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If you’ve researched online marketing strategies lately—or even if you’re a mainstream consumer—chances are you’ve seen the phrase “influencer marketing” (or at least “influencer”) thrown around. It seems to be the buzzword of the moment, but what it is and why it works is a bit more complex than what this simple term might suggest.
As a brief refresher, influencers are people who have created an audience in a distinct niche on one or more social media platforms. Though often associated with Instagram, influencers may also have wildly popular blogs or YouTube channels. Influencers can be useful to small business owners because of the reach a partnership can afford.
If you’re curious about influencer marketing and want to dig deeper, then you’re in the right place. We’ve researched social networks and influence to explain the principles behind why influencer marketing works, and how you can harness these theories to give your business a leg up over your competition.
Here, we’ll cover:
Let’s get to it.
In order to implement a solid influencer marketing strategy, it’s helpful to know how and why influencer marketing works in the first place. It’s also useful to know the basics behind social influence (i.e., the goal of marketing) so that you can more easily adapt to ever-changing technology and trends.
“Network effects” may sound abstract, but in business, the term simply refers to a product or service that becomes more valuable as more people use it.
For example, Twitter becomes more valuable as more people use it, because the point of the platform is to facilitate conversations and information exchange. The more people that are on the platform, the more conversations that can occur. It becomes more valuable from a commercial standpoint, too, as the more people use the platform, the more data Twitter has. This data can reveal social patterns and other habits that Twitter and other companies can then use to improve their businesses.
The pitfall in platforms that rely on network effects is that once enough people join, saturation and congestion can occur. To imagine how this works, think about the life cycle of cities. They start out with a few pioneers and their businesses. As the businesses grow, they begin to attract more people to the city. Soon enough, the city is a bustling hub, but housing shortages, traffic, high prices, and other problems arise.
Network effects work similarly. At first, the larger a network grows, the more valuable it is. However, over time, congestion occurs, which is where we are now with content marketing saturation. That’s why there’s so much buzz around “cutting through the noise.” The way around it is to find smaller networks and influence them, which we’ll go over in the next section.
Social influence and network effects tend to be intertwined, though they’re different principles.
There are a lot of theories on how social influence works, but we’re going to focus specifically on how it’s diagrammed. It’s a good foundation to start with, and makes it easier to visualize how change spreads.
From a technical perspective, social relations (friend groups, families, interest groups, etc.) form shapes that look like networks. The shape of these networks can help determine who has influence, who doesn’t, and who is susceptible to influence within each group. The “kite structure” maps out just one way that social influence works in these networks. Under this structure, there are three places that point to people with the most influence.
In the kite structure, the most obvious influencer is the person who holds position D. This individual is at the center of the network, and they’re connected to everyone in the main cluster—so they have the most power to change the most opinions. Thought leaders sit at this position.
Position H is another key influencer in this network. That’s because H is the “information broker” between the main group and the two outliers, I and J. Basically, if you can influence the person at position H, then change will effectively hop over to influence other groups. So, if you’re looking to reach two groups with your message, then H is your influencer.
Finally, the people at the F and G positions are important because they have the shortest paths to all members of the network, including the outlying members. Because of this, they are best positioned to understand the opinions and attitudes of the entire group—and to spread gossip. If you want to have a good understanding of your target group, then these are the influencers you want to talk to.
So, how do ideas actually spread within networks?
In a recent study, researchers identified influential and susceptible members within networks—or, members who could spread ideas and members who were open to receiving those ideas, respectively. The researchers found that influential members were harder to convince of new ideas, while susceptible members could change their minds with little resistance. It also found that influential members were not susceptible, and vice versa.
What this means is that truly influential people are hard to please and slow to change their minds. This makes them trusted sources of information. Susceptible people, while open to your ideas, won’t be much help in spreading them for you. This might be hard to spot in your influencer search, but one tactic might be to look for people with a very strong message and little deviation.
At this point, you might be wondering whether influencer marketing can work for your business. In practice, influencer marketing isn’t just a buzzword or a theory; it’s really a method of better targeting your marketing campaigns. So, yes, it can probably work for your business!
Of course, you might not want to rely solely on influencer marketing. Rather, the principles should be applied to create better-targeted and more effective marketing campaigns. Influencer marketing also has a place within an overall marketing strategy.
All that said, how you prioritize influencer marketing will depend on your business, and there are also effective and less effective ways to run a campaign. Here are some tips.
In reality, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to pinpoint exactly where someone sits in a social network unless you’re using incredibly advanced analytics—but you can still leverage the principles behind social influence to implement an effective influencer marketing strategy.
Although networks and social influence phenomena can be leveraged to inform a variety of marketing techniques, we’re going to focus on social media. These platforms mimic real-life social patterns most closely—and, perhaps more importantly, social media platforms are among the most accessible, low-cost, and effective marketing tools available to small business owners.
Your first course of action should be to determine which social media platforms you should use for your influencer marketing campaign, based on what works best for your business.
Start by figuring out which platforms you have the most reach and engagement on, and don’t be afraid to audit any existing accounts. There are plenty of small business social media statistics out there to help you decide which platforms you should focus on to reach the widest possible audience.
For influencer marketing specifically, though, one study found that influencers on Instagram tend to be the most powerful—in fact, almost 50% of Instagram users said that their purchase decisions were swayed by influencers on their feeds—so it can’t hurt to test out your first influencer marketing campaign there.
Next, set your goals. What are you looking to gain from an influencer marketing campaign? Impressions? Clicks? Conversions?
Once you know what you’re hoping to accomplish, you can set a budget for how much you’re willing and able to pay an influencer for your brand. This also lets you think about how to reward influencers. For example, you may consider an upfront payment in addition to commission for any sales made.
You may be able to list some influencers off the top of your head, but it’s unlikely that they’re attainable from a financial or logistical standpoint. Also keep in mind that they might not be in your niche, meaning they won’t actually help you spread your business’s message to the right people.
When you’re choosing influencers to work with your business, there are four main traits you should look for: niche, reach, engagement, and reputation.
Influencer niche is important because you want to be sure it aligns with yours. In other words, any influencer you choose needs to resonate with your particular audience. For instance, asking a finance expert to help you advertise your skincare line probably won’t go over well with your customer base—partnering with a beauty blogger would work much better.
Reach is also an important factor, because it’ll affect how many people actually see your message. For instance, an influencer with 500 followers will help you reach more people than an influencer with just 50. (Of course, an influencer with more reach will be more expensive, and possibly harder to win over than one with less.)
Reach isn’t everything, though; engagement is also a critical measure to take into account. If an influencer has thousands of followers, but those followers don’t interact regularly with their account, then that influencer might not have the loyal following you need. If they can’t engage their followers with their own message, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to meaningfully promote yours.
Reputation is the last thing to consider when finding an influencer. Some influencers have a loyal following but alienate many others. If the influencer you want to engage can be divisive, consider the fact that you may rub potential or existing customers the wrong way. Nike reportedly had this dilemma when they made Colin Kaepernick the face of a campaign, but they ultimately decided to proceed with the partnership. Gauge your audience, then decide what kind of influencer they’ll respond to.
Once you’ve hired your influencer (or influencers), you’ll need to nurture the relationship. Keep in mind that influencers are business people just like you, with a job to do and a reputation to uphold.
As such, treat any influencers you work with the same as you would any other important business partners. They deserve the creative space and necessary information to promote your brand honestly on their platform. They also deserve to be paid fairly and in a timely manner.
After implementing your influencer marketing campaign, measure the results against your original goals to gauge whether it’s worth repeating. Did you get more followers, impressions, leads, clicks, or sales? Calculate your ROI, too. What results did you get for the time and money?
Once you’ve assessed your results, you’ll have an idea of what worked and how to proceed next time. Rinse and repeat the steps for the next campaign. Once you’ve done a few, you’ll have an idea of who and what works for your brand, and you will be able to further refine your strategy.
When seeking influencers, beware of the fake influencer! There are plenty of ways for individuals to fake a following. People can buy followers and likes or engage in other spammy tactics that make them look like they have an engaged following when they actually don’t.
To avoid working with these people, be sure to check engagement rate. A simple but time-intensive way to do this is to divide their follower count by the average number of likes and comments per post. According to Scrunch, average engagement on Twitter is 0.06%, and the 99th percentile is 2.7%. For Instagram, those numbers are 2.7% and 17.8%, respectively.
Also check out who their followers are and who is engaging with their account. Engagement, though harder to fake, still can be manipulated with fake followers and likes. If you find any followers or activity that raise red flags, err on the side of safety and don’t engage.
The second pitfall is much more complicated, as it involves legal and ethical issues. The Federal Trade Commission requires that any sponsored content be clearly disclosed and labeled. One way to do this is to be sure the influencer you’re working with mentions that the post is sponsored or includes “#ad” in the copy. However you decide to disclose the partnership, be sure that it is clear and transparent.
Influencer marketing has a lot of buzz around it, but the reasoning behind how and why it works is timeless: Understanding that social networks have the power to change minds and persuade people to take certain actions has always been at the core of marketing. But with social media and the internet, your campaigns need to be better targeted to be effective. Influencer marketing is an excellent way of reaching exactly the audience you want.
Influencer marketing can require a bit of guesswork and adjustment when you first get started. Hopefully, these steps have provided you with a solid foundation that you can learn and grow from. The marketing biz changes quickly, but these main concepts will mostly hold true. Now go out there and influence some customers!