Influencer engagement: why you’re doing it wrong & how to do it right

“Influencer engagement,” the new media evolution of the celebrity endorsement, has been a hot topic for a while now, and understandably so: the idea of having consumer influencers tout your brand or product direct to their audiences is certainly alluring.

Alas, as with so many things in the realm of digital marketing, the concept has been driven down to its lowest common denominator by the overwhelming desire for scale and simplicity, usually at the expense of the independence and legitimacy that made the idea so compelling in the first place.

Hence the Klouts and the Kreds, which tried (and failed) to quantify and boil “influence” down into a single, simple number devoid of all nuance; hence Bloggermatchup and co, which treat the concept of advocacy as synonymous with old time shills; hence software like Group High and Buzzstream that aim to mechanise and mass produce the “outreach process” (formerly known as relationship building); hence the proliferation of blogger networks and other attempts to pool influence and collectively bargain for better terms and rewards in exchange for sponsored tweets/hashtags/shares/et al.

Much has been said already on how the prevailing model of “influencer relationship marketing” is bust (rather than go over old ground take a look at this excellent piece by Jay Baer and the fascinating discussion that followed this piece on Tnooz).  That discussion took place almost a year ago, but a number of inconvenient truths remain:

Reach ≠ influence: Influence is not measured by Twitter followers. It isn’t measured by uniques per month. It isn’t measured by the number of “impressions,” comments or retweets someone can generate. These things are all essentially irrelevant to the question of actual consumer influence. A fundamental mistake has been to confuse audience size for audience influence.

The data is unreliable/absent: To determine genuine influence with any degree of useful accuracy you need data on the influencer’s audience demographics and you need to know how effective they are at initiating (or contributing to) whatever consumer behaviour or goal you’re aiming for, and via each particular channel. These are all data points that many “digital influencers” (particularly the pro-am variety) are often bad at providing.

Most “influencers” aren’t: Apart from the absolute top tier of professional bloggers, I doubt that many others have sufficient clout (that’s small c, not big K) to consistently influence consumer purchase decisions to any meaningful degree. Casual observation indicates the vast majority of digital influence occurs between and among other “influencers” with little spillover into consumer awareness let alone the purchase/decision making processes.

Goals are often unrealistic, activity is often misaligned: The tendency is to perceive consumer influence in terms of bookings, purchases and other “hard” (revenue-generating) conversions. This ignores the fact that people may not be purchase-intent, qualified prospects at the time of contact. Audiences browse travel blogs and social media for a plethora of reasons and they tend to be way up at the furthest reaches of the customer journey/marketing funnel. Paying a group of bloggers to tweet this month’s promotion 5 times a day for 3 weeks assumes that their audiences are sitting around, credit card in hand, waiting to book their next vacation. They’re probably not.

It also assumes that these audiences are not savvy enough to know when a sales message is being sponsored and paid for. Online consumers have grown jaded and can easily filter shills and paid-to-share efforts to part them with their cash. Not only is this an inefficient use of the audience, it’s also verging on the unethical and it erodes the value of the entire concept.

Actual influencers (and their audiences) and your most powerful advocates are ignored: None of this is to suggest that influencer outreach is just a pipe dream. There is a huge ecosystem of powerful influencers out there, both further afield and closer to home. Further afield in that non-travel related influencers might carry a lot more clout than most travel-specific digital celebs. Think about all the family/parenting blogs and communities that are followed religiously by vast numbers of parents. How about all the money saving sites and experts. Then there are lifestyle blogs, musicians, authors, sports personalities, the list goes on. The question is, who are your consumers aware of and listening to?

But the real advocates are the ones closest to home: your loyal, satisfied customers. People that talk to their neighbours, family and friends about their last vacation, where they stayed, who they flew with and how they booked. These are the people who know your brand and product best and they won’t have a double digit Klout score between them. How much effort goes into “outreach” and “engagement” with them?

Overcoming the hurdles

The fact is that digital influencer engagement is still an emerging concept and, aside from a few notable exceptions (see below), we’re all still finding our feet – particularly when it comes to understanding what digital influence actually means and what we can expect out of it. The following field guide has emerged from plenty of trial and error with various campaigns over recent years, and may offer some use.

Identifying influencers: There are two avenues to identifying influencers – data & analytics or experience & intuition. Important data includes demographic information from sources like Quantcast and Facebook Insights, while audience conversion rates for different goals and channels can be tracked and reported in Google Analytics.  The drawback is that you’re entirely dependent on the influencer to provide this information, and although the data is relatively easy to collect it’s significantly beyond what you can expect from most “media kits.”

The alternative route is to rely on intuition and relationships within the industry and beyond to understand where the audiences are and who they’re paying attention to. This is a non-scalable, non-automatable approach that takes time and expertise, and so has fallen largely out of fashion among many marketers and software creators.

Set realistic (and ethical) goals: What are you asking your influencers to do and what do you expect of their audiences? If your priorities are with hard conversions further down the funnel there are much more cost-effective ways of generating bookings and revenue. If you’re after impressions/eyeballs look at social advertising and content promotion solutions instead. On the other hand if you’re interested in building your own audiences and relationships through things like contests and giveaways or other brand-building activity and digital PR, online influencers can be effective at seeding awareness, engagement and outcomes.

Make sure your goals are realistic: “soft” conversions like email signups and audience building are perfectly legitimate goals that can be valuable to your bottom line further up the funnel, providing you’ve defined how you intend to earn back your value/ROI. Ethics are important, too: Paying a blogger to shill a product or service they have no actual experience of is not only ineffective, it’ll also harm your (and their) standing.

Create smart campaigns: As with most social marketing activities the potential is only fully unlocked when you have the confidence to relinquish control. You have to trust your influencers as genuine partners in the exercise and you need to show flexibility and willingness to tailor your messaging for their audience.

You also need to provide full support and collateral to allow them to do their job, with a diverse selection of media and creative assets that are designed or curated for the right audience and each channel. If it’s an ongoing campaign involving multiple influencers you need to address audience overlap and fatigue: you need diversity in your messages and media to stop people zoning out, or worse: getting bored and frustrated.

Monitor & optimise everything: You need to get obsessive with the figures if you want to avoid wasting the audience share that you’re leasing. This is particularly important if you’re running a weeks/months-long campaign involving multiple influencers. Aim to track campaign performance at a granular level by tagging all campaign URLs to identify each influencer, each channel and the message content. Tagged links look messy so run them through Bitly, which will also provide some headline click data. Note: some social platforms don’t accept shortened links, so there’ll always be an element of improvisation.

Tagged URLs will give you accurate click and performance data in Google Analytics. Watch this like a hawk, understand what works, what doesn’t and what can be improved as your campaign unfolds.

We’ve created a simple campaign management tool to help monitor outcomes and integrate tracking with Google Analytics, feel free to use it as you need.

These points offer a reasonable framework for running an effective influencer outreach campaign without relying on expensive software and in the absence of a hard and fast Klout-like number on genuine consumer influence. Maybe one day the technology will exist that removes all need for intuition and experience and gives us a simple but accurate figure. I’m not sure we’d all be better for it, but perhaps I’m just too outdated. For now though, good old fashioned relationships and spreadsheets do just fine.

Notable Exceptions

Despite the problems outlined above, there are a few examples of travel brands doing great things with influencer relationship marketing:

Wanderers in Residence: G Adventures’ brand ambassador programme is a classic example of what can be achieved through long-term, mutually-beneficial relationships with consumer influencers. Funding frequent trips for a stable of bloggers can’t come cheap but the rewards via earned exposure, brand building and high value content are enormously valuable.

#Nolagtolondon: Air New Zealand took an unusual take on the old question of curing jet lag by having a team of travel pros, journalists and bloggers test their personal remedies on a comped flight from LAX to Heathrow. The campaign earned plenty of buzz for the airline, and connecting it to a sweepstake helped some of that into actual conversions as well as direct engagement with consumers and consumer advocates.

Beyond social: the more traditional approach taken by high end tour operator Cox & Kings reflects an awareness that not all travel consumers are active on social media. Their exquisitely-produced Compass Magazine features contributions from credible travel writers and various non-travel personalities including Simon Reeve, Kirsty Wark and Griff Rhys Jones.  This is a sterling example of using owned media to channel the credibility of influencers to support and develop a brand.