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Here's How to Build an Influencer Marketing Program That Boosts Word of Mouth and ROI

April 15, 2021
Courtney Grace

Does influencer marketing and UGC actually work? Oh, absolutely it does. Better yet, it doesn't have to incredibly expensive either. Here's how to tap into both strategies, right now.

Table of Contents

If you’re on social media — or if you consume any sort of media, for that matter — you’ve likely interacted with influencer content.

While influencer marketing used to be reserved for only the biggest brands, it’s become an integral part of strategies for brands of every stage and in every industry, particularly over the last half-decade. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid growth of e-commerce has turned influencer marketing on its head, too. In fact, they’ve become more crucial than ever in creating social proof for their brand partners.

In the fashion industry, for example, where supply chain blockages and store closures have upended retail operations, influencers are helping brands tackle challenges that go “beyond business opportunities. Now is the time for clients to be connecting with their audience in new ways, like building out their TikTok channel or launching an Instagram series,”  Christina Jones, Vice President of Talent at Digital Brand Architects LA (DBA), told Fashion Monitor.

Though retail has been hit with some pandemic curveballs, there are still plenty of ways to create sales and leverage influencers at every point of your funnel.

Source: Trend.io

Tap into Your Brand's Superpower: User Generated Content

UGC can improve performance at every stage of the marketing funnel.

In this course, learn how to leverage it for your brand.

Influencer Marketing in an On-Going Pandemic

There’s been a real maturing of the practice of influencer marketing. Long gone are the days of posed product promotions that involve staging, lightning, and completely fabricated scenarios.

Today, brands and influencers collaborate on new and innovative ideas to engage target audiences and make introductions to new ones.

This helps create not only significant brand awareness but, as seen above, helps create pointed content that is delivered to your audience and drives sales at every part of the funnel.

Brands have taken notice as of late, and at least 90% of marketers are using influencers in their broader strategy, according to BigCommerce. For a good reason, too: the average ROI is significant.

Source: Influencer Marketing Hub

With the global pandemic halting many events and in-person experiences, is $18 ROI possible? Moreover, does influencer marketing work? It does. Here are important stats to consider when talking about the power of influencer marketing:

  • 65% of influencer marketing budgets were expected to increase in 2020. Just in 2018, only 39% of marketers planned to grow their influencer marketing budget.
  • In 2020, Instagram reigned supreme as the top influencer marketing channel (though expect to see TikTok rise!).
  • Speaking of Instagram, feed posts are the most used format for influencer content, followed by Instagram Stories.
Source: Mediakix

That’s not to say that creating a successful campaign — or rather, a fully-baked strategy — doesn’t come without its challenges. 

This deep dive into the current state of influencer marketing tactics for success can help you mitigate some of those challenges and help you sustain lasting partnerships with influencers in your space.

Let’s dive in.

What is Influencer Marketing?

Influencer marketing is a type of word-of-mouth marketing popular on social media platforms and other media channels. It uses well-known figures in a specific niche to advocate for a product or brand, raising that brand’s awareness and ultimately driving sales. 

In influencer marketing’s earlier days, audience size was considered the most important aspect of an influencer strategy. Today, a large following is no longer a criterion for vetting influencers. What’s most important is that you find folks who your audience can trust. 

Smaller-scale influencers, or micro-influencers, often report the best results because their engagement ratios are much tighter, and the experience between influencer and customer feels more intimate.

It’s important to note that influencer marketing isn’t limited to social media as a channel, nor do said influencers have to attain a certain level of influence or expertise to be considered an influencer.

Influencers, unlike celebrities, can be anywhere. They can be anyone. What makes them influential is their large followings on the web and social media.

An influencer can be a popular fashion photographer on Instagram, or a well-read cybersecurity blogger who tweets, or a respected marketing executive on LinkedIn. Within any industry, there are influential people—you just have to find them. [Influencer Marketing Hub]

The State of Influencer Marketing in 2021 and Beyond

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread globally and e-commerce continues to scale quickly, the role influencers play is changing, and brands are trying to adapt.

Though in-person experiences and travel has halted many campaigns, social media engagement skyrocketed during quarantine and continues to remain high as more folks are staying home, rendering audiences significantly more engaged than they would have been otherwise, according to data from Later.

Source: Later

Niche influencers and brands that quickly jumped on board with DIY homemade influencer content saw strong results, particularly those in the e-commerce space or who created an online arm during the pandemic.

Influencers with a targeted focus on fitness, food prep, and fashion — things that people were heavily focused on in quarantine — saw their engagement numbers skyrocket.

“This targeted focus has helped lead Instagram influencers to achieve an average increase in likes of 67.7% and a more than 50% increase in comments. In effect, as observed by Jaysen Gillespie of Criteo, many of these influencers have been “homefluencers” during  the pandemic in the sense that they connect with viewers who themselves are spending more time at home.” [Forbes]


What gives for this rise in engagement and, by in large, rise in the actual influence that these creators have? “It speaks to a broader shift in consumer behavior,” writes Emily Farra for Vogue. “We want to hear from people, not corporations.”

The Five Types of Influencers 

To determine the perfect mix of influencers for your campaign, there should be some significant understanding of your audience and goals for them: 

  • Are you creating brand awareness? 
  • Are you attempting to sell a specific suite of products? 
  • Are you creating an experience for people? 

Figuring out what your goal is can help you figure out the types of influencers you may need. You’ll likely have more than one influencer, and they’ll fall into different categories depending on the segment of your audience you’re after.

1. Micro-influencer.

As the name claims, these influencers tend to have smaller followings (between 1,000 and 100,000), but don’t let their footprint fool you.

These influencers tend to create high-quality, authentic content, and they’ve developed significantly closer relationships with their audience. That audience, too, tends to be more uniform in terms of habits, beliefs, and interests versus your typical celebrity or influencer with a massive following. 

Source: Trend.io

Like any other type of influencer, these folks still specialize in a specific interest area or focus. For example, Ashley Pimentel focuses on fashion and travel-lifestyle content, while Marcus Carson’s audience is focused on fitness and exercise.

Influencers with 1,000 followers generated 85% higher engagement than those having 100,000 followers. As the follower count increases, the engagement tends to decrease. 

And when a similar percentage of people (84%) say that they trust peer recommendations over traditional advertising when making a purchasing decision, you want the influencer-audience relationship to be as tight-knit as possible. Micro-influencers create that bond.

2. Celebrity influencer.

Celebrities, by nature, are influencers, whether they lean into it or not. A single social media post or sound byte from an interview can send the entire world into a frenzy. 

They have massive footprints – the largest of any influencer type — so there’s typically no uniformity to their audience. Beliefs, interests, and desires vary across their followership, so promoting a niche product isn’t often super effective. If reach is what you’re going for, though, it may be worth it to work with a celebrity.

A celebrity endorsement around politics, current events, and other ideas can go a long way. You’ll just be paying a hefty price tag for it, of course. 

This is why you tend to see big celebrity names with big brand names, like:

These partnerships are often born to capitalize on existing buzz or moments, like the Golden Warriors Championship win or the youngest Kardashian sister announcing her pregnancy.

Source: Instagram
Source: Instagram

3. Blog influencer.

Long before social media became the main driver of influencer campaigns, bloggers promoted ideas, products, and brands. The term influencer wasn’t even a “thing,” and bloggers were already performing that crucial marketing role.

Blog influencers use their specific platform to create high-quality, long-form content that drives traffic and leads to relevant web pages. In many ways, blog influencers use content marketing to grow their brands and build strategic relationships. They typically write about one particular idea or industry, like food or fashion. As a result, they have niche, loyal audiences who trust their opinion. 

Leveraging blog influencers, or inviting influencers to write for your brand’s blog, is an important arm to your entire marketing plan: 

By consistent blogging, you boost your search engine optimization (SEO), build brand awareness, and overall increase your online exposure. To influence conversions means you are making the most of your website traffic which often leads to positioning yourself top in online competition, establishing audience engagement, gaining client acquisition, and ultimately leading to sales. [Shawn Keo on Medium]

Blog influencers have an integrated marketing benefit, given they can impact your SEO ranking, produce content for you to reuse, produce gated assets, publish to their newsletter subscribers, and even continue to post on their social channels. 

When working with one of these influencers, think about the partnership more like a business relationship. This isn’t just about a single social post that later gets hidden in the feed. This is about a piece of content that has a long-term life on the web. 

4. Social media influencer.

When people today think about influencer marketing, this is typically where their mind goes. 

Product reviews, sponsored posts, swipe up links in Instagram Stories, and countless #linkinbio hashtags are all standard of social media influencer campaigns. Their influence, quite literally, goes far beyond their large followings.

Times have changed, though. Being an influencer in 2020 looks a lot different than it did even five years ago.

Long gone are the days of staged, propped photoshoots using professional-level equipment. Today, social media influencers and content creators are doing the capturing, editing, and promotion of content right from the palm of their hands (and SMS marketing has shown that giving people what they need on the device they use most often is exceptionally effective). 

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, too, influencers are more DIY than ever in creating accessible, at-home content. Here’s an example of COVID-era influencer marketing from @anja_mari and Big Blanket Co. No fancy DSLR necessary:

Source: Instagram

Consider, too, social media’s footprint in every aspect of our lives, from getting the news to shopping to communicating with friends, family, and peers: It’s ingrained in nearly everything we do today, so it makes sense that influencers would live here. 

Social media is the marketing channel that moves information around the web the quickest, too, so word-of-mouth marketing is a natural and useful by-product of leveraging influencers on social networks.

In today’s influencer landscape, the Instagram influencer or YouTuber aren’t the only ones creating lucrative careers as influential people on social media. 

When you consider Snapchat and TikTok, channels where nearly 90% of Gen Z spends their digital time, influencers can be created virtually overnight. 

This influence then bleeds over into their other social channels. 60% of Gen Z (the most digitally native age group) depends on peer recommendation when making purchase decisions, so capturing this lucrative audience is a massive task for social media influencers.

Source: Social Media Today

5. Thought leaders and tastemakers.

One might think that thought leaders and influencers are the same. While both ideas involve creating influence and opinion through subject matter or product expertise, the two are quite different in terms of their audience and where they create said influence.

Let’s consider, first, what the definition of a thought leader really is. Denise Brosseau, of the Thought Leadership Lab, considers them like this:

...being informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. She considers them to be “trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success. Over time, they create a dedicated group of friends, fans, and followers to help them replicate and scale their ideas into sustainable change not just in one company but in an industry, niche or across an entire ecosystem.

It’s the ability to lead conversations that stimulate change that creates a rift between influencers and dedicated thought leaders. 

Influencers are typically joining a conversation that’s already happening. It’s a transaction that ends in a sale, a sign-up, or a consumer mindset shift, but not necessarily in behavior. That’s where the divide between the two entities comes from.

If your product or service needs to challenge consumers’ mindset or your targeted audience, you may be looking for a thought leader partnership, not just an influencer. Keep in mind, you can leverage both – and build an integrated campaign that gets maximum results. 

Tap into Your Brand's Superpower: User Generated Content

UGC can improve performance at every stage of the marketing funnel.

In this course, learn how to leverage it for your brand.

How to Determine if an Influencer Marketing Campaign is Right For Your Brand, Right Now

When you look at influencer data around ROI and engagement, it’s natural to want to jump into creating an influencer campaign. While some brands and verticals lend themselves to this type of marketing, take a hard look at your goals and determine if it’s the right move for your business.

After all, influencer marketing can be expensive, and it can have negative backlash as well. Not all collaborations make sense. Take the Cole Haan and Slack collaboration for instance. Makes sense? Not really. Worth it? Maybe…

Source: Cole Haan

Ask yourself the following questions to determine if influencer marketing can help you hit your goals:

  • First, have you determined an overall goal? Do you want to sell units, increase brand awareness, make people take action, etc.? 
  • Then, have you been able to identify specific influencers that not only meet your audience demographics but align with key brand values, too? This helps narrow down your options by a lot.
  • Of course, do you have the proper budget? Rather, do you have any budget for them? You will need this. 
  • Finally, do you have the tools in place to measure quantifiable data and not just perceived brand benefits?

If you answered ‘no’ on any of these, you might want to reconsider creating an influencer campaign until you have clear answers to each.

Influencer Marketing Mistakes 101, and How Not to Make Them

So, what are the most common mistakes brands make when working with an influencer? A few occur regularly enough to make a note of them, the first of which is actually a legal responsibility. 

1. Don’t Ignore FTC Rules For Influencer Marketing.

The FTC has rules around disclosing what posts are endorsements or advertisements or are in any way sponsored. If those rules aren’t followed, you could get yourself into some serious trouble. Not setting up exact labeling for your influencer may see this significant task slip through the cracks.

Source: Instagram

2. Pay Attention to Engagement, Not Just Follower Count.

Another common mistake retailers and other companies make when setting up their influencer campaigns is spending a ton of money on influencers with a ton of followers. Engagement is a crucial metric to track during these campaigns, and the data proves that smaller followings yield higher engagement rates (going back to micro-influencers).

Source: Jeff Bullas

3. Build a Partnership, Not a Transactional One-Off.

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. 

How to Develop Your Own Brand’s Influencer Marketing Strategy

You’ve crunched the numbers. You understand the risk. Now, you’re ready to launch the influencer side of your marketing strategy. 

Where to begin?

There are a few boxes to tick before your first #sponsored post goes live, whether you’re working with a single influencer or a whole fleet.

1. Understand the current influencer landscape.

As aforementioned, influencer marketing looks a lot different today than ever before. More than a third of consumers now shop online since the onset of the pandemic, but e-commerce was already snowballing before COVID-19 hit. 

It’s not all about shopping habits, though.

There is more content than ever to see, listen to, hear, and watch. Influencers aren’t just found on Instagram anymore, and those who are using the platform’s many features (and curating their content for said features) use Reels, Stories, IGTV, and the traditional feed.

Off social media, channels like podcasts are heavily leveraging influencer campaigns to create brand buzz and introduce new products, too. 

Know who will know the most about the influencer landscape? The influencer you work with, or the influencer marketing platform, like Trend.io, that they use. Lean on your partners here for support and understanding. Build trust, not just a transaction, and you’ll get a lot more from this relationship and campaign. 

2. Determine an influencer budget, KPIs, and management strategy.

In order to determine the type of influencers you’ll need, as well as the number of them, figure out your budget in advance. 

Can you afford a celebrity or large influencer for reach, or do you need a suite of micro- or nano-influencers who have high engagement? 

Determining what your KPIs are in advance can help inform this decision, too. How do you that? Well, back into how many units you’d need to sell to break even. Can you hit that number? Better yet, can working with this influencer perceivably drive enough sales to turn a profit? What about a gain of 5x from how much you are spending?

Determine what makes the most sense for you, and be sure that if you are going in at this at a loss (from a revenue perspective), you have a really good reason as to why you are doing so. 

3. Decide on campaign messaging.

Now that you know what today’s marketing landscape looks like and you’ve determined the proper roundup of metrics to measure, create your campaign messaging.

Nailing down the details of your campaign and the type of language you want your influencers to use is a good exercise to do ahead of actually selecting them. It can help in the vetting process when you go to select your influencer(s).

Handing your brand kit over or distilling the meaningful parts for your influencers helps them speak more authentic to your brand, but part of the allure of hiring an influencer is that they’re creating content that’s true to them. 

There’s a happy medium, and really good influencers know how to find it.

The type of campaign you run, too, can determine the messaging points you want your influencers to hit. There are many different types that include:

  • Social media takeovers
  • Content co-creation
  • Contests or giveaways
  • Product reviews
  • Affiliates
  • Brand ambassadors
  • Discounts on new products
  • Gifting

These general ideas can help you create a framework for your campaign through which your specific messaging and goals can be seeded.

4. Find the right influencers for your brand.

Now comes the fun part: Finding your influencers!

If you’ve done thorough brand and audience research for your target market, finding relevant influencers that align with your audience’s interests and behaviors won’t be too difficult. What is tough, though, is determining which of these influencers you want to work with, if any, as well as how many of them.

This is where third-party tools like Trend.io can be beneficial. Many of them allow you to search for your influencers using specific filters, but many can also work directly with you to deliver a curated list based on your goals.

Keeping your budget in mind here is key. Larger influencers naturally come with a larger price tag, where smaller ones require less money or will sometimes create content merely to exchange products or goods. 

A healthy mix helps you hit every part of the influencer spectrum, but getting the most bang for your buck is the priority.

5. Contact influencers to work together.

Like any good sales pitch, authenticity will always win.

Before you do any outreach to your selected influencers, do your due diligence in getting to know their content and the brand they’ve created for themselves. Engage with that content. Watch YouTube videos. Listen to the podcasts.

You should genuinely like the content that the influencer publishes. If you do, your authentic interest in them and their content will be apparent. Conversations will become more engaging and natural and less forced. As you gradually bring value to the relationship, influencers will be likely to want to return the favor. [Digital Marketing Institute]

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with your influencers, reach out personally and directly. Be clear about your goals and ways that both parties will benefit from the collaboration. Include them in the influencer program behind the campaign and the executions.

“Work together” is the key phrase here. You’re creating a lasting relationship, not a flash in the pan to create sales or grow your brand overnight.

Also, if you are using multiple influencers, be sure to introduce them to one another. You can bring more to the table by doing this, which builds upon the partnership. But also, influencer content works even better when other influencers engage with it. By getting them introduced, you can work to make sure that the posts are seen by as many people as possible and increase engagement from the moment it is posted. 

5. Review, learn, and iterate on your strategy.

With every campaign comes a slew of learnings. It’s important that all of your tracking is set up ahead of time so you don’t miss out on any data, and it’s even more important to diligently track that data so you can draw conclusions about your campaign.

If you have a successful first campaign, amazing! Continue the momentum with the influencers who created great work and did a job well done. 

If your campaign wasn’t as successful, determine those KPIs you didn’t hit and look for reasons why. 

  • Was there a lack of direction for your influencers to follow? 
  • Did you select the wrong influencers to begin with?

Review your data, learn from it, and pivot your strategy or amplify it if it worked really, really well.

How to Measure Successful Influencer Campaigns

Here are a few of many quantifiable metrics you can choose to measure in order to meet the goals of your influencer campaign. Which ones you use will ultimately be determined by your overall brand goals. 

  • Some brands want to work with influencers to increase awareness because they have long lead cycles. 
  • Others want to work with influencers to increase sales with potential customers and repeat customers immediately.

Both are good reasons. You’ll just need the right KPIs to measure to know if and when you hit or exceed your goal. 

Conversions.

Driving sales will always be the primary goal of marketing. After all, everything that happens in marketing is related to creating growth, which eventually creates sales. 

You can track sales before, during, and after the campaign goes live to determine a rough estimate of sales, but setting up affiliate links, promotional codes, or UTM parameters can ensure you capture the source of conversions.

Conversions also don’t necessarily present themselves as sales. Newsletter sign-ups or event visits can be considered conversions, too. It just depends on the messaging you’re asking your influencers to promote and the overall goal of the campaign.

If you are a B2B business, be sure to ask leads that come in during this period where they heard about you. This can be yet another great way to capture relevant data to attribute back to the influencer campaign. 

Referral & organic social traffic.

Driving traffic to web pages is a huge metric to measure. It gives you a good idea of the validity of your campaign and how large your reach was during it. 

Those same conversion-measuring tools can help you see the number of visitors, bounce rate, and time spent on your site. 

Simply use Google Analytics for this, and watch the pre-built channel attribution category of referral traffic and organic social traffic. You can drill down into these to see which channels sent what amounts of traffic. 

Even better, set up Google Analytics goals in your system (a Growth Marketer can help you do that) so that you can measure traffic growth and volume in comparison to goal conversion rate. 

Engagement.

Where reach tells you just how many people saw your campaign, engagement is measured in shares, likes, comments, video views, pins, and saves. This can tell you how effective the influencer campaign truly was from an engagement point of view.

It shows, too, the health of your audience’s brand perception. You can measure this using tools like Trend.io or do so manually. Either way, it’s also important to note your cost per engagement (CPE) to determine your overall ROI and set budgets for future campaigns.

Source: Trend.io

Audience growth.

So your campaign reached a certain number of people. 

  • How many of those people are now fans? 
  • Customers? 
  • Loyal brand advocates? 

Measuring the number of new followers you gain over the course of your campaign can give you a deliberate number to gauge success by, but you can gauge more qualitative measures, too, like improved customer feedback and new reviews.

If you use lifecycle stages, be sure to have your leads generated from the influencer campaign properly tagged so you can view the lifecycle funnel of the influencer campaign in comparison to your other channels. Ideally, the influencer campaign leads move through the funnel to convert faster. 

Reach.

How many people did your campaign reach? You can find this number on most native social platforms and other third-party tools, or from the influencer themselves. It’s an important number to know in order to determine any new prospects and brand reinforcement.

With reach, you’ll figure out a possible number of those who have been made aware of your product or service. It also helps draw comparisons if you measure the data of multiple influencers. 

  • Whose post did best? 
  • Whose reached the most people?
  • Whose should you engage with again to launch another campaign?

Return on investment.

89% of all marketers find ROI from influencer marketing comparable to or better than other marketing channels:

Source: Mediakix

To determine your ROI, you’ll want to look at how much you spent versus how much revenue you can attribute back to the campaign. Remember to take your sales cycle length into consideration here before you begin to measure ROI. It’s possible you measure it too early or too late, both of which skew the data. 

Examples of Successful Influencer Marketing Campaigns 

Needless to say, there are tons of brands killing it on the influencer front right now. All you need to do is open your social media apps, and you’ll see just how pervasive it is across a variety of brands with so many different influencers. 

This is because influencer marketing, while perhaps expensive at first look, can be incredibly cost-effective. Word of mouth is powerful advertising, after all, and the below examples can serve as case studies for how you could implement a successful influencer marketing campaign asap.  

If you need a burst of inspiration or want to see what some of the big players are doing, check out these examples of strong influencer marketing campaigns.

Sperry’s.

The beloved boating-inspired footwear brand leveraged a massive group — we’re talking over a hundred — of micro-influencers to create high-quality user-generated content. 

The kicker? These influencers were fans who were already promoting the brand organically. Sperry’s wanted to invite these fans into the fold to become brand advocates and be acknowledged for it.

Source: Instagram

Brooklinen.

What’s better than soft sheets? Dogs in soft sheets. DTC bedding brand Brooklinen leveraged the power of puppies to curate a user-generated campaign featuring customer’s… pets. 

There’s an entire philosophy around why pets garner such high engagement, but all of that aside, posting dog photos is a lot less intimidating than posting bed sheet selfies, breaking the barrier of participation.

Source: Instagram

Bigelow Tea.

If you drink tea regularly — or, heck, if you’ve even walked down the tea aisle — you’re probably familiar with Bigelow.

“With craft tea and coffee houses on every corner and the rise of social media marketing, Bigelow decided it needed to differentiate and adapt to the times,” so they partnered with food and beverage bloggers to create innovative recipes. Those recipes skyrocketed in Google rankings and have now been backlinked dozens of times, going on to boost Bigelow tea sales by nearly 19.

Source: Cherished Bliss

Morphe.

Major makeup retailer Morphe is probably the best example of making meaningful collaborations with influencers in their space. The cosmetics industry was worth $93.5 billion in the US market in 2019, and it’s a number that continues to steadily grow as new types of makeup are introduced, and indie brands burst onto the scene.

YouTube continues to be an influential platform for makeup artists and creators, so Morphe has launched many collaborations with creators who already have massive, loyal followings. Morphe benefits from the attentive audience, and creators have the chance to create curated products using Morphe’s footprint and production capabilities.

Source: YouTube

Conclusion

Influencer marketing works. It’s not a buzzword made up by advertising executives or millennials who want free products from brands they like.

In a nutshell, 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’s authentic to your audience and meaningful to your larger strategy.

If you don’t know where to start, we do. Or, at the very least, we’re sure to know a marketer who does.

Courtney Grace
about the author

Courtney Grace is a researcher and writer for MarketerHire. She's also written for brands like Laffy Taffy, Bowflex, and iFLY Indoor Skydiving. When she isn’t creating content, you can find her trying new restaurants or trail hopping with her one-eyed Aussie, Poppy, in Austin, Texas!

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