From Brownie Wise's brilliant Tupperware party model to an entire cottage industry built on mommy blogging, marketers have been benefiting from the power of customer advocates since the idea of a "marketing concept" first emerged. But as channels, technologies and consumer wants continue to evolve at warp speed, the practice of influencer relations has largely remained stagnant in recent years. We still tend to define influencers in "traditional" terms and influencer relationships as largely tactical and temporary. It's as if we settled into early 2.0 era definitions of what influencer marketing encompasses, ignoring all of the external shifts that are challenging and re-shaping these notions.
As we move deeper into a participatory economy, influencer engagement must adapt accordingly. With this should come a view of influencers as partners in the growth of our businesses and brands, as opposed to tactical pursuits or conduits for forced engagement. Influence is fluid and diverse and at it's best potent and authentic. It's beyond just the "blogger" or the prolific Twitter celeb. And now with so many channels from which influence is wielded, restricting one's influencer pool to the usual forums and formats is about as strategic as drawing targets out of a hat.
"Nothing spreads widely in the new digital economy unless it engages and serves the interests of both consumers and producers." - Henry Jenkins, Co-Author of Spreadable Media
So how does one modernize their approach to influencer relations?
Fundamentally, it starts with an understanding that influence relations is it's own discipline. It's not paid media and it's not earned media - no matter how much we try and force the expectation that it should be either. Ideally, it thrives on the principles of the "moral economy", where mutuality and reciprocity are the norms. It also acknowledges the powerful implications of the makers movement and sharing economy - and the reality that those same people you've known only as your customers, are quietly disrupting your entire business model.
For more practical purposes, I've put together 13 keys to a successful modern influencer program based largely on my own experiences and learnings over the years. I've found that the best campaigns are grounded in smart, audience-centric strategy, brought to life through partnerships that are both innovative and mutually rewarding. Admittedly easier said than done, but like any lasting relationship, well worth the investment in the end.
1. Define Your Goals:
From broadcasters to trendsetters, target influencer types based on the unique goals of your initiative. Are you looking to generate broad awareness? Seed a product? Launch a beta program? Focus on a particular region? Each of these scenarios demands a distinct type of influencer strategy and corresponding tactics.
2. Know Thy Audience:
Don't let preconceived assumptions or depthless demographics shape your understanding of your audience. Study their interests, their behaviors, their values and their vernacular, to understand how to authentically communicate with them and through the people they trust most.
3. Embrace Channel Agnosticism:
Yes many "influencers" happen to have blogs. But many more do not. When you arbitrarily determine channels and tactics before you've done the research and crafted a strategy, the channel by default becomes your obligation, not the audience or even the message. Cutting through the noise requires precision; of message, messenger and medium. Start with the right influencers and meet THEM in their digital habitats.
4. Remain Open:
An overly formal, boilerplate style pitch is like kryptonite to authentic partnerships. Begin a dialogue with your prospective influencer to find out what a meaningful pairing looks like from their vantage point, instead of leading with your agenda. Too many well-intended programs begin with pre-set partnership expectations, all before an actual conversation has even been initiated.
5. Be Flexible:
Your approach to an influential oncologist with a traditional blog is going to be much different than how you talk to a tattoo artist with cable TV show and dedicated Instagram following. And even within a single campaign, a one-sized approach rarely resonates unanimously. Develop partnership opportunities that can be leveraged across a wide array of influencer types and channels. And don't limit your outreach to only those who have a history of partnering with brands. Often they are the ones who become your most impassioned advocates.
6. Expect Ambiguity:
Predictability is for ad networks, not human beings. Start simply by initiating a real conversation where the aim is discovery. It may materialize into something that supports an immediate program or perhaps plants a seed for something down the road. As with traditional Public Relations, if there are bites you know you've got something but if there aren't, it's time to adjust your approach. And that should be perfectly okay.
7. Think Long(er) Term:
We've had the tendency to treat advocacy programs as short-term and incremental. But how might the quality of our relationships improve if we treated our influencers as long term partners? Nobody wants to be recalled only when they need something. You'd be quick to dismiss that kind of relationship in your personal life, so why shouldn't the same apply in business? Find opportunities to invest in what's important to the people you're looking to build strong, sustainable relationships with.
8. Put in Work:
Personal relationships aren't scaleable. And while there are plenty of "turnkey" solutions available, there's nothing that replaces personal, human connections. Simply put, if you want own the relationship, you've got to do the work. If you want someone else to do the work because you find it too cumbersome or difficult to justify, guess who now owns those relationships forged on your "behalf"? A handful of strong and loyal advocates will always trump an army of fair weather "fans".
9. Deliver Value:
Influencers don't need brands. Brands need influencers. Remember that before you craft another pitch with the expectation that anyone is interested in a one-sided relationship.
10. Remain Compliant:
If material consideration is being offered in exchange for an endorsement (implied or direct), the endorsee or influencer, must disclose. This is critically important to note when dealing with influencers who may not have worked with brands in the past - as is the case with many non-bloggers. It's up to you to provide instructions for how to disclose your relationship based on industry best practices and FTC guidelines.
11. Unleash Your Creativity:
Somewhere along the way "sponsored posts" became the defining engagement for what influencer programs were supposed to encompass. And while I'm not suggesting they are without value, they are just one of a multitude of methods through which partnerships can be brought to life. Don't be afraid to experiment beyond the confines of standard practice and design your own unique blueprint for successful partnering.
12. Amplify & Extend:
It's customary to declare "mission accomplished" as soon as outreach is complete, bargains met and posts tallied. Yet there are endless opportunities to extend influencer content through paid, earned and owned channels. When done right, these converged programs provide some of the best opportunities to bring scale to authentic and credible brand messages.
13. Get Offline:
The majority of word of mouth still happens in the "real world." But for whatever reason, analog influence is treated as a decidedly separate endeavor when really, the two should compliment one another. Influence so often begins at the local level - through community groups, cultural movements, professional organizations and the many other collectives built in person, around shared interests and values. Use your organization's local presence to build a comprehensive and diverse network of advocates that can be leveraged both on and off the web.