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Influencer Program: How to Harness the Power of Influencer Marketing for Your Brand

Five years ago, the value of influencer marketing was estimated to be worth $1.7 billion. It’s grown exponentially since then. In 2021, it was worth $13.8 billion. Any brand, no matter how large or small, can tap into this market by building a digital influencer program.

Influencers have the potential to reach people that media relations and earned coverage can’t. Compared to advertising, influencer content is often considered to be more genuine, authentic, and trusted.

Influencer programs and public relations

According to our PR glossary, public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics. Using communication, PR achieves mutual understanding, realizes organizational goals, and serves the public interest.

There are various avenues by which a PR pro can build a relationship with the public. Earned media (the E in Gini Dietrich’s well-known PESO model) is a big one and a topic that we dedicate a lot of our free resources and webinars to.

Building and running a successful influencer program requires a lot of the same skills and principles that successful media relations does: Research, pitching, and relationship building. Influencer marketing and earned media even provide some similar benefits since:  

  • Both are perceived as credible, authentic, and reliable sources of information
  • Both act as a kind of social proof that people like and trust your brand or product

In the following sections, we’ll cover everything you need to know to get started building your program. When you’re done reading, you’ll be ready to harness the power of influencers and their audiences to help build an authentic connection between brand and public, achieve organizational goals, reach a broader audience, or even break into a new one.

Who is an influencer?

An influencer is anyone who can influence another person to take an action, such as purchasing a particular product or registering for a course. By that definition, you are an influencer if you have ever convinced your friend to try or buy something based on your recommendation. But unless you also have a digital audience made up of engaged followers, you probably aren’t going to be approached by brands for your powers of persuasion.

Going forward we’ll focus on influencers who fall under these three generally accepted categories:

  • Micro
  • Macro
  • Celebrity

Content Creators vs. Influencers

What’s the difference between a content creator and an influencer?

CMO of Hootsuite, Maggie Lower says that influencers are the content. They build a community around themselves. Whereas content creators produce content for a community that already exists. The focus is on the art, not the person.

One example of a content creator on Instagram would be David Suh, a photographer who creates reels to teach models how to pose more dynamically and photographers how to make their models feel more comfortable. David now has over 750,000 followers and produces content for a community of amateur and professional photographers—and anyone else that likes his sense of humor.

If you’re thinking that David sounds a lot like an influencer, well, you’re not wrong. A content creator can become an influencer. But while David could do what Kim Kardashian does, Kim Kardashian could not do what David does.

For the sake of this guide, we’re going to focus on influencers.

Influencers and authenticity

We’ve thrown this word around a few times, so let’s stop and chat about it.

Brands are always searching for authenticity magic and that search plays out in many ways. Whether it’s openly sharing their values on social media like Ben & Jerry’s, ensuring diversity and body positivity in their ad campaigns like Aerie, or announcing their commitment to taking action against climate change like Ikea, brands want consumers to believe in their good intentions and trust them with their business.

According to research from Bazaarvoice, consumers think some of the most authentic and genuine content comes from the people who share about the things they are truly interested in, and do so without an agenda. In their survey, SlickText found the three types of content that make influencers more authentic are:

  • Unbiased reviews of a product or service
  • Interactions with followers
  • Insights into their personal life

You won’t often get so lucky as to have an influencer endorse you without an agenda, but as Owen Jones, Senior Content Marketer at ZoomShift wrote in an article for Bulldog Reporter, “The subtlety of influencer marketing comes from the tone, content, and enthusiasm of the influencer’s posts and comments. It should feel like they could genuinely endorse your brand without any compensation.”

How an influencer program can benefit your brand

Just as with every new channel or medium you include in your communications strategy, you need to make sure that your reasons for building an influencer program align with business goals. If you’re trying a new marketing strategy just for the heck of it, your outreach won’t be effective, and your audience won’t connect with the message.

The first thing you need to do is set your objectives, which must align with larger business goals. Ask yourself, “What do I hope to achieve with my influencer program?”.

Are you trying to:

  • Reach a broader audience?
  • Break into a new audience?
  • Expand/build your audience on a particular platform?
  • Increase sales of a particular product or service?

Once you figure out your objectives, you’ll be able to research influencers more effectively. For instance, instead of potentially wasting time and money on a celebrity influencer because of their sizeable (but largely passive audience), you may decide that your campaign needs a niche micro influencer with a hyper-engaged audience. We’ll get into this in far more detail later. For now, let’s focus on the power of influencers and how it can benefit you:

Benefit 1: Businesses of any size can build an influencer program

You don’t have to be a big, global company to use influencers. Small businesses can tap into a micro influencer’s engaged audience to promote their local, regional, or niche offerings.

Sally Norton, the assistant editor at Miami Moving Guide and frequent contributor to Bulldog Reporter says that the industries that can benefit from influencer marketing the most are:

  • Travel and lifestyle
  • Food and beverage
  • Fashion, beauty, and cosmetics
  • Health and fitness
  • Entertainment and media
  • Technology

Benefit 2: An influencer program can increase your brand reach

Influencers are a great way to tap into a new audience or grow a bigger audience on a specific platform.

Since influencer marketing allows for greater social engagement than earned media typically does, it’s a less one-sided form of communication, allowing for more interactivity.

Benefit 3: Influencers go where paid advertising can’t

Today, we have more power to control where and when we see ads through browser extensions and app permissions. Influencer posts slip past these filters since they’re part of the feed.

Audiences are more likely to engage with their content too because they have actively chosen to connect with them, whereas they have not agreed to connect with the distributors of invasive and disruptive ads.

One last thing to seal the deal:

A neuroscience study found that influencer ads are 227% more emotionally intense and 87% more memorable than TV ads!

Benefit 4: Influencers are more personable than paid advertising and earned media

Earned media has many benefits. It’s credible. It reaches a broad audience. It provides social proof. But it’s not usually personal. There’s isn’t a relationship between an outlet and its audience in the way there is between an influencer and their audience.

Influencers build trust and a surrogate digital friendship with their audience by being open, honest, and helpful. They engage with their community by responding to comments, hosting live Q&As, or taking suggestions on the type of content their audience would like to see. They communicate in a more subjective way, sharing their opinions freely and speaking from personal experience.

Benefit 5: Influencer program content doesn’t go away when the budget runs out

As with all social media, unless the person goes in and deletes their old content, those posts about you are there to stay! The content lives on the internet with a permanent link to your website, ready for someone new to stumble upon. You get a backlink from an authentic and reputable place, which is great for SEO.

And depending on your contract, ecommerce site Shopify points out, “the collateral produced can be repurposed for targeted ads, email marketing, or other campaigns.”

Benefit 6: An influencer program doesn’t need to be ‘newsworthy’

If what you hope to announce or share wouldn’t be of interest to traditional outlets and so isn’t worthy of earned media, spreading the word via influencers may be the way to go. Influencer marketing campaigns can be quite effectual when you don’t have “new news” to share but want to do more than stick it up on your website. 

Is an influencer program right for your brand?

Those benefits are pretty compelling, but an influencer program isn’t a set it and forget it strategy. A successful influencer campaign requires careful monitoring and follow up. You’re not working with robots—unless your influencer is Miquela. You’re working with real people who make their living from this work and may have differing creative visions.

You’ll need to spend the same time and energy cultivating relationships with influencers as you would with reporters and producers.

It will take substantial work, so you need to make sure that it’s the right thing for you and your brand.

Let’s go back to your business goal. If an influencer program aligns with your business goal—perhaps increasing sales or expanding into a new region—then go for it. But don’t skip the steps in between evaluating goals and deciding on the right activities. Check out the handy table on page 5 from our guide, Measuring Impact, to help you map your objectives.

Read Measuring Impact: How to Successfully Connect PR Activities and Outcomes to Business Goals

Building your influencer program

Building an influencer program looks a lot like building an earned media campaign. Both involve research to find the right people and assembling thoughtful and personalized pitches to persuade the contact to share your brand’s story with their audience.  

Finding the right influencers

Time to make use of your investigative PR skills and the tools you already employ to find the right media contacts for your story. That’s right, we’re talking about media monitoring and the media database.

Media monitoring

Media monitoring is a great tool for finding influencers since it shows you who is already talking about your brand or industry. Make sure that it also has a social listening component so you can track mentions across social media.

We always recommend including your competitors in your monitoring. If a potential influencer is your competitor’s biggest fan, going to them for a partnership would probably not be the best idea.

Media database

With your media database you can use targeted keywords to find a list of potential influencers. Or, if you have a good sense of who you’re interested in because of media monitoring, you can find the contact information of the influencer.

Agility Outreach includes a database of over 1 million unique contacts and media outlets. It’s carefully and meticulously maintained by a global team of researchers. Agility is regularly recognized as one of the top-rated PR software platforms on G2 for Media and Influencer Targeting.

If you don’t have either of these tools, you can always go straight to the social platforms you’re interested in running a campaign on. Rebekah Carter offers the following tips for finding influencers on social:

  • Use the search bar. Most social platforms now allow you to explore by topic.
  • Look at hashtags. Find the hashtags related to your product or service and see who’s posting content with them and which posts and influencers are receiving top engagement rates.
  • Take a hint from your competition. Who are they using as influencers?
  • Look at who is already following you. Are they following anyone else who may be influencing their choices and opinions?

Micro, macro, or celebrity influencers 

It’s not all a numbers game. What you hope to achieve (business goal, remember?) and the audience you want to reach will determine the right type of influencer for your program.

Micro influencer: HubSpot defines a micro influencer as an individual with a small, but highly engaged audience of approximately 1,000 to 10,000 followers. They build content around a specific hobby or passion.

Macro influencer: These influencers have more fame and larger followings than micro, with audience numbers ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of followers. They are specialists in a field who have taken their knowledge and skills to social media. Often, they are subject matter experts like chefs, artists, and entrepreneurs.

Celebrity influencer: These are the influencers who are famous for their work outside of social media—the singers and movie stars whose fame has translated into millions of followers. Bazaarvoice found that 31% of US consumers follow at least one celebrity influencer on social media.

The State of Influencer Marketing 2021 breaks influencers down into three additional categories which fall between micro and macro:

  • Regular-influencer: 15-50,000 followers
  • Rising-influencer: 50-100,000 followers
  • Mid-influencer: 100-500,000 followers

Numbers and definitions vary but the understanding is the same: There are sub-categories of influencers that vary based on audience size—and biggest isn’t always best.

The pros and cons

All influencer types have their pros and cons.

For instance, a micro influencer will be more budget friendly, but you won’t get the same reach. However, if you’re trying to break into a niche or regional market, they could be perfect.

  • Visual Objects found that 55% of US consumers follow influencers with less than 50,000 followers.
  • Bazaarvoice found that 37% of US consumers are more likely to take a product recommendation from an “everyday” influencer.

Consider too that micro influencers have better engagement rates than all other categories of influencers on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. According to The State of Influencer Marketing 2021, engagement rates drop once influencers hit 15,000 followers and above.

Macro and celebrity influencers give you huge reach. They’re also not likely to ever abandon their social media presence, but they are less personal, and their audiences aren’t as engaged. Another but—celebrity influencers are associated with lower levels of trust.   

By platform

The social platform you choose to run your campaign on will also impact the size of influencer you might want. Going back to The State of Influencer Marketing 2021 again:

  • Micro influencers and regular influencers are most popular on Instagram
  • Micro influencers and mid-influencers are most popular on YouTube
  • Mid-influencers are most popular on TikTok

Doing your due diligence before building your influencer program

After your initial research, you’ve probably found a few people who you think are perfect for your brand’s influencer program. Before you eagerly start preparing your outreach, it’s time to ask the deeper questions and dig into the data.

The deeper questions

Jennifer George Caliguiri, Vice President of Communications at Shutterfly, led an Agility PR Solutions webinar on driving maximum impact from influencer campaigns. During her presentation, she posed four very important questions everyone building an influencer program needs to ask:

  1. Is the influencer relevant to the intended audience?
  2. Does the influencer have a long-standing and loyal audience?
  3. Is the influencer relevant to the topic of the message?
  4. Is the influencer aligned, not just with the brand’s campaign, but with the brand’s values?

If you can answer in the affirmative for each question, then you’ll be one step closer to achieving the holy grail of influencer programs: authenticity.

The data

According to research from GoodFirms, the top three deciding factors for professionals building an influencer program on who to work with are engagement rates, types of followers, and content quality and style.

Engagement rates

Of the over 5,000 professionals surveyed in 2021 by Influencer Marketing Hub, 39% say that engagement or clicks is their most important criteria.

A big following means nothing if the audience isn’t engaging with the influencer’s content. A small, hyper-engaged audience is far more desirable than a million followers who scroll right by. Especially if you’re measuring success based on a metric like link clicks.

Types of followers

Again, the number of followers means nothing if their audience is not your audience. If the influencer’s community has no interest in the types of products or services you’re selling, and you haven’t identified them as a new market, find a different influencer.

Content quality and style

Bazaarvoice found that 75% of consumers do not care about the number of social media followers an influencer has—they care about the content. For 24.5% of respondents to Influencer Marketing Hub’s survey, content is the most important criteria.

You may have a vision or even certain requirements for the way an influencer will share your product or service. Identify the influencers whose approach to content reflects your optimal format and style. This could be:

  • Personal, talking-head stories
  • Longer captions
  • ‘Candid’ style photos
  • Staged photography

Pitching influencers for your program

Unfortunately, one major bad habit PR professionals have when it comes to pitching the media crosses over into pitching influencers.

According to a study by AI analytics platform HypeAuditor, 43% of influencers say they’ve never or rarely received a personalized message from a brand looking to work with them.

Yeah, we’re disappointed too.

According to the same survey, most influencers wish professionals pitching them would include:

  • Available budgets and expected deliverables
  • A clear description of the product/service
  • Information on the company (such as values)
  • Campaign format (video, written, picture)

Your first contact with an influencer is also the time to put your research to work. Show the influencer that you understand the type of content they produce, their style of sharing, and their audience.

How to make your pitch stand out from the rest:

  • Personalize it
  • Start off friendly
  • Don’t make everything about your brand and what you want
  • Be curious about them
  • Show that you’re open to working with them

Note: Depending on the influencer and the size of their following, they may use a manager. Ronn Torrossion, CEO of 5WPR in New York, suggests going straight to the influencer instead of the manager because it’s the influencer you want to build a relationship with.

The challenges of an influencer program

Now it wouldn’t be fair if we talked about building an influencer program without addressing some of the challenges you may face.  

Unrealistic expectations

Just because you got a celebrity or other influencer to post about your product does not necessarily mean you’ll see a sudden surge in sales. Visual Objects found that 58% of social media users have not and never intend to buy products through an influencer’s promo code.

Fraud and distrust

An influencer program comes with potential risk. An influencer may attempt to fraud you by providing less than what they agreed to or not abiding by the contract or agreement. Unfortunately, 68% of professionals who answered Influencer Marketing Hub’s survey say they have experienced fraud.

An influencer’s actions—good or bad—will impact the level of trust their audience has in them. There are advertising laws that influencers must adhere to, and when they don’t it causes distrust among their audience. To avoid this deception, 24% of US consumers want influencers who don’t adhere to the rules to be banned for a time from their social platforms.

SlickText found that 14% of consumers think photos that look too edited erode trust. Heavily edited photos and the use of filters can be especially misleading in situations of skin care, hair, or makeup products as filters may do the heavy lifting and leave the audience with unrealistic expectations and great disappointment. Most consumers from around the world want stricter rules requiring influencers to disclose their use of editing or filters on content.

Measuring influencer program ROI

As with any communications tactic, influencer marketing is not a silver bullet. You may achieve great success with one campaign and not with another. That’s why keeping close track of the program, setting benchmarks, and measuring impact are all vital for continuing to develop and hone your program.

Focusing on the wrong KPIs will leave you thinking that your influencer campaign has been a waste of time. So don’t…

  • Base your results entirely on the data provided natively by the platform
  • Rely on your influencer to send you the results of the campaign
  • Focus only on quantitative data like reach, likes, and shares

How to measure the results of your influencer program

The goals you set at the very beginning will determine which KPIs are important and how you measure them. More and more, PR and marketers are using influencer programs to increase sales and not just boost reach or brand awareness. In this case, affiliate links, traffic sources, and promo codes will need to be on your list of KPIs.

You also don’t have to wait until the end of the campaign to measure. In a Forbes article, Scott Baradell of Idea Grove recommends asking for regular reports. That way you’ll have a “better qualitative feel for whether the influencer is the right choice for the campaign, and if the campaign is making headway.”

Speaking of qualitative…

The importance of qualitatively analyzing your influencer program

PR pros are familiar with the term sentiment. Defined by Oxford Languages, sentiment is “a view of or attitude toward a situation or event.”

Sentiment analysis in media monitoring is an important measure of brand reputation and public perception. The greater percentage of your coverage that is of positive sentiment, the better your brand is likely regarded. Analyzing sentiment won’t be as easy in an influencer campaign, but the same principle applies.

Instead of just counting comments or retweets—read the responses and break them down for sentiment. How did people react to the partnership? Did people think it was authentic? Were people sharing because they were excited or because they were disappointed?

Now, back to more quantitative measures of success.

Benchmark!

Technically this bit happens before the influencer campaign launches. If you don’t know where you started, how will you know where you ended up? Make sure you have pre-campaign data for all the relevant KPIs you decide to track.

Measure reach through traffic data

Just because an influencer has a million followers doesn’t mean your brand’s content will reach a million eyes. Look instead at the traffic diverted to your website as a measurement of reach by seeing who came to your site through a unique link.

Track sales

Track sales made using promo/unique codes and affiliate links to see how much is coming to you by way of the sponsored content.

Ask your influencer for engagement metrics

Although they can be considered vanity metrics, the number of likes, shares, and comments are still important and interesting to know. In fact, 38% of respondents to the Influencer Marketing Hub survey are most interested in engagement and clicks.

Increase in audience size

If your goal was to increase brand awareness or grow your audience on a particular platform, then you should be looking at the number of new followers or subscribers (which is why benchmarking is essential).

Backlinks

These are SEO’s nuggets of gold. If your selected influencers were bloggers, then look at how many backlinks you received and if your domain authority increased.

This list of metrics is not exhaustive. Perhaps you have a metric that is important to you that we didn’t cover. That’s okay! Your business goals will differ from another’s, so what remains most important is that your KPIs accurately reflect your objectives.

User-generated content vs. an influencer program

Tangent time! Sort of…

If you’re not quite ready to invest in a full-scale influencer program, but want to go beyond earned and owned media, user-generated content could be the strategy for you.  

User-generated content (UGC) is real content created by real people about brands. It’s the same idea as influencer marketing—getting someone else to talk about your product—without the same relationship building or dollar requirements.

We share about UGC in our recently updated guide Content Amplification. UGC should be part of your communications plan because it commandeers a lot of trust. We’re talking about 83% of US consumers trusting non-sponsored posts that promote general consumer content. Plus, 86% seek out UGC before deciding to buy something they’ve never tried before.

That’s a lot of power!

So how do you encourage social media users on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube to share authentic content about your brand if you’re not paying them and you’re not pitching them?

First off, do as Andrew Richardson says and “make your product or service something that is worth talking about.”

UGC can’t be bought but it can be encouraged and even incentivized through:

  • Hashtags (especially on Twitter and Instagram)and the possibility of being featured
  • Contests 
  • Rewards (such as coupon codes, special offers, gift cards)
  • Questions/quizzes 

Now that you have a whole bunch of people talking and sharing content about you, take advantage of the online publicity and share it on your own channels.

Where to next?

To keep learning about influencer programs, sign up for the Bulldog Reporter Daily or Weekly newsletter as it regularly features influencer marketing content, including guest blogs and industry research.

Or if you’re interested in some of the tools we mentioned, like the media database and media monitoring, check out our top-rated Agility platform by signing up for a free and personalized demo