Marketing with Influencers — The Startup Survival Guide

Group of people using social media on smartphones.

It’s the fastest-growing marketing vehicle and well within the budget of every startup. The magic word? Influencers.

Influencers are those who are active on social media (e.g., Facebook, etc.) and open to helping businesses get noticed. But, there is a downside: Many influencer campaigns produce nothing. 

This is unsurprising. While some date it back to the 1760s when a British china company billed its dishes as royal approved because the English king used them, influencer marketing is a new tool that businesses are just now learning to use. Influencer marketing has gone mainstream only in the past half dozen years as channels like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter have made it easy to put a message in front of millions at spectacularly low costs.

The State of Influencer Marketing

Influencer marketing spending is now said to total around $14 billion, up from $1.7 billion five years ago. Top influencers such as Kim Kardashian get as much as $500,000 for a single post, but don’t panic: micro- and nano-influencers, ones with as few as 1,000 followers (as opposed to Kardashian’s 177 million), charge as little as $10 for a post. Many will also take merchandise as partial or full compensation.

That low price tag is what fuels the growing use of influencers by startups, but there may be another compelling reason to use smaller influencers: “Followers tend to consider nano- and micro-influencers as friends rather than celebrities,” says Hayley Albright, the senior brand and customer experience manager at Xena Workwear.

“One thing is for sure, they’ll speak authentically with their audience,” she added. And authenticity is powerful online.

Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO of digital marketing firm Mavens & Moguls, says, “there is still more confidence in trusted content, friends, and influencers than advertising — the world has been moving this way for years with people seeking their friends’ and influencers’ opinions and advice online on what to wear/buy, where to go, and what to do more than a paid ad or fancily packaged content.”

Skepticism about high-priced ads is widespread. Some experts say we have entered “the age of cynicism,” and the victim is big-budget advertising, which opens the door to low-budget, folksy influencer pitches that communicate a sincere endorsement of a product or service.

Arnof-Fenn adds, “When you engage the right influencers, research shows that people trust them more than their friends, advertising or press.”

Information gathered for this story from dozens of startups drives home the painful point that many influencer campaigns produce nothing. Is this the fault of the influencer? Sometimes, but often no. The startup that doesn’t know how to manage an influencer campaign shares in the blame. 

Read on for the rules of running a successful influencer campaign; know that these rules are written in pencil because they are continually evolving.

Pick a Platform

All social platforms are not created equal when influencer marketing is involved. Data from influencer marketing company Linqia show that Instagram is used by 93% of companies that actively use influencer marketing. TikTok and Facebook are tied for second place, tabbed by 68%. YouTube is used by 48%. Twitter is used by just 32%. And blogs are involved in 25% of campaigns.

Many campaigns involve multiple platforms and multiple media (maybe a static photo posted to Facebook and a video on Instagram and YouTube, for instance). 

Be ready to experiment with different platforms. It just may surprise you where your company gets the strongest traction. Encourage influencers to experiment; that is how you will find what works for your startup.

Find an Influencer

Picking the right influencers is crucial, and according to multiple startup entrepreneurs, this is often where the process goes astray. “As a startup, finding just the right influencer can be overwhelming,” says Jas Banwait Gill, the Growth Manager of SnackMagic, a build-your-own snack box service. Remember, too, says Gill, “it’s crucial to find someone who resonates with your brand identity and the interests and opinions of your target audience.”

Where do you find these influencers? Gill points to influencer search tools such as trendHero and BuzzStream.

According to Gill, “[They] use advanced search filters and AI recommendations to identify influencers with content, reach, and engagement that aligns best with your brand’s keywords, as well as your target audience. Included in the search results will be profile bios, follower counts, and engagement rates. But, more importantly, influence and relevance scores. You can also view the titles of their most recent posts and find out how the level of engagement that those posts generated. Furthermore, what’s really convenient is that with these tools, you can contact influencers, manage campaigns, and check out what your competition is doing.”

Serial entrepreneur Jon Vlachogiannis recommends another tool for identifying influencers: “NinjaOutreach is a great tool to find out influencers. It even helps you send personalized emails to the people on your list, as well as automated follow-ups. The best part is that you can directly search for Twitter and Instagram influencers.”

A more grassroots option: ask customers and friends who they follow online. You may find potential influencers who mesh with your business.

As you sort through potential influencers, keep this advice from Ouriel Lemmel, founder of legal tech startup WinIt, firmly in mind: “Make sure your influencers are fans of your brand.”

He adds, “Someone who has already mentioned your brand in their post is always ideal. Your partnership needs to feel organic. Consumers can smell a forced paid partnership a mile away, so make sure that your brand values and the influencer’s lifestyle should be a good fit.”

Spelling Out the Deliverables

Once you’ve identified potential influencers, then the hard work starts: you need to specify in considerable detail what you want and expect from the influencers with whom you work. Dino Ha, founder and CEO at product innovation company MBX, explains what he puts into his agreements: “When working with an influencer, the agreement will include what social content is needed, the due dates, and the timeline in which we’re allowed to use that influencer content, which is usually about one year.”

Know exactly what you want from an influencer — but also know that the influencers understand your expectations. As Tracy Green at Kentucky-based Estes PR says, “Have the influencers sign off on what they are getting and what the expectations are for them. In addition to what you want them to post, also clarify what type of metrics you want them to provide back to you. Provide deadlines and have someone designated to follow up with them to make sure those targets are hit.”

When a company is vague about its expectations from an influencer campaign, what the campaign produces will likely also be vague and unproductive. Yes, give influencers a great deal of creative freedom — they are the ones with expertise in communicating to their audience on Instagram, Facebook, and the rest — but be focused on specifying the expected outcomes. That’s how to build a relationship that will work for the startup and its influencers.

It’s your job to be clear. Robert Bolden, founder of virtual private server company VPS Server, notes, “When working with influencers, I’ve learned that the key to successfully managing them is communicating. One of the more frequent pet peeves of compensated content creators is when a client fails to communicate and then complains when expectations are not met. To avoid falling into this influencer management, I advise communicating with your influencer before, during, and after the campaign.”

He adds, “You’ll want to ensure that influencers understand how well they performed, particularly if you plan to work with them again. Effective communication ensures that everyone benefits.”

Measure What?

Exactly what should you measure in determining if an influencer campaign is succeeding or not? There is no one right answer to that question. For some companies, it’s the number of visits to their website. For others, it’s counting sales dollars or bringing in visitors who sign up for a newsletter.

That’s your call. Just make sure the influencers you work with understand the goals.

And remember this stat from influencer marketing agency Mediakix: 80% of marketers agree that influencer marketing is effective. It works most of the time for most businesses. Put in the work at your end, and you too just may be singing the praises of influencers.

Robert McGarvey

Robert McGarvey, a veteran journalist who has long covered startups and small businesses, created and hosts the CU2.0 Podcast for credit union and fintech executives which is at 120 episodes and counting.

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