What is an influencer? The term generally refers to individuals whose talent for entertaining, inspiring or advising others has earned them a high profile and a sizable audience of followers. More specifically, influencers are those who, in online forums or on social media, can positively impact brand perceptions. Influencers are active on social media channels ranging from Facebook to Instagram and even LinkedIn.
Leveraging social influencers has been proven to add value. Consider, for instance, that in most industries word-of-mouth is credited as being the primary influence for consumer product and service choices. According to McKinsey & Company, word-of-mouth is “the primary factor behind 20 to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.”
To understand the power of word-of-mouth, look at your own purchasing behaviors. Are you more likely to try a new restaurant based on an advertisement or on a recommendation from a friend?
The power of influence
Recommendations have long driven buyer behaviors. While the influencers of the pre-digital marketing era may have functioned under other names — endorsers, for example, or spokespeople — the concept is the same. When well-known and well-regarded individuals, especially celebrities, recommend a company, product or service, good things can happen to those brands. Because of the power of these recommendations, digital marketers have increasingly sought to partner with social influencers to help boost their online brands.
Consider, for instance, the power of sports figures for retailers like Under Armour and Nike. Other brands, like L’Oréal, are leveraging social influencers by partnering with online personalities who have large numbers of followers on social media channels to help promote their brands. L’Oréal’s Beauty Squad has brought together five of the most influential British beauty YouTubers to evangelize the brand. Because of the visual potential of communicating with consumers around makeup and makeup application, YouTube is an obvious choice in this case.
And while it seems natural for retailers to leverage social influencers, B2B companies can — and do — benefit as well. When digital marketing influencers like Joe Pulizzi, Guy Kawasaki and others share their opinions about digital marketing products and services with their followers, those followers notice.
Connecting with influencers
Sometimes influence occurs organically — a celebrity or an individual with a large online presence happens to notice and post about your brand. Other times it happens through astute observation and quick-witted action, as was the case when Emirates noticed that Casey Neistat, a blogger with a large following, had booked a flight on the airline. After they upgraded him to a special first-class seat, he responded by filming the flight and posting his positive experience to his YouTube channel.
More often, engaging with influencers is not unlike networking and engaging with anyone else, a process that involves reaching out, starting a conversation and offering samples, to start.
Avoiding the influencer danger zone
The constant evolution of social media platforms and related marketing tactics has made it difficult for consumers to discern when an online comment is based on authentic personal opinion or preference, versus those driven by compensation. This confusion can bring brands and influencers at odds with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). There have long been FTC rules related to the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising, and they still apply to social media and influencer marketing. Marketers and influencers alike must practice due diligence and stay on top of regulatory developments. In April 2017, 90 brands and influencers received a letter from the FTC after failing to properly disclose partnerships.
The FTC makes a distinction between organic (i.e., not compensated) and sponsored comments,+ stating that if there is a “material connection” between an influencer and an advertiser, the connection must be “clearly and conspicuously disclosed.” Those connections could include “a business or family relationship, monetary payment or the gift of a free product.”
These distinctions seem clear, but there are danger zones corporate communicators need to be aware of. Many communicators don’t know, for instance, that partnership disclosures on Instagram must be placed above the “More” button. Or, suppose your company is the PR firm for a large retail organization. Is it OK for staff members to positively praise those products through their social media accounts? What about employees who work for organizations like L’Oréal, Emirates or others? Is it OK for them to spread positive posts about their companies and the companies’ products and services? The answer: It depends. Corporate communications professionals would be wise to seek legal counsel when navigating what can sometimes be murky terrain.
The bottom line: Social influencers can provide big benefits to brands and should be appropriately leveraged to spread word-of-mouth in potentially viral ways — but companies and their communications staff need to ensure that they don’t run afoul of FTC guidelines in the process.