What Influencer Marketing Really Means Today

Influencer marketing has long been an essential part of the communications toolkit. The practice focuses on identifying individuals with influence over a desired audience, and orients marketing activities around them. It is at the heart of the social media marketing world— brands across the spectrum owe much to their Influencer programs. 

This is a practice that has evolved as the social marketing space continues to do the same— there are many different tools and great partners available to help identify and engage the right influencers.

While these are important, there are key principles that should not be overlooked when embarking on any effective influencer program today:  

1. Define what the term Influencer really means for every brand

There are huge variations on the definition of Influencer in the social media space. Ed Keller and Jon Berry proposed five attributes of influencers in their well-referenced “The Influentials” book that still ring true: 

  • Activists: influencers who are involved with their communities, political movements, charities
  • Connected: influencers with large social networks (on and offline)
  • Impact: influencers who are looked up to and are trusted by others
  • Active minds: influencers with multiple and diverse interests
  • Trendsetters: influencers who are early adopters (or leavers) in market.

You could argue Virgin Airlines’ CEO Richard Branson’s 4 million Twitter followers and 6 million LinkedIn followers, along with the variety of content he creates and shares on Virgin’s corporate presences, mean he is an obvious social influencer for the brand. Yet so are Howard, Greg and Kyle the trio who man Virgin Atlantic’s highly active UK Twitter care handle. They have tweeted directly to their 300,000+ followers and others over 47,000 times—helping with queries about their travel as well as sharing important news and information. Our perceptions of a company are deeply rooted in the service it provides and negative experiences are at the heart what turn people away.  Which is the most important Influencer for Virgin Atlantic?

The context is key— there is no right or wrong. A brand needs to understand its customer personas, the customers’ journey when engaging with the brand, and the types of influencer that are important to customers at different stages on that journey. 

2. Study the core reasons around how we are influenced

The notion of influence is as old as time itself—man's survival could be tied back to being able to influence others that making fire was really a good thing. Robert Cialdini is widely seen to be one of the founding fathers of the study of influence. He studied and identified six principles of influence amongst professionals:

  • Liking If people like you, because they sense that you like them, or because of things you have in common they’re more apt to say yes to you.
  • Reciprocity People tend to return favors. If you help people, they’ll help you. If you behave in a certain way (cooperatively, for example), they’ll respond in kind.
  • Social proof People will do things they see other people doing, especially if those people seem similar to them.
  • Commitment and consistency People want to be consistent, or at least to appear to be. If they make a public, voluntary commitment, they’ll try to follow through.
  • Authority People defer to experts and to those in positions of authority (and typically underestimate their tendency to do so.) 
  • Scarcity People value things more if they perceive them to be scarce.

Picking up Cialdini’s book “Influence”—for a reread or first time—is something all marketers should think about. There are reasons we are influenced by others, and these are core mechanics that have not changed with the rise of social media, something Cialdini himself underlined in an HBR interview. Social media marketing programs that work are those that are tied to the mechanics of influence.

3. Think about the power of the man (or woman) on the street

Social media’s power is indeed in the power of the crowd. People are as influenced by their peers as they are by specific experts. Yelp’s role today highlights this—it’s not just travel writers or restaurant critics influencing others’ dining choices. It’s people like you and me, whose feedback on our own dining experiences affects the choices other diners make.

Brands are surrounded by specific communities and understanding how these work is as important as engaging individuals with perceived influential status. Duncan Watts of Microsoft is a well-known proponent of the theory that the "strength of weak ties" in a social network is as important for sharing information as any one person in that network.

4. Building social brand advocacy comes from doing the basics right

An advocate is someone who speaks positively of someone or something. A social brand advocate is someone who will do this on social channels. Brands have been successful in driving word of mouth by engaging and fostering relationships with these advocates.

It is important to examine the human behavior behind what advocacy really is, to understand how we can use it. To advocate on behalf of a brand, we need to already be a fan of a brand or company. 

This is a status that has to be earned. It cannot be bought. We may like a product, but are we willing to talk about it openly with others on social spaces just because a brand asks us to? Not in a sustained or authentic way, no.

Brands inspire advocacy in their fans and followers by doing the basics really, really well, through nurturing burgeoning relationships, rewarding their most loyal fans (including employees), and then delighting them on an ongoing basis. 

Through working with community managers and using solid listening and research tools, a brand can track who those people are and work an authentic engagement program into communications plans. No gimmicks required. 

What do you think?  Are there principles of influencer engagement that you would add to this list as a must for social media marketers?


Gemma Craven's picture

Gemma Craven

Gemma is the Executive Director of Strategic Markets at Spredfast where she leads Spredfast's North American team of Market Directors - social business practitioners and key partners to Spredfast's clients and prospects. She is also a WOMMA board member, runner, and owner of a Boston Terrier named Stella.