Influencer Marketing Yearns For A Human Connection

Finding the right story to tell is only the first challenge you’ll run into when developing or rethinking your content strategy. Eventually you’ll try to wrap your head around who should be telling these stories. And while it’s natural to think that you or your in-house team would be best suited to write content for your websites, that’s not the case in every instance.

People trust their friends, family, and, sometimes, complete strangers more than they trust brands (or brands’ employees). This is why for decades public relations firms have acted on behalf of organizations, pulling them from the holes they dig for themselves and propelling them into the spotlight.

Today, the model has changed, as you’re well aware. Influencer marketing is the new PR, and at Skyword, we knew we had to embrace this practice if we wanted to get our ideas in front of the right audience online.

After all, everyone is a content marketing consultant today, leaving little room for brands and individuals to break through the noise without something original or insightful to say. This information wouldn’t come from us alone, but with a content strategy that allowed us to co-create with innovators across the business landscape, it could.

Here’s an overview of what we learned in our quest to understand influencer strategy and – more importantly – the mistakes we made along the way. Trust me – there were a lot.

Share of Voice Wasn’t Going Our Way

Skyword had been so focused on growing our bottom line, our internal teams, our customer book, and our clients’ businesses that we needed to get out there and be real with people.

Influencer strategy, as it’s called today, suggests that brands introduce some new system to befriending those professionals who have large social followers. Unfortunately, many organizations leave out the part that often leads to new relationships: honesty.

Some of the best advice I received around influencer strategy came from the same people I was trying to befriend. Except, this advice didn’t come from a one-off conversion; instead, it came after months of following them on Twitter, meeting with them at conferences, and after a dedicated effort on my part to show them that I wasn’t trying to do anything except learn from their experiences. I asked a few of them to help me redefine influencer marketing for you by offering their definition or tactics to the practice:

Influencer marketing describes the process of tapping into ‘influencers’—people who have large followings in certain niches and can affect opinion—to increase the visibility of your own products or services. The idea is to identify and build relationships with those VIPs. Think of it, then, as a way to reach beyond your existing audience and instead reach new audiences, or, said another way: potentially tapping into your audience’s audience. – Ann Handley

[It] is about earning the trust and respect of the handful of people who influence your target audience, and transforming them into your allies, advocates, and ambassadors. If you can do so, and get them to corroborate, validate, or amplify your messages, you’ll be one step closer to winning the hearts and minds of whomever you’re targeting. Kevin Cain

The idea of giver’s gain—you give first without the expectation of return. Share stuff that’s useful to you, and over time, people will overcome their initial distrust of you. They’ll say, ‘OK, this guy is sharing and saying something that I find useful.’ This allows you to build legitimate friendships with people in the industry whom you might actually want to hang out with. Christopher Penn

[It] is focusing on a long-term partnership with individuals who share similar interests to your business and have the ability to reach your target audience at scale. Many organizations make the mistake of trying to partner with the most-followed people on social media without understanding if the individual cares about your company’s offerings and has an audience similar to your customer base. It’s all about finding the best match between a business and influencer to ensure it’s an authentic partnership that will drive results, otherwise consumers will see right through it. Brian Honigman

Tools Can Guide You or Misguide You

In every industry, there are those people who become synonymous with what’s innovative and working. I think the first day I started in the content marketing space I heard the name Ann Handley.

While it was easy for me to log into Twitter and immediately become aware of who was doing really interesting stuff in my industry, others may not have it so easy without the help of influencer identification tools like Traackr and Little Bird. These tools make it simple to compile a list of influencers across social media by analyzing the impact of their posts (how often they’re retweeted, followed, responded to).

What I found most helpful about these tools was that they not only provided us with the names of the big players in content marketing, but also rising stars who maybe didn’t have such a high profile but were being noticed by others in the industry. This is how I found Kevin Cain, and after realizing he worked around the corner from me, I quickly took things offline and grabbed a coffee with him.

I remember standing across the table from Kevin wondering what I had got myself into. Six months later, I’m learning about his new adventures in Australia, and he’s listening to me complain about the Boston weather. We even find time to talk content when it’s appropriate.

It feels authentic. It makes the idea of influencer marketing feel less scummy because we’re both genuinely interested in what the other is doing.

The most important piece of advice I can offer when it comes to influencer identification tools is that neither Traackr nor Little Bird will do the hard part of the process; that is, they won’t form a connection between you and someone you want to know. That’s your job, and the only way you’ll get better is by getting out there and figuring out what you have in common with people around you.

Why Skyword Failed the First Time Around

After reading the first half of this post, you might think we had it all figured out—but you’d be dead wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I downloaded an influencer list from one of the tools mentioned above, added them all to a Twitter list, and started responding to their posts before I got a single acknowledgment.

The primary lesson in this was that it’s not enough to raise your hand as a brand marketer and say, “I see what you’re saying, and I favorite it!” That means nothing. I asked myself, “What can I add to this conversation to move it forward and draw others into the discussion?”

This led me to form a few rules to live by when connecting with others in the content marketing industry:

Rule #1: If you don’t have anything insightful to say, don’t say anything at all. It’s better to sit back and listen until you have enough background information to offer your two cents. You only have one chance to make a first impression, so be sure you make it worthwhile.

Rule #2: Don’t rely on the brand you work for to give you any clout among your peers. Whether you work for a flashy technology company or a start-up without a dollar to its name, you must have the vision and insight to back up what you say on the Web. Successful people can sniff out impostors or dishonest folks immediately.

Rule #3: It’s not them, it’s you. Just because social tools tell you someone is influential in your space, that doesn’t always mean it’s true. There are many of factors that go into co-creating content and having it sway the marketing needle. You may have a lot in common with someone, but if his or her audience doesn’t care about your product or service, it’s not a match. Traackr Founder and CEO Pierre-Loic Assayag says it best, “Influence is contextual.”

Rule #4: Have a goal. Whether you’re trying to co-create content with influencers to introduce new audiences to your brand (product/service) or befriend those experts to improve your marketing skills, have a goal laid out upfront. This type of honesty goes a long way in establishing trust in those who otherwise have no reason to see you as a credible partner or friend. Don’t be afraid to have several goals, but be aware of them before you even begin or else you’ll lack structure in how you approach and manage relationships with your business peers.

Rule #5: Your job is never done if you’re approaching influencer strategy in the right way. You should be connecting with people you want to learn from, not get something out of, so staying updated with your influencers’ careers, projects, and personal lives is part of the job! If you’re in the same area as some of the people you want to work with, there’s no excuse for not setting up some time to catch up face-to-face.

The Outcome of Doing Influencer Strategy Right

We stopped looking at influencer strategy as a systematic process we had to manage across spreadsheets and Twitter lists. Today, we focus on who is doing cool stuff in content marketing. We connect with these people at events, interview and highlight them in our innovator series, and sometimes ask them to create content for our blog.

One of our guest contributors, Brian Honigman, has taught us a lot about the writer side of content marketing. We’re often so focused on helping our clients develop efficient editorial workflows and strategies that we lose out on our writers’ perspectives of brand journalism. Honigman reminds us to stay in tune with that audience, and he’s been the bridge between our corporate side and creative pool.

Working with him helped our editorial efforts as we’ve certainly benefited from the extra exposure he offers us through social promotion and article syndication. But we’ve also gained insight into the challenges freelance writers face, and his opinion on how brands can best work with content creators. This is beyond valuable for educating the entire Skyword team on how to improve the way they work with both internal and external contributors.

Influencer strategy is more than marketing. It’s really a way to learn from one another and develop camaraderie within an industry that can often be lonely and overly brash. That’s, at least, what it means to Skyword. What successes (or mistakes) has your company seen with its own influencer strategy?

This post originally appeared on The Content Standard.

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