Updated on August 1, 2016
This cartoon by Tom Fishburne, published a few days ago, is a pretty good reminder of what differentiates influencer marketing from many other kinds of marketing where, in the latter case, ‘big’ tends to be what matters.
It seems to me that the term ‘influencer marketing’ is used by many people as a synonym for ‘mass marketing’ where the prime question is “how many?” instead of “who are they?” This is especially so where social media is concerned, where far too much attention is paid to the word ‘media’ (as in ‘mass media’) instead of ‘social.’
The Wikipedia definition of influencer marketing couldn’t be clearer:
Influencer marketing (also influence marketing) is a form of marketing that has emerged from a variety of practices and studies, in which focus is placed on specific key individuals (or types of individual) rather than the target market as a whole. It identifies the individuals that have influence over potential buyers, and orients marketing activities around these influencers.
I have a definition that’s even simpler:
Influencer marketing is the ability to connect effectively with people who are able to influence others in their circle.
In essence, what this means is identifying and connecting with individuals who have built an online network, a trusted community, of other individuals who share a common and passionate interest about a topic or a thing, which they talk about a lot.
Those conversations aren’t just idle chit-chat, though: they tend to be ongoing discussion that demonstrates an individual’s passion, knowledge, expertise, experiences, thought leadership – call it what you will – about the topic or thing that those engaging in conversation are willing to share what they hear and learn with their own networks, citing the individual and circumstances in which they heard what they share.
When this state of affairs is repeated over time, you might have a network or community of influence typically centered around an individual or group of individuals upon which you, the influencer marketer, can foster, nurture and build a network of trust.
None of this is new, by the way – it’s a human behaviour we’ve been doing for decades if not centuries in activities ranging from general communication to acts of persuasion that relies on a belief in the originator of the message, an act of trust. We call it “word of mouth.”
The Missing Link
What is different today is the increased scale and scope of our connectivity, and massively greater numbers of aware people with whom to engage, and the means we have to communicate with almost anyone on the planet wherever they happen to be with a mobile device and an internet connection.
This means we need to employ greater precision in how we identify individuals to engage with, and how we engage.
I recall the rosy days of a decade ago when finding someone at the centre of online conversation about, say, extreme snowboarding, was a matter of googling keywords, adding filters, finding bloggers from the search results, consulting Technorati, BlogPulse and a small number of other online tools, compiling a short list and then reaching out by email or contact form. If you found a phone number, you’d call up the blogger and have a chat.
Ten years on, the landscape is very different with exponential increases in every number you can think of, from people to discover to where they are online. The approach from those rosy days I mentioned cannot cut it today – it just doesn’t scale.
[Image: Watson Personality Insights from IBM is one of the new breed of cloud-based tools now available that add significant value to influencer identification.]
Yet while there are many useful tools at our disposal today to make our task of influencer identification a lot easier – it’s largely a numbers game now that is perfect for automation and the application of a little cognitive assistance from an algorithm or two to whittle those numbers down – it still requires a skilled human touch to do the outreach, to make that connection to another human being, and start to create an actual relationship.
That is the bit I see largely missing, or carried out wholly ineffectively, in the activity we call influencer marketing.
Instead, I see the same techniques being applied as in the days when the mainstream media reigned supreme. When impersonal communication was how you did things because you were communicating to a mass audience where you couldn’t possibly know the individuals who made up that audience, and so you had to create messages that you hoped would appeal to the mass: something might stick.
I see it when people tell me how important the number of impressions are in a marketing campaign – how many eyeballs might have seen your message – where social media is simply another channel.
That misses the point entirely.
The Key to Building Trust
The beauty of much social media – especially blogs, let’s not forget about blogs and long-form narratives and story-telling – is its ability to enable you (the influencer marketer), to make a genuine connection with an individual (the influencer) that gives you the potential to build a relationship of trust with that individual who would be willing to tell your story to his or her community, and share back with you the thoughts of that community.
Remember that – it’s a two-way relationship.
It requires you, the influencer marketer, to actually reach out, make a connection yourself. It’s hard work and isn’t aligned with the automated emails and faux personal messages that are so common today, nor is it something you can delegate to the intern.
And there is a flip side where some influencers can be a little precious, shall we say, puffed up with their own self-importance and new-celeb status.
Today, it’s a complex playing field and certainly not a level one. There’s lots you cannot control. But in the midst of all this, I believe the ability to make a personal, genuine, authentic connection with another human being is the key to the trust that is essential to build in order to make influence a mutually-beneficial activity.
It’s all about who, not how many.
Other current perspectives on influencer marketing:
- What is Influencer Marketing? – Bill Carmody, Inc magazine, July 29, 2016
- What’s next for influencer marketing? – Charlotte Rogers, Marketing Week, June 16, 2016
- Is it time to call bullshit on influencer marketing? – Dom Burch, The Drum, May 18, 2016
- The Wonderful World Of Influencer Marketing – Arun Sudhaman, The Holmes Report, May 13, 2016
- Confessions of a social media exec on influencer marketing: ‘We threw too much money at them’ – Shareen Pathak, Digiday UK, May 12, 2016
- B2B Social Influencer Marketing: Your 12-Step Insider Guide (PDF) – presented by Moi-Global.com at the Disrupt Marketing Leaders Forum, London, on May 19, 2016 (I spoke at this event)