The Answer to Influencer Marketing's Biggest Question Lies in Understanding Channels of Influence
Understanding this big-picture concept can help entrepreneurs build more strategic approaches.
The first and most frequent question I field from entrepreneurs about influencer marketing is, "How do I find the right influencers to use?"
Honestly, I'm happy that's the top-of-mind question for most. It shows they know that there is a "right" influencer, implying they also understand there's a "wrong" kind of influencer. But the question also exposes a lack of understanding of what influence marketing can be.
Notice the lack of an "r" in that last reference. Influencer marketing is what we've come to broadly understand as using those who use large followings on social media networks to steer their audiences toward trying, buying or thinking differently about our brands. As I explain in Winfluence: Reframing Influencer Marketing to Ignite Your Brand, we need to drop the "r" and think of influence in a more holistic way.
The informed entrepreneur is going to ask that question slightly differently. They're going to ask this, "What channel of influence is right for my business?"
What is a channel of influence?
Think about the different ways a given business can drive revenue. For a consumer brand, you can go direct-to-consumer with ecommerce, phone or mail-order services. You can offer product direct to retailers, who then reach consumers. Then there are distributors in given industries that make sure your product is widely available to retailers. You may also develop co-branded opportunities to offer your product exclusively to the customers of other brands, and so on.
Each of those options is a sales (outbound) or revenue (inbound) channel. Now put that channel construct through the filter of influence rather than sales. You can go direct-to-consumer with influence and build a content platform of information and engagement that entices the customers into an environment where they can purchase.
Home Made Simple, the Oprah Network show hosted by Laila Ali, started as a blog about smart ideas for homemakers. And now the brand has also spun out a best-selling book. The whole platform is funded by Proctor & Gamble as an effort to influence the audience to buy now Home Made Simple-branded cleaning products. The products used in the content were originally Febreeze, Cascade, Dawn, Swiffer and Mr. Clean.
Your business can also create influence through others with influence. This can be through traditional media outreach, where Southern Living, Conde' Nast Traveller or The Wall Street Journal write about you as a result of public-relations efforts. But that influence can also be achieved via social media influencers who perusasively incorporate your product into their content. This is how we have been conditioned to think of influencer marketing.
Association with industry analysts and thought leaders is a slight variation on that channel of influence. For B2B companies, a blogger writing about you might be good. An industry report from McKinsey, Gartner or Forester is probably better.
But remember that influence can come from anyone. Another channel of influence is your employees. Those closest to your brand are those most likely to champion you to those they influence.
Cornett, the agency where I work, had a very successful influence-marketing activation around launching a brand film for the University of Kentucky HealthCare system. The linchpin of its success was engaging many of the University system's 12,000-plus employees to watch, like, comment and share the content on their social networks.
And then there's the big one: your customers themselves. AdoreMe.com, a direct-to-consumer women's wear brand, invites enthusiastic customers into its Creator Program. For each post reviewing or promoting the company's products, the customer earns gift cards to buy more items.
Ranjan Roy, AdoreMe.com's vice president of strategy, discussed the company's approach in depth on my podcast. He said the brand tried the generally accepted version of influencer marketing and partnered with a few influencers that had significant online followings but the return just wasn't there.
"On one side, we were not realizing the ROI," he explained. "We're a very data- and metric-driven company. But on the other, it just did not feel true to the brand."
Roy said a more true approach emerged as more customers reached out explaining they were aspiring influencers and wanted to partner with AdoreMe. By merging the two concepts of influence, the Creator Program emerged.
Deciding What's Right for Your Brand
Providing customers with discounts and gift cards works for a fashion brand like AdoreMe.com, whose body-positive and sustainability efforts often spark passion for the company beyond product satisfaction. But it may not work for lower-cost, commodity products, professional services or B2B consumers. Or brands. Your company's goals, timing, end game and beyond will affect which channels are more fruitful for driving awareness, trial and even revenue.
But recognizing that influence doesn't just have to be reliant upon Instagrammers and YouTubers can help you tap into more strategically sound ways to persuade your target audience. And that's easier to accomplish when you're thinking about influence as a verb (influence) rather than a noun (influencer).
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