How to Identify and Use Brand Influencers Effectively

The search for brand influencers, and how to identify them, has seen numerous pieces of technology come and go over the years. Some, good – others, not so much.

As the sophistication of the technology has grown, so has the methodology of identifying brand influencers. Or has it?

Despite numerous pieces of content, talks, case studies, and more, the return on influence marketing remains low for many businesses and organizations.

Why? Why are we still not seeing return seven years after my colleague Sam and I published what was described as “…the book that will change the way we do business forever”?

Is it lazy marketing? Poor marketing? Poor technology? Maybe it’s all of these – or maybe it’s more to do with the “influencers” themselves, and the validation (or lack of) behind their star power.

After all, how influential can someone really be if left to the recommendations of machine learning only?

A Lack of Social Media and Influencer ROI

Run a search on Google for anything along the lines of “does influence marketing work?”, or “does influence marketing offer ROI?”, and you’ll get literally millions of results questioning influence marketing’s effectiveness.

For every piece of content that shares a success story, you’ll find a counterpoint of brands who’ve spent millions, and seen very little in return.

Going by these results, clearly there’s an issue with the medium. And, yet…

There are success stories. Lots of them. Heck, you can read about some of ours here. So, yes, influence marketing is a very effective and cost-efficient marketing tactic.

brand influencer statistics

So when we see detractors berating influence marketing for the low return it’s given them, I can’t help but feel they’re missing a very important piece of the influence marketing puzzle.

When it comes to Influence Marketing, it’s not the medium that’s ineffective, but the message and how it’s being promoted.

After all, some brand influencers were generating excellent results, from discussion around the brand’s product or service to actually driving leads and conversions.

So why was this happening for some brands while others bemoaned the lack of return on investment?

We decided to find out.

Identifying True Influence When Everyone’s an Influencer

As mentioned in in our book, the problem with influence is that anyone can proclaim to be “an influencer”. This was especially true when social scoring platforms like Klout, Kred, and others like them allocated people an “influence score”, the higher the better.

The problem with this approach is it was pretty much solely based on follower numbers, as opposed to what that influencer could actually do.

Given how easy it is to buy fake followers, this method soon showed its weaknesses, as brands spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on influence marketing campaigns with little to show for it.

Additionally, having a large follower count is one thing – having a large follower count that’s relevant to the brand an influencer is working with is another. You wouldn’t pair a meat lover with a vegan brand just because they had 100,000 followers, for example.

Again, this is where influence marketing based on social scoring fell down – they were simply putting numbers in front of any kind of relevance to the brand, and results suffered because of it.

Today, while things are a bit better, there’s still an inconsistency to results, despite there being numerous resources online when it comes to planning out effective influence marketing campaigns.

To understand why, and identify where brands are still going wrong, we took a deep dive into the accounts of 75 recognized influencers across multiple social media networks, to analyze their impact when it came to followers taking action, and delivering tangible results for the brands they were working with.

The Study of Brand Influencers

To ensure parity across the board, we used a mix of social monitoring software, as well as manual research to analyze these results further. The underlying goals in the study were:

  • The authority of the account, and if a follower was a real or a fake account
  • The context of the conversations between the influencer and his/her followers
  • If the follower was an existing customer of the brand the influencer was working with
  • If the follower was a potential customer, or in the purchase lifecycle, of the brand being promoted
  • If the follower was a customer of the brand’s competitor(s)
  • If the follower was currently in the market to purchase (or consider a purchase) from the brand

Once we had this premise outlined, our next task was to analyze the influencers reach and engagement level for every post they published regarding the brand campaign they were working on, to determine if any were more effective than others.

Lastly, we then carried out a series of interviews with the campaign/marketing managers of the various brands working with the influencers, to determine which ones were more – or less – effective than others.

The results were telling, if not entirely surprising, based on our own experience when working on influence marketing campaigns with our own clients.

A large audience does not an influencer make

For the majority of the campaigns the various brands undertook, the types of influencers were chosen by their overall reach – size of audience, how highly they scored on various influencer identification programs, and how their followers responded to any social media updates the influencers published.

When studying these metrics, we noticed that the average reach of an influencer’s post was around 30%. In simple terms, this meant that about 30% of the influencer’s followers either liked the post, or commented on it, or shared it.

While this may seem like an acceptable percentage, the truth of the matter is very different. Despite having a 30% return, at least as far as easy actions are concerned, the real return on investment was much lower. On average,

  • 40% of the audience were fake, and were either bought by the influencer, or automated bots by spammers
  • 30% were not potential customers, and did not fit the buyer persona for the brand in question
  • 20% were not in the purchase life cycle, because they were either existing customers or not yet ready to buy
  • Only 10% were in the purchase life cycle, and both fit the buyer persona and were ready to make a purchase

When you realize that only 30% of the influencer’s audience took an action on the post(s) they created, and that 10% of that audience actually fit the brand’s goals, it becomes obvious as to why the results were so poor.

Influence marketing pathsNote: Percentages were rounded up to the nearest 10% for simplicity.

So, how do we change not only the results, but the overall effectiveness of influence marketing campaigns?

Changing how we look at brand influencers

The clear message coming out from our study was that the quality and relevance of the influencers being used was low.

Instead of using influencers that connected not only to the brand itself, but the customer base they were targeting, the brands were working with influencers with large numbers in the hope these numbers would translate to new customers.

The problem with that approach is that – as we saw with the results – numbers don’t necessarily equate real numbers.

When only 10% of an audience is actually at the right stage of the buying cycle, then the budget allocated to the other 90% is a wasted investment.

If the brands had wanted to achieve a real return on their investment, then going after such a broad audience was the wrong way to go. Instead, a different approach should have been taken.

  • The starting point should have been the target customer, and where in the purchase life cycle they currently were
  • Identify their points of influence – is it a person, publication, peer, friend, etc. – and what type of action is taken based on the type of influencer
  • Determine the multiple message paths needed to sway a customer from research, to awareness, to interest, to intent, and – ultimately – to purchase
  • Identify which influencers are instrumental at retaining customers, based on brand affinity and relevance to the customer

By treating brand influencers as an important part of your marketing channel, versus an add-on tactic at the end of your marketing plan, you’ll be setting yourself up for for tangible and profitable results.

Much like any good marketing campaign, understanding your target customer and working back from there will drive the results that go beyond vanity metrics like shares, comments, and reach, etc., and start to deliver true return on investment.

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