Brands

How to Use Influencers to Build Your Brand’s Owned Audience

By Aubre Andrus December 16th, 2014

Forget advertising. Today, brands want audiences. And one of the biggest keys to connecting with those audiences is leveraging influencers.

With the rise of social media, it’s becoming easier and easier for companies to find and partner with talented influencers who create and share branded content on their behalf—and come with their own built-in audiences.

“If you like and trust someone’s opinion, you’re more likely to follow it,” says Jay Heinrichs, a bestselling author, world-renowned speaker, and corporate consultant. “Influencers can have a huge effect on brand loyalty.”

The reality is that even if you’re creating high-quality content that’s worth sharing, it’s really hard to attract attention based on content alone. Especially when it’s estimated that about 1.7 scadzillion new pieces of online content enter the picture every day. Heinrichs says a good piece of content could take two to five years to naturally gain a large audience, and most businesses don’t have the luxury of waiting. This is where influencers come into the picture.

Here is just one example of this kind of partnership: Popular Instagram users often team up with companies to create an image featuring a certain product, which then gets posted to the influencer’s feed and seen by thousands of followers. Photographer Nathan Michael has 77,000 followers on Instagram and has shared images tagging Negra Modelo USA, Pizza Hut, and Verizon. Each image gets about 1,500 likes.

Other brands give an influencer full control of their feeds in an “Instagram takeover.” Guest Instagrammers—who also happen to be influencers and trendsetters—post on a brand’s account throughout a day or week. Photographer Adam Senatori was one lucky guest Instagrammer. General Electric offered up a free trip to the GE Aviation facility and asked him to document the trip for his 879,000 followers.

Instagram isn’t the only place you’ll find these partnerships. Brands like Kmart, L’Oréal, and Taco Bell have found success on YouTube. Taco Bell partnered with YouTube star Freddie Wong of Rocket Jump Studios, the creator of the popular web series “Video Game High School,” to create a web commercial for the Fiery Doritos Locos Taco. The channel has more than 7 million subscribers, and the video has been watched almost 1.5 million times.

Besides gaining a new audience, this strategy can up the “cool factor” of a brand, especially when they focus on newer social networks like Vine. There’s another bonus for brands: When they partner with a well-known photographer or videographer, marketing suddenly becomes more about art or comedy and less about advertising.

Influencer marketing isn’t just for B2C companies. B2B companies will also find that partnerships with industry leaders can be mutually beneficial. When working on a new e-book, The Sophisticated Marketer’s Guide to LinkedIn, LinkedIn asked marketing experts to share their best tips. When the book was released, those influencers shared that news with their followers—and it generated millions in new business.

(Full disclosure: LinkedIn is a Contently partner.)

OpenView Venture Partners, a Boston-based venture capital firm, is another B2B business that’s formed effective relationships with influencers. They created OpenView Labs, which has become a “content factory” thanks to their partnerships. These influencers post relevant content on OpenView’s platform weekly and share it with their followers. In turn, it drives new traffic to their site every day, according to their director of content strategy, Kevin Cain, and will hopefully lead to new customers.

Finding influencers

Brands interested in playing this game must find the right influencers first. While there are newly created agencies that specialize in pairing influencers with brands and helpful sites like Traackr or Followerwonk, a lot of Googling and a good gut feeling can provide the same results.

The influencers in your industry are the ones with the most popular blogs and the most followers on social networks like Twitter and Pinterest. While the numbers are important, it’s also imperative to use common sense and decide if this influencer feels like the right partner. Sure the person has a lot of followers, but is she actually interacting with their community consistently? Does her voice fit with your brand? Will she be passionate about what you do?

“Even if you’re a small brand, you can significantly increase the size of a small audience by finding relatively small influencers,” Heinrichs says. “The good news is that an influencer with a following of twenty thousand or less may not cost you anything. They might be thrilled to get a free sample.”

Forming a relationship

Partnering with influencers takes a little bit of romancing—one personalized email could be enough, or it could take months of courting. A great way to introduce yourself is to schedule an interview for an upcoming article or ask the person to speak at a company event.

Other strategies include organizing an informal “influencer-only” event like a blogger breakfast for your product’s new launch. Or steady compliments on blog posts and retweets of their content. If you’ve already worked with other influencers, name drop. For some, it might take a bit of monetary compensation. Basically, companies have to get creative and be personable.

But the best strategy is simple: Have a clear and comprehensive strategy. Invite the influencer to join the conversation and decide together how this partnership can benefit the both of you. Part of your strategy is goal-setting: Do you want to increase brand awareness? Or sell a product? Or increase attendance for an event? Then decide how you can best reach this goal together. Is it content co-creation? Is it an event sponsorship? Is it an “Instagram takeover”? That’s up to the two of you to decide.

Measuring success

There’s no doubt that influencers with a big following will get your mission in front of more eyes—but did those followers convert?

“In the future, you’re going to see consultants who are able to craft a much more personalized content strategy with smaller, more engaged audiences,” Heinrichs says. “Size doesn’t matter that much—the degree of activation matters.”

And that’s where finding the right influencer comes back into play. The number of followers an influencer has will be less important than the percentage of those followers who engage with your brand. Keep your eye on this metric and act upon it; some influencers will perform better than others when it comes to your target audience. You just need to find the right one. The right influencers are respected by your audience due to their experience and track record, and they are often viewed by your audience as trusted advisors.

During each partnership, track every content piece and measure success along the way. Ask yourself these questions: What piece of content drove the most traffic? How many new followers did your social accounts gain during the partnership? How many downloads did you get overall? How many new subscribers signed up? Not all metrics can be defined with numbers. For example, what kind of social chatter about your brand do you see? Is it more positive?

In some ways, influencer marketing is no different than any other marketing strategy. There’s time invested in creating content, managing relationships, and monitoring successes and failures. But there is one major difference: a highly engaged and passionate audience. Though finding and partnering with the right influencer can be a major investment, it’s one that can pay off exponentially.

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