If you’re on social media — or if you consume any sort of media — you’ve interacted with influencer marketing.
It usually looks something like this:
You can usually spot it by the brand tag, the personalized coupon code at the end (15ASHLEY!) and the ring-light lighting. It may have even influenced some of your purchase decisions.
But what is influencer marketing, exactly? Influencer marketing is a type of paid word-of-mouth marketing popular on social media platforms and other media channels.
Influencer marketing is a type of paid word-of-mouth marketing popular on social media platforms and other media channels.
Marketers hire well-known figures in a specific niche — like Bachelor Nation, Haibon’s niche — to promote a product or brand, raising awareness and ultimately driving sales.
This isn’t new. “Celebrities have been sticking products in front of their face and smiling for the camera since the beginning of modern advertising,” creative director Isaac Simpson told MarketerHire.
Influencer campaigns might even pre-date advertising and digital marketing as we know it:
In the 21st century, though, influencer marketing has moved onto social media platforms and grown increasingly popular. According to eMarketer data, the percentage of marketers that work with influencers is inching closer to the percentage that use social media marketing in general — which is inching closer to 100%.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that for most social media users, sponsored influencer content is everywhere.
According to a Thrive survey, about 54% of Americans follow between five and 20 influencers. And a Fractl study suggests that up to 59% of some social media influencers’ content is sponsored.
The amount of sponsored content is on the rise, too: a Klear study found that posts with #ad Instagram posts rose 26% YoY in 2021, while #ad Instagram stories rose 31% YoY.
They’re ubiquitous enough that influencer campaigns can look like a cure-all to marketing teams.
“Influencer is such a buzzword,” influencer marketer Ashley Macha told MarketerHire. “A lot of companies are like, ‘We’ll just find an influencer.’”
“Influencer is such a buzzword."
But it’s not that simple. How do you build an influencer marketing campaign that works?
We reached out to experts in the field to compile the ultimate guide to influencer marketing, complete with the important questions to ask before getting started, the best examples and the most common rookie mistakes.
- Isaac Simpson, a creative director who led influencer campaigns for NVE and Influential.
- Cletus McKeown, head of content at Flowcode, and an influencer marketer who got his start working with comedians at Comedy Central.
- Katherine Bellando, a marketing consultant with KMB Consulting and the lead on Condé Nast’s first Instagram account, for SELF magazine.
- Ashley Macha, a social media and content strategist who specializes in healthcare and fitness.
- Amanda Garren, an influencer marketer and social consultant who once single-handedly managed $5 million in monthly YouTube influencer spend.
Is influencer marketing a fad?
Simply put, no. Influencer marketing is here to stay, and it’s only getting more important.
In 2019, an Influencer Marketing Hub survey estimated that the average ROI for an influencer marketing campaign was $18 per dollar spent.
Then the pandemic hit — and the influencer marketing trend helped brands weather all its uncertainty. Advertising costs rose 23% in 2020, but the brands that invested in influencer marketing early said they didn’t see an impact on their bottom line during the pandemic, Vogue Business reported.
In summer 2021, eMarketer forecast that influencer marketing spend in the U.S. would grow 33% in 2021, and another 12% — to surpass $4 billion! — in 2022.
4 examples of influencer marketing done right
Our panel of experts talked us through influencer marketing campaigns they worked on or admired. Here are four of our favorites.
Papa Johns and Shaq.
The success: lifetime support from a basketball legend
In 2020, Papa Johns and Shaquille O’Neal rolled out a collaboration: an extra large pizza with extra cheese and pepperoni called the Shaq-a-Roni.
At first glance, this looks similar to McDonald’s partnerships with stars like BTS, Saweetie, and Mariah Carey.
But this partnership was distinctive, McKeown said, because Papa John’s didn’t just borrow Shaq’s face and fandom — he became the part-owner of nine franchises, a brand ambassador, content creator and the pizza company’s first Black board member.
Now, when Papa John’s wins, O’Neal wins too. He likely posts about Papa John’s without getting paid — or asked.
When you give an influencer equity like that, “you’re making [them] a complete advocate for your product,” McKeown said. “That’s a lifetime contract.”
NYU Langone and local parents.
The success: positive comments aligned with the campaign initiative
During the pandemic, NYU Langone worked with parenting influencers to promote consistent well visits for kids.
Pediatricians had noticed check-ups were lagging — presumably due to COVID-19 concerns.
“We were trying to say, ‘Things are safe. We’re keeping you safe and here’s what we’re doing,’” Macha, one of the marketers on this campaign, explained. “We felt that that was a very important message.”
One of the influencers on NYU’s roster: Nellie Acevedo, the Instagram influencer and blogger behind Brooklyn Active Mama.
Acevedo has over 10,000 Instagram followers and posted a photo of her daughter with a caption about their trip to NYU Langone and the hashtag #DontDelayYourHealthcare.
This was an awareness and engagement campaign. Due to privacy restrictions in healthcare, marketing teams can’t check whether people who viewed or engaged with the sponsored content then made appointments for their children — so the campaign couldn’t be measured in terms of conversions, Macha said.
But marketers on the project were encouraged by the comments and likes the influencers received on their posts.
“They just had such great engagement,” Macha said.
“We’ve kept up with the boys’ doctors visits but it has been a bit nerve wracking!” one commenter wrote on Acevedo’s post. “So glad your doctor is taking precautions.”
HelloFresh and … all the influencers.
The success: 0.5% of Mandy Moore’s 4.7M followers liked her sponsored post about HelloFresh
HelloFresh does a lot of influencer marketing. The brand has zeroed in on their target audience of potential customers — Millennial women — and invested in influencers popular with that demographic.
That includes superstars like Mandy Moore, who has 4.7 million followers, and got nearly 25,000 likes on this post.
HelloFresh partners with smaller influencers, too, like Kat Bernard, a physician assistant and podcaster with 67,600 followers.
HelloFresh’s influencer work has even spread across the pond. They launched an influencer marketing campaign with British television presenter Davina McCall and 15 smaller British influencers in 2020.
HotShot and the Patriots’ James Develin.
The success: creative assets relevant at multiple key cultural moments
One of our experts, Bellando, helped sports recovery drink HotShot develop a partnership with former New Englands Patriots player James Develin.
The drink company partners with lots of athletes, but the timing made this campaign special, Bellando said. The Patriots went to the Super Bowl right after HotShot sealed the partnership, so Develin’s content felt relevant — and authentic.
He was “really using it in real life,” Bellando said.
And it worked — or at least, the Patriots won the Super Bowl!
After the win, the HotShot team was able to repurpose content from Develin in their social feeds to celebrate.
They did something similar when Develin retired from football in May 2020.
A benefit of these long-term partnerships is “how versatile the content can be,” Bellando said. “We were able to [re-]use this footage and these videos.”
4 key types of influencers
To do successful influencer marketing campaigns like the ones above, you need influencers. (Duh.) So who are they?
Well, the definition of an influencer is expanding. “A traditional influencer is famous because of their social media presence,” Garren said.
"A traditional influencer is famous because of their social media presence."
They can post about anything — even vaccine mandates — as long as their audience follows them because of their posts, and their brand partners pay them to post.
Today, though, influencers include anyone influential enough to affect purchasing behavior with a social post.
They can be celebrities famous for off-social activities — like Khloe Kardashian, who rose to fame on Keeping Up with the Kardashians and does sponsored posts for migraine medications — and comparatively regular people — like author Mary Choi, who did sponsored content for clothing brand Uniqlo.
They can have millions of followers or just 1,000, and they can work in any industry, from fashion to cybersecurity.
Influencers who deliver the most value to brands tend to have two characteristics, Simpson said:
- Relatability: “Influencer marketing generally involves people that you do not consider to be a normal celebrity, but instead as a relatable follow,” Simpson said. Think someone whose lifestyle feels widely accessible.
- Authenticity: In influencer marketing, “there’s a much greater accommodation for unpolished, authentic, self-created posts” than in traditional spokesperson deals, Simpson said. Think content influencers make with their own iPhones, like this post from a doula influencer who partnered with a soap brand — as opposed to airbrushed ads.
Here are four categories of influencer that our panel of experts said are worth considering for a brand partnership.
Pro: Huge followings
A celebrity is someone who “has some other notable element to their public identity,” Garren said.
That could be anything beyond the realm of social media — like acting, making music, or even mean being related to someone noteable: Brooklyn Beckham, whose main claim to fame is being the son of David and Victoria Beckham, does BMW spon.
Celebrity endorsements can be a slam dunk if you’re going for reach. Celebrities have massive followings – the largest of any influencer type — and they tend to have a ton of distribution channels for their content.
"[Ryan Reynolds] goes on Oprah, has a podcast, is getting interviewed in magazines,” McKeown said. (Not to mention on the red carpet!) “He’s got a bunch of different mediums”
Not to mention Instagram, where Reynolds has 40M+ followers.
Celebrities’ variety of owned channels and earned media mentions give them more opportunities to mention your product organically than a typical influencer.
They price accordingly, though — often demanding equity as well as payment (and free products). For instance, in 2019, when Snoop Dogg partnered with buy-now-pay-later service Klarna, he also became a minority shareholder in the company and got an opportunity to “give them advice on how the brand hits with culture,” Forbes reported.
The partnership was a success. Klarna’s merchant sign ups grew 140% YoY after the campaign, and 16 million new customers started using the service.
Promoting a nicher product with a star like Snoop Dogg might not be so effective though: beliefs, interests, and demographics vary widely across celebrity audiences.
Pro: Devoted followings
Con: Narrow reach
If traditional celebrities have wide appeal and lots of exposure, niche influencers have the opposite. Their audiences are interested in very specific types of content — and they’re very engaged.
Take, for instance, people who are interested in costumes and costume design. In the costume realm, you could follow regency costume influencers like @pinsent_tailoring (350,000+ followers) for historical costumes.
Zack Pinsent, the regency costume influencer, has a 2.36% engagement rate, according to Grin’s analytics tool. That’s double the engagement rate mega-influencer Kim Kardashian has.
McKeown and other influencer marketers said the fandom of niche influencers has exploded on social networks since the start of the pandemic. “There’s almost cult followings for hobbies now,” McKeown said, and brands are just starting to take notice.
“There’s almost cult followings for hobbies now."
Universal Pictures invited Pinsent to an early private screening of its 2021 movie, Cyrano. When Pinsent posted a photo of himself (in 18th century fashion, of course) and his partner at the event, the photo got over 11,000 likes — and a comment from Hendrick’s Gin’s brand account.
Note: Niche influencers post content for a specific subculture — but they’re not micro-influencers (or nano-influencers), who are defined by their small audiences, and usually have under 10,000 followers. Pinsent, meanwhile, has 350,000+ followers.
Pro: More diverse price points than major celebrities
Con: Heavily regulated
Athletes are almost like movie stars and other celebrity influencers, but they come with a few special considerations.
First, there’s a lot of them — especially now that the NCAA has changed its rules to allow college student athletes to make money from brand partnerships.
Second, there are more limits to working with athletes than there are to celebrities. They have to follow specific rules to remain eligible to play their sport.
Those rules can determine:
- Which companies athletes can work with (the NBA Players Union negotiates some exclusive content creation deals for basketball players, for example)
- What athletes can wear or say while posting content on social media
- When athletes can post brand-related content
Bellando saw this firsthand during the Rio Olympics, when working with runner Shalene Flanagan.
"No athlete could go to Rio and post about any of their sponsorships while they were there,” Bellando said.
There was a blackout period for brand sponsorship posting about two weeks before the Olympics, and two weeks after.
But the wide audiences these athletes have can make partnership deals worth it for brands, in spite of the regulations.
Con: Limited influence
Paid social endorsements from customers may be the new wave of the customer testimonial, McKeown said. This can make a big impact — especially on TikTok. Just ask Trinidad Sandoval.
In August 2021, Sandoval posted a video of herself using Peter Thomas Roth eye cream. Sandoval wasn’t famous before she posted the video. In fact, she thought TikTok was like Facebook, and only her friends or subscribers would see the eye cream review.
The video was viewed over 5.5 million times, and the eye cream sold out in stores across the country, Glossy reported. Sandoval herself gained roughly 100,000 followers.
It’s not traditional influencer marketing since Sandoval wasn’t paid by Peter Thomas Roth to post the original review that went viral, but the company later compensated her for the post.
This is increasingly popular. In fact, McKeown himself was recently asked to partner with a haircare company after he posted a positive review of their product. He said yes.
7 questions to ask before partnering with an influencer
Before jumping into an influencer partnership, our panel of experts recommended asking yourself seven questions to figure out what type of influencer to partner with and what type of engagement to pursue.
Is your brand’s leadership comfortable taking risks?
“I generally consider influencer spending to be a riskier bucket of spending,” Garren said. “You never know if you're going to do a $10,000 buy and get nothing.” Can your leadership tolerate that?
"You never know if you're going to do a $10,000 buy and get nothing.”
Yes: “Start putting some money into influencers,” Garren said. Gather accurate audience data so you can choose relevant influencers to eliminate some of that risk.
No: “There’s a lot of other ways [to spend] if you’re needing growth fast,” Garren said — and she finds paid social media and paid search more reliable.
Is your audience on social media?
In other words: Do you (or your direct competitors) have a following on Twitter or TikTok? Are you getting earned social mentions?.
Yes: Good! “Influencer marketing has to occur on social media,” Simpson said. Next, zero in on the platforms where your audience tends to hang out. An influencer marketer can help you decide whether LinkedIn, Snapchat or Instagram is the best fit for a campaign.
No: It might make more sense to look for niche communities that include parts of your audience. Maybe you can promote your product in a private Slack channel, or an industry-specific newsletter.
Is your product super niche?
The type of product or service you’re selling — and its total addressable market — could determine the type of influencer marketing strategy.
Yes: As a general rule, the more niche the product or service, the bigger impact micro-influencers and niche influencers will have, Garren said.
No: You might be able to work with a celebrity. If most people could be interested in the product, “that’s when you’re usually wanting to go more macro,” Garren said.
Do people intuitively know how to use your product?
A complex product, like Salesforce’s CRM, requires different influencer creative than, you know, a toaster.
Yes: You should hire influencers to share endorsements, participate in brand challenges, or simply pose with your product. Product tutorials might not need to be a priority for your brand, McKeown said.
No: You can use influencers to teach people how to use your product or service through tutorials and product demos on platforms like Pinterest or TikTok. This strategy can be particularly handy around new product launches, Macha said.
Are people already making UGC with your product?
User generated content (UGC) is any unpaid, positive social media mentions from regular people. For example, when Glossier customers tweet that they’re at a store or that they’re using a product, Glossier could share (and promote!) that UGC.
Yes: If people are already talking about your brand online, branded content will feel like a natural extension of that conversation, Macha said. You could use influencers to amplify UGC, or to promote product launches, as Glossier did with makeup artist and influencer Katie Jane Hughes.
No: Use a blend of micro- and macro-influencers to start the conversation about your product through a brand awareness campaign. That’s what e-commerce and DTC expert Nik Sharma found led to Hint Water’s first wave of sales.
Do you have lots of room in your existing marketing budget?
It’s possible to do influencer marketing whether you’re ready to spend $50 or $50,000 a week — but your available budget will impact which influencers you select. A lot.
Yes: You can probably think about hiring higher-profile influencers with larger followings, McKeown said. You can also take bigger creative risks, like engaging a hedgehog influencer for an April Fools joke. (It sounds silly, but when weighted blanket brand Bearaby tried it, they saw unprecedented Instagram engagement.)
No: You can still do an influencer campaign, but “do it with people who are evangelists rather than people who have the larger audience or the louder trumpet,” McKeown said. Think your customers, not Kim Kardashian.
Has a certain type of influencer been successful in the past?
You could think of influencer “types” in terms of audience size, niche, primary social platform and more. The possibilities are endless; when Garren managed influencer marketing at Skillshare, she divided influencers into around 50 buckets.
Yes: Try to duplicate past successes, Garren said, and boost performance-based incentives for influencers — like bonuses for hitting key conversion or view milestones.
No: Whether it’s because you’ve never tried influencer marketing before, or you just haven’t hit your stride yet, testing is key — with a diverse crew of influencers, Garren said. Keep track of KPIs like impressions and conversions, and top performers will emerge.
5 common influencer marketing mistakes to avoid
Influencer marketing can go wrong in unusual ways — say, if one of your influencers becomes the villain of Bachelor in Paradise — but it also has some common pitfalls. Here are the main ones our experts recommend watching out for.
Focusing on reach alone.
Not every campaign can (or should) reach every American.
For instance, if you’re a small business that wants to really saturate the Nashville home decor market with mentions of your product, you only want to reach people in a geofenced area.
You might engage all the micro-influencers around the city who post lifestyle and home decor content “to be sure that audience is going to get the message,” McKeown said.
But before you engage an influencer, be honest about what your product is and who it attracts, McKeown said.
McKeown wouldn’t, for example, hire Jake Paul to promote Flowcode. Flowcode makes QR codes and mobile landing pages, and Jake Paul doesn’t have a clear connection with their brand.
Sure, he has more than 20 million followers on YouTube, but a collaboration with Paul would “fall flat on its face,” McKeown said.
The right influencers, people whose audiences overlap your brands’, might have smaller followings, but their content will seem more organic and authentic — and lead to higher ROI.
Overspending because you “have to.”
In reality, “you can do $50 a week,” McKeown said.
If he were doing a shoestring influencer campaign for Flowcode, “I’m printing out $50 worth of QR code stickers and I’m getting them out to people and I’m seeing which people engage with it and then tell their friends about it.”
He’d start a partnership with some of those highly engaged people, whether they have huge followings or not.
Even aspirational influencers offer a range of prices. If you have someone in mind, just ask for their fact sheet, Macha said — it should have pricing listed.
Ignoring the FTC’s rules of engagement.
When influencer marketing first got started, “it was pay-per-play,” McKeown said. “You’d give someone a check and they would promote your item.”
They might tag it as #sponsored, or they might not. It was a new, unregulated sector.
Not anymore. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) now has rules around disclosing what posts are endorsements or advertisements or in any way sponsored. For instance, sponsorship disclosures should be visible in the endorsement message, and terms like “collab” or “ambassador” are considered too vague to count as a disclosure.
If your partnership doesn’t follow the FTC’s rules, you could get yourself into some serious trouble. In 2020, a detox tea company was ordered to repay customers $1 million after celebrity influencers like Cardi B didn’t place partnership disclosures high enough in their social posts.
Doing a splashy collab, but just once.
“That’s like advertising on one podcast or putting one commercial on a sea of television,” McKeown said.
Keep marketing’s long standing Rule of Seven in mind: “You need to hit someone seven times before they’re interested in your product,” McKeown said.
“You need to hit someone seven times before they’re interested in your product."
So Macha recommends balancing campaigns with one “top-tier” person and several smaller influencers. On one campaign with a $20,000 overall budget, Macha said her team spent $10,000 on one influencer, and spread the rest across three micro-influencers to extend the campaign’s reach.
A “one-and-done approach” won’t get you conversions, because it lacks follow-through, she said.
Treating the relationship as a transaction, not a partnership.
One issue companies often run into has nothing to do with rules or KPIs: When you make your influencer-brand relationship transactional, you’ll get less authentic work from them.
Hiring an influencer should start with the intention of creating a lasting partnership. “A good partnership is 360 [degrees],” McKeown said. In other words, it should be a partnership that’s both online and offline.
“A good partnership is 360 [degrees]."
Think Megan Thee Stallion’s 2021 partnership with Popeye’s. As part of the deal, Meg got her own Popeye’s franchises.
How to measure success of influencer campaigns
Some people say influencer marketing is hard to track — but between social platforms' native analytics, affiliate link tracking tools like Everflow or LinkTrust and other marketing tools, our experts say you should be able to measure performance for campaigns throughout the funnel.
Below are the types of metrics our sources recommend tracking — and how they measure them for influencer campaigns.
What it is: Reach is a measurement of how many people really actually see an influencer’s posts. It’s more accurate than follower count, since some influencers have fake followers or are followed by bots. Plus, not every follower sees every post – and some non-followers find posts in search results.
Reach is both a post-campaign performance metric (we reached X number of users!) and a pre-campaign tool for assessing influencers (they reach an average of X number of users per post!).
How to measure it: Influencers can view their own reach on in-app analytics dashboards, like Instagram Insights or on TikTok Analytics, and share those numbers with brands.
What it is: Audience growth refers to the number of new followers your brand gains over the course of a campaign, or in the months after.
How to measure it: Track your brand’s social following’s growth over time using native dashboards in individual social apps, or using custom dashboards.
What it is: Engagement rate is the rate at which an influencer’s followers engage with their posts — so share, like and comment on them.
How to measure it: Divide the total number of likes and comments on a post by the influencer’s total follower count.
You can also use the numerator of a post’s engagement rate — so, the total engagement count — to calculate cost per engagement (CPE) and set budgets for future campaigns.
Referral & organic social traffic.
What it is: Referral and organic search traffic measures the number of visits to your website an influencer marketing campaign generated.
How to measure it: Give a custom UTM to each influencer — or each post — to keep more granular tabs on your referral sources.
Even better, set up Google Analytics goals using UTM parameters (a growth marketer or marketing analyst can help) so that you can measure how traffic growth impacts goal conversion rate.
What it is: A conversion is a desired action — like making a purchase, or signing up for a newsletter — that a customer takes after viewing an influencer marketing campaign.
How to measure it: Giving influencers unique affiliate links, promotional codes, or UTM parameters can help you capture the source of conversions more specifically, Garren said.
It’s also smart to ask leads that come in where they heard about you. Sales teams often do this for B2B brands to appropriately attribute leads to influencer campaign. But B2C brands do it, too, with HDYHAU (how did you hear about us) surveys made with tools like EnquireLabs.
You can also track sales before, during, and after the campaign for a rough impact estimate.
Pro tip: Tag leads that come from influencer campaigns, so you see if their lifecycle and lifetime value differs from your average customer’s.
The future of influencer marketing
Influencer marketing is a $13.8 billion industry, with over 100,000 influencers on TikTok alone, according to an Influencer Marketing Hub report.
Why? It works. People trust other people — especially their peers — more than they trust direct brand messaging.
Influencer marketing allows you to leverage that trust in a way that supports your strategy and feels authentic to your audience
If you don’t know where to start, we’re sure to know a marketer who can help.
A version of this blog post was originally written by Courtney Grace and published on November 23, 2020.