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Wendell Berry once wrote that, “It is, in fact, the nature of the electronic media to blur and finally destroy all distinctions between public and community.” I’ve written numerous times over the years about why brands shouldn’t treat social media as a passing fad; that brands should move away from thirty second spots and move into creating original content. Wendell’s concerns about the loss of “community” are at the heart of what brands and agencies sometimes misunderstand about digital marketing: that community and social shouldn’t be afterthoughts – they’re all that matter.

Influencer marketing is hardly the only important element in digital marketing strategies. We generally consider a recipe of: creative + audience + talent. With the recent election it is interesting to compare that between Facebook and Twitter, Donald Trump currently has over 46 million followers compared to Hillary Clinton’s 23 million. I believe when I checked Trump’s reach in November it was 33 million, meaning he’s gained 13mm followers in the past in the past 4 months!? That isn’t to say that reach is all that matters in order to get votes (or orders, or downloads, etc). But it does certainly matter some, and it begs an explanation for the difference between “celebrity” or “star” or “influencer.”

What Is An Influencer?

A mentor and one of the smartest people I’ve met, Aaron Ray, explains the difference between influencer and celebrity this way (I am paraphrasing him): “Tom Cruise. What does he stand for? Who does he represent? What does he own? He does not have a fan-base. His projects do or don’t, but Top Gun would make a better show with a different cast. An influencer is not hired to do a job. They set a path and it becomes a job. The purpose of influence is to drive awareness through the noise, give credibility and curate a lifestyle so well that people ask you to tell them what and how.”

Aaron is one of those guys who always seems to see around corners and is equally effective in the most intense corporate boardroom situations as he is at an inner city basketball park. We were discussing a very high level, but problematic, project when something he said really resonated with me (still paraphrasing): “The idea of influence is nothing new. You didn’t pay $20 million to Tom Cruise because he had real influence. You paid them because they had influence in a specifically controlled and highly protected business. But in reality, there are no “movie stars” anymore.

“Psy, PewDieDie and The Rock are global businesses. Tom Cruise can’t drive passion nor do you know what he stands for. On the other hand, Maverick should have done a deal with RedBullTV flying a stealth jet with Elon Musk and opened a “need for speed” themed high end sports bar chain. HE has fans. Top Gun is a lifestyle. No one is going to be fanatical after just 90 mins of a movie anymore. You need to be on point – all the time.”

Endorsement marketing is nothing new. Paying bloggers for sponsored posts was one of the earliest forms of online influencer marketing and is still cited as one of the most trusted forms of online recommendation along with customer reviews. We’ve come a long way since YouTube was founded in 2005 and the multichannel networks followed. Everyone is their own media company now. Everyone wants to be a thought leader and build their own personal brand.

Today there are dozens of bots to choose from that will increase your followers on Instagram by setting it to like or comment on all photos with certain hashtags. A service like this wouldn’t be something I would suggest to one of my clients, but if you weren’t on the “suggested users to follow” list when a new platform launched and you don’t have other notable press or a large media budget, it can be a tough road to get to influencer status on certain sites. On LinkedIn there are less than 500 people in the world with the influencer badge. The most effective way to build a following is by generating quality original content and promoting it strategically. Another great way to build an audience is to leverage an already existing one with complementary themes. You make a video with Paula Abdul’s stylist and you may be able to tap into Paula’s audience.

Finding the Right Influencers:

Identifying and curating influencer suggestions for a brand or campaign is where most influencer marketing companies fit in right now. Some claim to use data, while some have other rationale for how they suggest talent for branded campaigns. At the end of the day, coming up with the list of suggested talent for a specific campaign is the biggest part of this process. Reaching out to influencers and contracting them once a brand has signed off is not overly complicated or proprietary. That said, reviewing their content and having it posted on time is a managed service that certainly provides value.

My point is that many companies will just have a handful of young interns pulling lists of influencers or doing searches on their phone, while others can pitch that IBM’s Watson is doing all the heavy lifting to ensure that your hashtag is trending during halftime at the Superbowl. I’ve even seen agencies ask one influencer company for a list, and then take that list to another influencer company to execute the campaign.

Like many companies in this space, Corduroy subscribes to a platform called SocialEdge, which is where I took the screenshots of Trump and Clinton’s reach and engagement rates at the top of this article. As far as a CRM and easy interface to generate sales sheets and campaign wrap-up reports, I haven’t seen anything better. Engagement is something many people don’t really consider when looking at someone’s page, but if they have a million followers and no one is commenting, something might be off.

Another platform we use for influencer discovery is called Intelligence Machine. This lets us pull the top earned videos for any brand and also find the topics and creators who upload the best performing video content for that brand. This means we can search for Pepsi and be able to see who the top dozen influencers are in the United States for videos with “Pepsi” in the tags (in terms of reach and engagement). This sort of data is more geared toward large brands, bigger influencers and wider reach and focused on YouTube and Facebook.

Strategies

Sometimes influencers with a smaller reach are better for long-term engagements. A high-end fashion brand with narrow audience would be better suited to a small influencer with a niche audience rather than going for mass promotion. Paying a Kardashian for a tweet may make some on your team feel relevant, but the click-through rate is probably going to be horrible. Smaller to medium size influencers arguably have more loyal fans who are more likely to engage with recommendations or integrations.

Ultimately, you want to be able to marry an influencer to a brand, like Nike did with Michael Jordan. This way they are as invested in the success of your product as you are. If you focus on a one-time promotion and your app gets some downloads, there’s nothing to retain them as monthly active users. But if you get Miley Cyrus to use the app exclusively for “x” purpose and she’s promoting it somehow on an ongoing basis, more people are likely to continue using it as well. To this end, some even say that the line between brand and influencer is blurring already.

An example influencer campaign I worked on was for a gaming console leading up to the product launch. The first phase of integrations was for a dozen or so of the top technology reviewers and unboxers on YouTube. This got the search algorithms to rank the videos of sponsored product reviews higher in search before the product was even launched. After the product launched we then had integrations with broader channels with bigger audiences and just had them mention using the console without making their entire videos about it. This helped on the awareness side of the funnel, which sent people searching online to do their own research and find the product reviews from phase one of our campaign.

On Public Opinion:

Of course likes don’t always equal sales, but if I hear one person tell me a new movie is good and I should go to the theater and see it, I’ll consider it. But if a dozen people I respect all tell me within the span of a few days that I should go see it, I’m much more likely to be convinced.

It could be argued that ours is simply a culture of immediate gratification and narcissism, and that we are just further enabling that by rewarding social media stars for posting selfies. It could also be argued that social media is often the cause of more distraction than progress, and as Wendell Berry said, it will “destroy all distinctions between public and community” if it hasn’t already.