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What is "Influencer Marketing" Really?

What is "Influencer Marketing" Really? | Social Media Today"Influencer marketing" is a term being used a lot in online marketing circles these days. On any given day, you can find a Twitter chat focused on it, read a blog about someone’s experience with it, and if you're a CPG brand, undoubtedly you've had a company pitch you on one of their “influencers” you can pay to work with.

Fourteen years ago, I had just graduated, and immediately got a job working at what is still one of the largest and coolest companies. In those days, influencer marketing was simple – you paid a celebrity, and they endorsed your brand. This could be through billboards, commercials, ads, appearances or a combination of all of these things. We weren’t the only brand doing this, all the brands that could afford to did it.

And it worked. Kids saw their favorite sports stars drinking something, they asked their parents to go buy it for them. They did, and sales for the brand went up. Marketing had “worked.”

However, it didn’t work for me.

There was a pretty big Major League Baseball star at the time who had an endorsement with a beverage company (not my brand) that had a similar product to what we sold. His image was everywhere - you couldn’t go down most streets without seeing his face, smiling while enjoying one of their products.

Ironically, this endorser didn’t actually drink those products. How do I know? Because I once went with a co-worker to meet him in a dark alley, where we delivered our product to him. He oculdn’t be seen drinking our brand, it would have been a breach of contract with the company he was currently endorsing.

I immediately became skeptical of him, and the whole idea of "celebrity marketing". At the time, no one was talking about “transparency” or “authenticity” but I noticed that this was anything but. Celebrity marketing took quite a long time to die down, but with the increasing rise of “influencer marketing,” it has begun to tail off. People are now looking more to people they know and trust when seeking new products or brands to follow, rather than looking to celebrities, and mimicking what we see them doing.

The more you read or listen to people talk about influencer marketing, the more you realize that almost everyone seems to have their own version of what it means.

It’s subjective, just as what an influencer actually is, or who it might be. It’s personal to each of us. Someone that incites me to action, might not never make you change a habit or behavior, or adopt a new one.

Marketers have long been aware that word-of-mouth is one of the biggest tools in our marketing toolkit. As social media has grown, and become more widely adopted, we've been given even more resources to use this tool, and amplify the voices recommending our brands. People trust people they look up to, or those that “influence” them.

Influencer marketing, to me, is a form of marketing where brands and companies target individuals with influence to affect change in buying patterns or habits over other people. As we’ve seen, where those individuals used to only be celebrities and pro-athletes, today anyone can have just as large an impact. It’s not follower numbers that determine someone’s influence on a given social network, but rather someone that people trust.

Influencers are people that have strong feelings about something or an affinity to a certain company and a good relationship with others, where people know this person knows their stuff. It’s a matter of finding people with credibility. Quite simply, influencer marketing is developing a mutually beneficial relationship with people that help create visibility for your company or brand.

Influencer marketing is closely tied to content marketing. In today’s world, consumers are becoming more aware of being “marketed to” and tend to trust peer recommendations over branded content. This means that you're more likely to have content shared on behalf of your brand if it comes from an “influencer” than if you posted the exact same content on your company blog.

Who are these influencers, then? The way I find influencers is by looking for a certain number of factors:

  • People who engage with me in the communities I choose to be in, and say things of value - thought leaders or people that look like “experts” to me
  • Someone who has an audience they actively work with
  • Authenticity – no matter what they are talking about, they do it with authority and don’t change or sway from their beliefs with every new thought. They aren’t saying things simply because they’re paid to say them - the majority of their tweets don’t have #ad after them - and they aren’t compromising themselves in a ploy to gain more followers

Does every brand need to employ influencer marketing? I believe that every brand could use influencer marketing in some form, but "need" is a strong word. Smart marketers have always known that the more people talking about a product or brand or service, the more people find out about it, gaining new audiences in a variety of places traditional marketing wouldn’t hit. Influencer marketing is nothing new, it’s just another piece of marketing with a new name and new importance.

It’s just important to learn how the audience you're trying to reach wants to receive messages, and what they respond best to.

The more tactics you have, the better off you will be when trying to reach your ultimate goals.

Main image via Alan O'Rourke/Flickr

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