This article was updated in May 2023.
When asked about influencer marketing, some may think of celebrity endorsements. Still others may think of a different scenario: Company A pays Influencer B to write a sponsored post on a blog, Facebook or Instagram. While both of these types of campaigns can be successful, there are two downsides: 1) They often require a sizable budget and 2) They usually lack authenticity. If that last part is important, there is a better way—teach your executives or subject matter experts (SMEs) to build relationships with topic influencers.
In my six years at an agency, and during my tenure launching Dell’s social media efforts, I spent time teaching company experts to engage with influencers who drive conversations in strategic topic areas. At the agency, I’d always begin by defining objectives. Do you want to increase your company’s share of voice? Further establish your company’s unique point of view? Or something else?
The next step is to prioritize strategic topics. If you work for a technology company, for example, topics like cloud computing, artificial intelligence, security or virtualization might make sense. To help in this process, spend time understanding the depth of expertise your executives possess. Dig deeper into the topic areas themselves. Topics like cloud or AI are both broad and deep. Which aspects of those topics is most important to move the needle? Those things become the criteria for finding influencers.
An agency like W2O Group that excels at analytics uses custom tools that rank influencers on over 100 different metric but utilizing their services can cost thousands. Finding influencers can be expensive but it doesn’t have to be. Tools like Traackr, BuzzSumo, and Socialbakers can be more reasonable but they still require a monthly or annual subscription fees to use.
What if you don’t have budget for influencer identification? In my experience, Twitter is a good place to start. Specifically, it has a section called “Followers you know.” It will tell you which followers of a brand or influencer that you’re following.
To access it, be sure to log into either your personal account, your company account, or possibly even your SMEs or executives’ account. From my personal account, if I navigate to https://twitter.com/dell/followers_you_follow, it will show me which people, brands or media outlets we’re both following. Or I can navigate to the @Dell Twitter account, then click on either the Following or Followers link. The “Followers you know” tab will be on the top left. It works for media outlets, competitor and industry brand pages, and on individual influencer Twitter handles as well. Here’s what I see when looking at the Dell account:
Spending some time looking through followers you know can help you identify influencers. In my experience, it’s best to find five or six influencers to pair with each of your company executives or SMEs. Once you have a handful of influencers identified, take the time to create a Twitter List from the executive or SME Twitter account. Bookmarking that link will give that person an easy way to monitor their influencers’ activity.
With influencers identified, the next step is to train executives and subject matter experts on how to engage in conversations online. Success here depends on two things: 1) Building an authentic relationship and 2) Consistently finding opportunities to engage.
Creating a relationship-based influencer marketing strategy takes time. It’s a journey that needs to be pursued the right way. Adding value is the key to building relationships. There’s also a natural progression: help the influencer first. Think simple to start, like a post on Twitter or LinkedIn. Retweet or share their content. Find opportunities to add value to ongoing conversations they’re having via Twitter, LinkedIn or even blog comment threads. Once you’ve done those things, influencers will most likely be more receptive to receiving information about your company, or more receptive to hearing perspective from executives or SMEs.
Consistency is also key. This is about SMEs and executives making time each week to find opportunities to engage in online conversations with influencers. The good news? A little goes a long way. In my experience, carving out 30 minutes a couple of times a week can make a huge difference. The key is to make it a part of their weekly routine.
Rules of Engagement
So, what are some ways to engage in successful relationship-building influencer marketing process?Here are the steps that I established early on in my work at Dell:
1. Make it about them. Share influencer content and be sure to give them credit when you do.
2. Ask questions via an @reply or offer useful context in ongoing discussions.
3. Add value to all conversations (Twitter or LinkedIn discussions, blog comments, etc.).
4. In all conversations be authentic, be human. Let your passion and personality lead the way.
5. Avoid the hard sell (here’s my latest blog post, whitepaper, buy now, etc.).
6. Keep conversations focused. Think a short sentence or two vs. a paragraph.
7. Don’t be afraid to disagree but be ready to articulate why.
For employees who work in communications who are authorized to speak on behalf of the company, I’d add one more rule: Correct misinformation.
Relationship-Based Influencer Marketing Success!
Lastly, let’s talk about measuring success. How do you know if executives or SMEs are building effective relationships? For one thing, they’ll be earning replies or mentions from the influencers. And those successful interactions will most likely lead to more opportunities to engage in conversation. An even better sign: when influencers start sharing SME or executive content.
Once solid relationships are formed, spend time finding ways to collaborate directly with influencers. This could mean asking an influencer to be a guest on a company podcast, or maybe having them write a guest post for your company blog. Beyond that, you might invite them to an event your company is part of, or invite them to speak to employees in an in-person event. Several of these options may also involve paying for an influencer’s time or travel expenses or both. But starting with relationship-based influencer marketing improves chances of collaboration.