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Influencers: Choose Brand Associations with Caution

Building influence online and offline is hard work.

At the center of becoming influential, is the ability to earn trust within your community.  This trust becomes the catalyst for getting things done.

This trust is displayed by CEOs leading businesses, educators guiding students to higher levels of enlightenment – and is even shown from time to time by political leaders who momentarily remember why they are in office and choose to serve for the betterment of the people.

When it comes to brands looking to drive their marketing through influence, a similar trust is required. For those who have put in the effort to build a meaningful bond with their community, they know how much time and effort the nurturing process can take. 

Becoming a Human Billboard

As a brand influencer, one of your most valuable assets is your ability to make meaningful connections between a consumer and a brand. However, this ability is rooted in your neutrality and the second you associate yourself with a brand, your position as neutral can turn hazy in light of your relationship with that brand.

From the moment people start to question the intent of your message, the hard-earned trust you built becomes compromised, and when the trust vacates, influence follows.

Every day I see social-media pros using their online influence to hock the next gizmo or gadget. Brands like Nokia , Microsoft and many other popular brands regularly send their new products to “influencers” in exchange for a blog, link or social media post. If you have any of these supposed influencers in your network, you immediately recognize this kind of activity when you see it.  The question is, does it make you feel differently about the product or the brand? In my experience, the answer is no.

Real Influence is Advocacy, Align Carefully

To make influence programs work, brands need advocates, not influence, or perhaps better yet they need influencers who are advocates.

In a recent study by Forrester it was found that consumers trust influencers (defined as bloggers, pundits and celebrities) at a rate of only 18%.  On the other hand, consumers trust “Brand Advocates” (defined as satisfied customer) at a rate of 92%(Nielsen), which is at the same trust level as a friend or family member.
 
- A Look At Consumer Trust Via Nielsen
Trust In Influence - Nielsen
 
This small difference in labeling terminology between influencer and advocate may very well be the difference from an influence campaign that flourishes and one that flounders.

However, as noted above, it goes beyond just terminology as perception moves into the equation.

If people perceive that a person truly loves a brand then they will likely see them as more of an advocate. Conversely, if they believe that the person is working with a product strictly for the financial benefit, the message is weakened by more than five times, as the advocacy shifts back to the less trusted influencer.

While some may believe that you can “fake” advocacy, most often the truth will surface in time. For instance, Alicia Keys would never use a Blackberry by choice, and for the more experienced members of our audience, Michael Jordan most likely didn’t really love his Chevy Blazer.

The Role of Transparency for Paid Advocates and Influencers

For those who seek to use their influence to make financial gains by helping companies grow, it is important that they seek to align with companies they truly believe in. And while to some extent this may limit their potential gains, the maintained integrity will payoff by providing real results for brands, and transparency to their community.

This also means that when you are paid to advocate for a brand, you are open and honest about it.

Most brands will require that hired influencers provide a disclaimer so readers know you are compensated.

Brands that are doing influence marketing well will often provide the disclosure but also seek to allow their influencers to deliver an unfiltered voice, meaning that even though they are paying for a person to associate with the brand, they aren’t dictating what you are sharing, rather they are seeking to do the following:

  • Build reader sentiment through connecting them to quality content (paid).
  • Come to their site (owned).
  • Keep the reader on their site where they convert them to the next level of the buyers journey (earned).

In the end, influencers must seek to connect to brands with the long term in mind. Their goals are to create awareness, build trust and improve their community’s sentiment toward a brand.

The moment a community sees intent as anything other than to educate and support their well being, the hard earned influence that an individual has is weakened which is precisely why influencers need to be very cautious in choosing brands with which to align.
 
This post was originally featured on Forbes and can be found here.

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