New changes to Facebook (Facebook Zero) have made it nearly impossible for brands to get their content into fans' feeds without paying for placement, which has reaffirmed the importance of connecting with influencers, people who can spread your buzz "organically."
The truth is that influencer marketing is nothing new. In fact, it predates nearly all other forms of advertising.
In his book Return On Influence, Mark W. Schaeffer traces influencer marketing starting with B.T. Babbitt giving samples of his soap to city housewives. He cites other early word-of-mouth successes such as Jell-O - which built a word-of-mouth influencer base using free cookbooks and door-to-door cooking demonstrations.
As television became prominent, the idea of the influencer was replaced by the idea of the ad guru - that people would believe whatever brands told them to believe. The rise of social media, however, brought traditional advertising to its knees and put a renewed emphasis on the importance of citizen influencers. Now, we rarely visit restaurants or stay at hotels without seeing what others have to say about them via Yelp or TripAdvisor or buy products without reading reviews online.
FROM THE LIVING ROOM TO THE MAINSTREAM
For the past 50 or so years, an undercurrent of influencer marketing has been happening in people's living rooms. Tupperware and Mary Kay Cosmetics are empires built on the concept of friends inviting friends over to try out products.
"This business is all about relationships," says Alison Miller McNamara, Independent Executive Director of Thirty-One Gifts, an influencer-based customized handbag and accessory business.
"One of the reasons I chose to sell Thirty-One is because I use the products all of the time," she says. "My friends always see me carrying my bag, so when they comment on it, it makes it easy to bring up a conversation about the product and why I love it and think they would too. While my friends and family helped me to start my business, I worked to get outside of my circle so that I now find my customers at my parties and do not need to rely on family and friends to keep my business going. Even your family and friends will have friends you do not know, and turning a stranger into your next hostess then opens up the door to her entire group of friends, which in turn leads to your next hostess."
Now, the concept of the "Tupperware party" has enveloped all businesses. Now that word of mouth can spread so rapidly, every purchase decision is affected by our influencers - friends, family and trusted experts - as opposed to brands themselves.
THE DECLINE OF THE GREAT POWERS
To a salesperson like McNamara, influencers have always been important. Brands like Budweiser and McDonald's, by contrast, seem to have floundered in the new post-television world of marketing.
These two brands have seen increasing erosion of profits and market share. While changing public tastes are partly to blame, I would attribute the changes in some respects to the decline of the big broadcast advertising model, where the only things we knew about brands were from the brands themselves. Social media turned the tables - now people were the ones defining the brand.
I would give the arrival of the internet and social media some credit for the rise of craft beers. Now people were able to see other options, and a new truth was revealed to the masses: we don't have to drink shit beer, and Budweiser is shit beer. Now, as sales decline, Bud clings the old model, flooding the television airwaves with wacky dogs and hot women.
"Why has Budweiser continually invested gigantic sums of money to do ads that are constructed at every stage to win a popularity contest like the USA Today ad meter?" asks Bob Garfield, author of the book Can't Buy Me Like, in a recent interview I did for Orange magazine. "It is one of the great mysteries of the universe. There is almost no benefit to doing that because there is no correlation - at all - between how cute you think puppies are and whether you are going to buy a six-pack. It just doesn't exist."
Similarly, McDonald's claims of 100% real beef burgers fell flat once people knew the truth of pink slime. In the past, McDonald's would tell you what they wanted you to believe you were getting. Now, they can't control the message.
"I can give you many reasons why CMOs continue to pay more and more in TV buys for less and less," Garfield noted. "It's always been done, it's easy to quantify ROI - even if those numbers are substantially bogus - it's easy for the client to see the output of your work, and its easy to believe that you're still in control of your image and your reputation, which brands no longer are."
REACHING OUT TO YOUR BRAND INFLUENCERS
"I'd estimate that 95% of my sales comes from direct interaction, either from meeting someone at a party, craft fair or vendor event," McNamara says. "When I first started my business, I invested quite a bit in advertising, both online and in newspapers. I have since learned that developing a positive relationship with my hostesses and customers is the best advertising I can do, because they will refer friends and family to me."
Your brand needs to build bridges just as McNamara does. That means that every employee of your brand is in customer service. People talk, and social media amplifies; it only takes one bad experience to get your brand a bad rap (see United Breaks Guitars). On the other hand, good experiences are regularly shared as well. Pay attention to who the influencers are in your brand's circles - more than ever, those customers are in control of your brand's fortunes.
Finding your brand's trusted influencers is nothing new, but it has taken on a new importance in the social era. You need to engage and celebrate your fans, rather than hiding behind an impersonal wall of advertising.
What Schaeffer notes about Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, is applicable to all business in the social sphere. He notes that her model "tapped directly into the likability aspect of the influencer model by making the housewife, the PTA mom, and the card party host the hero of the sales program. Wouldn't housewives buy more from their friends than from a stranger knocking at the door?"