Trying to convince online influencers to tweet, blog, instagram, or pin nice things about your company is the post-modern version of celebrity endorsement, but with less impact.
Public relations firms and/or in-house communication apparatchiks take the same concepts and mechanics of celebrity endorsement and bring them online, using Klout scores in lieu of celebrity Q scores, and blogger ID software like Group High in place of Hollywood agents.
The idea is that once drafted into the cause and compensated in some way, online influencers will spread the word in social media to their acolytes, increasing sales for the brand. But these programs often prove ineffective at driving behavior beyond social chatter.
There are two reasons for this.
Reasons Why Online Influencer Outreach is Overrated
First , we tend to confuse audience with influence. Having a lot of Twitter followers or a "large" blog readership doesn't inherently make a person influential in any way. It gives them an audience. True influence drives action, not just awareness, and very few online demi-celebrities have enough juice to drive action in droves.
Second, as influencer outreach programs like this become more rampant, especially in hot verticals like Mom and Dad and tech blogs, readers and followers start to turn a jaundiced eye toward the endorsement itself. Do we actually believe that Tiger Woods' misanthropic butt ever graces the seat of a Buick without a camera crew present? Of course not. Similarly, do we actually believe that certain bloggers and Twitter celebs have true passion for some of the things they are endorsing? Less and less so, I'm afraid.
I'm not suggesting that influencer outreach is useless or should be abandoned. But, it's not magic beans. It needs to be looked at for what it actually is - the top of the funnel component of a larger program to generate awareness AND behavior using social media and content marketing.
The Two Dimensions of Online Influence
There are two dimensions on the scale of online influence: audience and advocacy. Online audience is simple math and isn't conditional. The size of a person's online audience is knowable and isn't impacted by the brand, the program, or anything else. It's like the wattage of a radio station.
Advocacy is a temperature scale and is wholly conditional. How fervently a person advocates on behalf of a brand varies widely based on their true passion for the product, their knowledge of the category, how and if they've been compensated (unfortunate, but true), and other factors.
We overrate audience and underrate advocacy.
A year ago, Chris Brogan did a video review of a leather jacket sent to him by Wilson. Wilson was probably ecstatic. They got coverage on one of the largest business advice blogs in America, for the price of one jacket.
But did anyone buy a jacket as a result? I don't know. Chris' review was positive, but not glowing (modest advocacy), and Chris is not known as a jacket guy, fashion blogger, or a frequent reviewer of consumer products (modest advocacy). The post generated 128 tweets and 17 comments (about 250% less than Chris gets on an average post). I'll wager that the ChrisBrogan.com AUDIENCE was made aware of the jacket, but that Chris' INFLUENCE didn't translate (in this case).
You can't live on audience alone, you need true advocacy, too. And the source of that advocacy is right under your nose.
Don't Let the Audience Tail Wag the Advocacy Dog
In their excellent book "Brains on Fire," Geno Church, Spike Jones, Robbin Phillips, and Greg Cordell write extensively about brands that create sustainable movements of passion that are built and powered not by influencers, but by real customers. These are the people who may score low on audience, but are off-the-charts on advocacy. And until you've tapped into the passion that your current customers have for your product or service, why are you even bothering with influencer outreach?
You need to identify and activate the passion for your brand. Don't just collect your fans like baseball cards, help them DO something! Your Facebook page isn't a place to create new customers from thin air, it's a clubhouse. It's the place where your current, passionate fans should be enabled and encouraged to go from like to love, to grow their personal and collective advocacy, with your brand cheering them on and giving them passion-worthy access and assignments.
What's going to influence more behavior? A tepid vote of confidence from an online celeb, or overwhelming statements of support from dozens, hundreds, or thousands of actual customers who have experienced the product over the long haul and LOVE it?
Start with Advocacy
The FIRST part of your influence campaign should be to find those raving fans, get them into the same online room (and hopefully, offline too) and give them the sandbox and the encouragement to become volunteer ambassadors. This isn't solely the domain of consumer products, either. If you're a viable company - of any size, shape, type, or description - you have passionate fans. If you didn't, you wouldn't be in business.
You can even use those fans to help run your business, like Needle is doing. They help you find your best and most educated customers, and put them to work as online chat agents, answering questions and creating sales.
Then Find an Audience
Once you've activated your fans, your SECOND job is to throw gas on the advocacy fire by making people with inherent audience aware of what you're doing. But the trick is not to ask influencers to cover the product, but rather to ask them to cover the movement.
Imagine if the Chris Brogan video was him talking about this amazing online community where Wilson leather jacket owners from around North America upload photos from their motorcycle rides, and give each other advice about the best gear, scenic views, and places to picnic. Chris could have interviewed some of the community members via Skype, or gone on a ride with them on a Saturday. I guarantee a post like that would have generated more clicks, more tweets, AND more jacket purchases.
Make influencers a part of your movement, even temporarily, and they'll understand the brand and its worth far greater than if you just invite them on a factory tour or send them free product. That translates to an endorsement from a perspective of greater knowledge, insight, and feeling. The audience stays large, but the advocacy quotient goes way up. The result = influence, not just idle chatter.
In the comments, give me some examples of companies that are using social media to activate passionate fans, and I'll write a follow up post with your best ideas.