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Don't Be Fooled by Your Number of Followers: How to Really Wield Influence Beware of "vanity metrics." weed out the duds and and land the right ones for your brand.

By Erik Huberman Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


On social media, the top 3 percent of commentators provide 90 percent of the overall effect. However, it takes a very specific type of person to drive a narrative that influences a lot of people. The bottom line is this: These people are influential precisely because they're exceptions to the rule.

Consider the great swimmer Michael Phelps. During his second Olympic stint, at the London games, Phelps took home an awe-inspiring 22 medals. After announcing his retirement shortly thereafter, he remained a widely acknowledged hero, with endorsements pouring in.

But when he hit rock bottom two years later, his notoriety took a nose dive.

Paradoxical as it may seem, this waxing and waning of Phelps' star power is exactly what made his comeback in the 2016 Olympic games so compelling. He was no longer just a prodigy, lapping his way to record-setting medal counts, nor simply an underdog, beating the odds. Somehow, he was both. And that gave him a ton of influence.

So, what can you learn from this when you go looking for your own influencers? Assuming you can't get Michael Phelps, how do you find the influencers for your brand?

Related: 6 Ways to Avoid Hiring the Next Ryan Lochte

The elusive nature of real influence

Influencer marketing is growing rapidly, and brands that want to increase exposure (and sales) are taking note. In fact, 84 percent of marketers expect to launch an influencer campaign in the coming months. Of those who have done so already, 81 percent of those surveyed say it's effective.

As Phelps proved, being in the spotlight does not equal automatic influence. Forget vanity metrics, such as how many followers someone has online. The background story and nuances surrounding an influencer's status are far more critical and something you should examine before you try to land one to help raise awareness of your brand and boost sales.

Here are three important aspects to consider as you seek to integrate the power of an influencer into your company's marketing and branding initiatives:

1. Credibility trumps awareness.

The first thing to understand about influence is the difference between a large following and one that truly believes in what the influencer is touting. For the moment, at least, it's safe to assume that Phelps' followers would be excited about anything he put his name on.

On the flip side, consider Instagram sensation Jen Selter. With 6.4 million followers, it might be easy to assume she's a great influencer. But, in reality, most of her followers just like to see her take pictures of her butt all day long. They aren't necessarily girls looking for workout tips (which would be an attractive audience to target).

And, because "belfies" (butt selfies) don't really build credibility, Selter hasn't proven to be an influencer who can convert followers into customers for brands she's partnered with.

Credibility fluctuates according to audience, of course. At Hawke, we worked with Wilhelmina Models to launch pool raft company Floaty at Coachella. The models took pictures of themselves with the rafts at the festival to promote their partnership with Floaty. Their influence may not have been the right choice for every audience, but it was a great way to reach festivalgoers.

Related: How Influencer Marketing Moves Beyond Raising Awareness

2. A good influencer is hard to find.

Want a great influencer? You have some work to do. The easiest influencer to reach is not the one you want. Effective influencers know their endorsements have to be genuine. The minute they start promoting anyone who reaches out to them, they lose that authenticity.

Again, we aren't just talking about the Michael Phelpses of the world. Bestselling author Chris Gillebeau said in an interview that he gets between 200 and 300 emails every day, even though his audience is still pretty niche. Likely, a good portion of those messages are from people who want to leverage his influence to promote their companies, but Gillebeau says "yes" to very few of them.

After you identify which influencers you want on board, reaching them will take time. As with any other networking endeavor, you have to build rapport and trust. Engage with them on social media, positioning yourself as an expert in your brand's field and sharing valuable insights. Over time, the right influencers will begin to form natural partnerships with you.

3. Treat influencers as what they are -- assets.

An influencer is an asset you should leverage the same way you would a great piece of content. Stellar influencers can convert their fans into your customers, but you have to equip them to do the job right.

Our client, Beautycon, for example, ties each of its seasonal subscription boxes of beauty and lifestyle products to a specific influencer, whose Instagram and Facebook audiences will then see relevant ads about the boxe.

We also spread the assets that those influencers create, such as open-box review videos. Once we start acquiring a customer base from certain influencers and see what those influencers have in common, we can start building off of what works best.

Digital word-of-mouth advertising leads to twice as many sales as paid ones, resulting in a 37 percent higher retention rate. In this way, leveraging your influencers well definitely improves your odds of reaching those same high numbers.

Before you can start leveraging, though, you have to distinguish real influence from the noise and hype. Effective influencer marketing is born out of strategic alignment between their authentic credibility and what your company promises to deliver to its customers.

Related: 50 Online Marketing Influencers to Watch in 2016

Figure out who the true influencers are in your space, and don't be fooled by how many fans people have on social media. An influencer's authenticity, credibility and relevance mean more to your target audience than his or her potential reach.

Erik Huberman

Founder and CEO of Hawke Media

Erik Huberman is the founder and CEO of Hawke Media, a Los Angeles-area outsourced digital CMO agency for companies like Evite, Bally Total Fitness, Verizon Wireless, Eddie Bauer, Red Bull and many other brands. A serial entrepreneur and a brand and marketing consultant for eight years, Huberman previously founded, grew and sold Swag of the Month and grew’s sales to $1 million in four months. Huberman is available to be a keynote speaker.

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