Influencer marketing. What was a disruptive buzzword a couple of years ago is marketing table stakes for most consumer brands today.
There are a number of reasons for this, but chief among them: The nature of social leveled the playing field, making it easier than ever for influential personalities to establish large audiences and easily publish content.
So how can today’s agencies stay one step ahead of the lackluster #spon crowd? By remembering what makes social a special medium: Diversity and relevance.
How macro-influence killed authenticity
The high visibility of social performance data has always made it easy to equate reach with success.
Agencies and clients alike got sucked in by the vanity metrics and the relative affordability of leveraging an influencer’s audience over buying more traditional media exposure. Many a successful social personality sacrificed what made them compelling—their voice, their visual style, their approachability, their uniqueness—in the service of brand dollars.
Most knew that these “partnerships” didn’t make sense for their personal brands, but they looked at the fee as a means to support the content they did want to create—you know, the content that drew their audiences to them in the first place.
This combination of clients willing to co-opt influencers as an alternative to digital media and influencers willing to sell their reach was lethal to authenticity because it failed to acknowledge the ability of the audience to smell a particularly stinky rat: Irrelevance.
Relevance to the rescue
Smart agencies are starting to realize that all of the reach generated by macro-influencers doesn’t necessarily translate into measurable business gains. That’s because research has shown time and time again that the closer the influencer or referrer is to the audience, the more powerful the recommendation.
Even if you don’t personally know someone, the degree to which it appears their life connects to yours seems to determine how influential you find them to be.
That’s why many are shifting their considerable influencer investments—expected to top $10 billion by 2020—to niche content creators who have smaller audiences but significantly more influence with them.
These so-called micro-influencers are often authoritative in a specific area and have “real lives” that feel more connected to those of their audiences. From beer brewing to camping and motherhood to motorcycle maintenance, smaller but highly engaged audiences are drawn to influencers who seem to know what they’re doing in an area that is of interest to your client’s target consumer.
And because these influencers are still living lives that resemble those of their audiences, there is room alongside their personal brands for the kinds of brand partnerships that make sense to them.
Relinquish control, it’s OK
Let’s be blunt: Doing influencer marketing well means giving up creative control of the messaging. Micro-influencers are highly protective of their personal brands, and it’s unlikely that your off-the-shelf brand content will fit the style, tone and appeal of the content on which they built their influence in the first place.
This means being open to content co-creation and, yes, to potential criticism or the dissolution of partnerships if the influencer doesn’t feel like he or she can authentically endorse your client’s products.
But in the end this is a good thing. If an influencer is not authentically feeling the brand or product, the content they create on your behalf will fall flat. Know when to walk away as confidently as they do.
Don’t forget the OG micro-influencers
The greater news for those agencies who choose to believe in the power of micro-influence: Your target audience’s peers are the most influential referrers of all. And you don’t have to do all of the legwork—82% of consumers proactively seek out recommendations from people they know before making a purchase.
All you have to do is make it easy for the people who already love your client’s brand to recommend it. Referral bonuses and codes are a low-risk, low-investment place to start.
Keep in mind, some of the most valuable micro-influencers are closer than you think. Your client’s employees are sometimes the brand’s biggest fans. Similar to the difference in how consumers interact with micro-influencers versus macro-influencers, employee advocates are widely considered twice as trustworthy as even CEOs or brand spokespeople.
Employee advocacy tools arm the people who are passionately engaged with the brands they represent with a simple way to amplify the message. It’s more effective in every aspect—cost, reach, sincerity and even clout—because your client’s brand has real, informed, believable people behind it.
So remember: Reach is nothing if you don’t make an impact. Rather than investing in the high-priced, low-relevance exposure offered by celebs and macro-influencers, consider investing your influencer spend on the focused authenticity offered by people closer to your client’s target audience.
Niche content creators, peer recommenders and even your client’s own employees can form a powerful network of informed, enthusiastic and authoritative advocates that has the potential to affect brand perception, recall and your client’s bottom line.
*A version of this article was originally published on Adweek on April 10, 2018