consulting contract.
Luntz, a CBS News commentator, is known for appearing on the show and, unsurprisingly, complimenting and defending the Koch’s, without disclosure from him or CBS of the paid relationship.
While I don’t doubt this is an effective influencer marketing strategy, I do doubt the ethics of it.
Don’t do this.
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Step 4 – Campaign Execution
If you’re thoughtfully worked through the previous steps, you should be in a good position to work with your talent to generate the goals and results you’re looking for.
A few other areas I advise thinking through are:
Objectives and campaign mechanics. Is your influencer strategy focused on awareness? Are you looking for it to sell product and drive actual conversions? Make sure your campaign and creative are aligned with that. Where is the influencer post linking to? Is it a product page? Is the Instagram profile shoppable (i.e., “link in bio”)? Does the influencer have a custom promo offer or discount code specific to them that you can track? Do they know the right hashtags to use? Are posts being tagged correctly?
You’re not going to be able to accomplish everything with one influencer placement. Pick a specific focus in terms of product positioning, customer journey stage and call to action.
Media strategy. Make sure you’ve fully thought through paid, earned and owned. How much reach can your talent get organically? How much do you need? Is additional media needed to amplify the content? What’s the strategy for doing that? What will the cadence be?
An effective influencer marketing strategy will consider and plan for all of these dimensions and stages of the campaign.
While influencer work is always case-by-case, hopefully this is a helpful framework to make your future endorsement work more successful and lower risk. If you’re looking for additional help on your next project, feel free to get in touch.