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.

Converged media travel marketing funnel I&I travel media

Converged media and the travel marketing funnel [infographic]

The preeminence of “content” within digital marketing strategy is well established, at least in theory if not yet in widespread practice.

Many of the very principles of web marketing have been recast around the demand for quality content i.e. material that adds sufficient value to the end user, generates conversations & relationships, and ultimately drives consumer behaviour. This new orthodoxy is called content marketing and it has subsumed previously siloed practices & channels such as SEO, social media, email, etc into one singular and integrated whole.

Well that’s the theory anyway. As usual the devil is in the detail, particularly around the tricky issue of integration. Far too much of the current discussion has halted at the first step and still revolves around vague platitudes like “invest in quality content” and “avoid spammy links.” This might have been useful back in 2011 when the first Panda updates hit, but it’s over two years since then and there are still only a notable few travel brands that have truly adapted to the new landscape.

I created this graphic as an attempt to demonstrate how content, or converged media, can play a key role throughout the entire travel marketing funnel.  The purpose of this graphic is to sketch out how each digital channel interacts with each other, at what phase of the consumer purchase process, and how content can be tactically deployed within the wider inbound marketing strategy to maximise outcomes and ROI.

This is an ambitious (possibly over ambitious) task and each brand will have its own unique travel marketing funnel. This is by no means a blueprint and by and large, smaller brands will be less active further up the funnel. The intention here is just to demonstrate the potential of a forward thinking content strategy and how it could work in practice.

Converged media travel marketing funnel I&I travel media


Please feel free to embed this graphic onto your own blog or site, using the following code:
<p><center><img src=”http://ianditravelmedia.com/iandi/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/converged-media-travel-funnel.jpg” width=”670″> <br/>The role of converged media in the travel marketing funnel from <a href=”http://ianditravelmedia.com/”>I&I Travel Media</a></center></p>


The elusive promise of “influencer marketing”

There were few surprises in the 2013 Digital Influence Report (pdf), released in February by Technorati. The main findings were that brands still spend a small fraction of their digital marketing budget on social media – around 10% – of which more than half goes to platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Only another 10% again – just 1% of the total digital marketing budget – goes to blogs and “influencers.”

This is despite, according to Technorati (again, unsurprisingly given they’re a blog directory,) that blogs are among the most trustworthy sources of consumer information, and are more important in shaping opinion and purchase decisions than either Twitter or Facebook.

Influence & blogs - budget and impact mis-aligned - i&i travel media

The report concludes that this amounts to a wasted opportunity for brands and digital marketers, that: “where brands are spending is not fully aligned with how and where consumers are seeing value and being influenced.”

Technorati’s questionable objectivity aside, it’s fairly clear that online influencer marketing is still problematic for many brands, restricted as it is by issues of scalability and reliable analytics. Unlike most digital channels it is still very difficult to predict or calculate ROI from an engagement with an influencer, or even to identify an influencer in the first place.

And in the absence of effective multi-channel attribution (determining which channel or activity contributed to a sale or conversion, and to what extent) it can be difficult for brands to figure out how much of an impact influencers actually make on their bottom line.

In the travel industry we are blessed with very active and diverse communities of digital influencers, media pros and independent bloggers, but for many brands the sheer volume can be overwhelming.

Identifying the right people, engaging them in the right way and monitoring the right outcomes can be such a challenge that many brands prefer to stick with what they know.

But there’s no doubt that those who are able to navigate the minefield and get it right, there is enormous opportunity to be had.

Navigating the fractured landscape of travel influencers

The role of influencers in digital marketing strategy is problematic for many travel brands. Although the huge potential is well recognised, there remain significant barriers to “influencer marketing” becoming a mainstream activity.

Some of the many problems include identifying genuine influencers, working out what consumer behaviour they’re capable of influencing, and how it can all be measured.

This is particularly important in the travel industry where a large segment of our influencers are highly influential among each other – i.e. within the travel bubble – but not necessarily among the wider traveling public or within brands’ target markets.

In fact, an experiment with some new functionality from Followerwonk, a tool for analysing user behaviour on Twitter, suggests there’s much more to influence within the travel industry than we might have assumed.

Methodology

Followerwonk uses the Twitter API to access various layers of data on Twitter users.  A newly-released metric, called social authority, is a measure of users’ authority on Twitter as determined by their re-tweet rate and various other factors. The number of times a user is re-tweeted is considered more important than their follower count as a signal of engagement, click through rates and therefore authority.

There are obvious limitations to this and it should clearly not be used as a definitive or sole metric of an individual’s “influence” (more on that below). But even with a quick and dirty analysis of the re-tweet data we were able to come up with a number of useful observations and questions.

To begin with we created a database of all Twitter users with certain keywords in their bios:  travel, traveler, travel guide, travel advice, travel blog, traveling, travel magazine, travel blogger.  This gave us a total of 740,000 Twitter users who are in some way interested in travel – but not necessarily directly connected to the travel industry.

740,000 lines of data was too much even for our enormous processing capacity (an Excel spreadsheet and endless coffee) so we refined the list to anyone with more than 1,000 followers and a social authority score of over 50/100.  That still left us with over 4,000 users so we made another arbitrary decision to look at just the top 10% of influencers.

From there we removed all the nude Russian models and horoscope accounts and classified each user into a category (a painstaking, manual process with plenty of room for error). Our categories were:

  • Travel brand
  • Travel publisher/broadcaster
  • DMO/Tourism board
  • Travel blog
  • Travel media professional (including freelancers, travel writers, etc)
  • Social media entity (not connected to a brand or individual, e.g. @earth_pics)
  • Non travel (lifestyle, food, sports, actors, musicians, etc – individuals, brands or blogs who express an interest in travel but aren’t connected to the industry)

This left us with a relatively accurate, structured list of the 400 most influential Twitter users who have an interest or connection to travel. Using this list we were able to make a number of important observations:

Huge influence outside the travel bubble

About half (51%) of the top 10% profiles were not directly connected to the travel industry at all. This is an inevitable outcome of our methodology: searching for people interested but not necessarily working in travel is a very broad net which caught all sorts of disparate users.

But these people are far from irrelevant. These are the celebrities, musicians, authors, politicians, sport stars, brands and lifestyle blogs that many people in our target demographics are actively following. There is clearly huge influence out there that exists beyond our own bubble of travel media pros, bloggers and publishers:

top 10 travel influencers by category - I&I travel media

Some of the people we found that could influence travel consumers without being directly connected to the industry included:

non travel influencers - i&i travel media

Think about all the people in your target markets who don’t consume much/any travel media online. Where do their interests lie? Who are they following and listening to? Could there be opportunity to find influencers outside of the travel bubble?  Does your brand include people like this in your outreach efforts?

Relationships between authority and content type

Another interesting observation was the spread of authority for each category among our top 400 influencers:

spread of influence by category - i&i travel media

The most surprising aspect was that, according to the Followerwonk metrics, travel publishers/broadcasters have the lowest spread of authority.  With one significant exception (@LonelyPlanet), none of the travel publishers had an authority score above 80. Only eight had a score above 70, and there were only 55 publishers represented in the entire 400.

If anything, this lays bare the inherent limitations of using a single metric as a measure of authority. In reality these publishers are among the highest source of authority in our field. But it seems that their behaviour on Twitter doesn’t reflect that authority. There are interesting reasons for this that could inform our own content and social strategies.

The Followerwonk data shows that re-tweets, and therefore social authority, often derive from particular behaviour: statements that are concise, funny, pithy and precision targeted to their audience are re-tweeted the most:

content & approches for successful retweets - i&i travel media

Typically, travel publishers, brands and DMOs don’t specialise in this kind of behaviour. We’re fastidious in our outreach and engagement (lots of @mentions and conversations,) we curate and share plenty of content and do all the other things that Twitter is great for.  But the data shows that this kind of behaviour is not so frequently re-tweeted.

I don’t think anyone would recommend abandoning engagement and relationships for glib sound bites, but could there be a case for adding some more personality, humour and attitude into your brand’s Twitter activity?  The data certainly suggests it could be effective in increasing your re-tweet rates and therefore your wider exposure and reach.

The importance of niches and targeted audiences

The far away winners of our analysis were the social media entities that exist only on Twitter for the sole purpose of sharing viral content. There were only 10 such profiles in the top 10% of users, but they were almost all above the median social authority for the entire group:

top social media entities - i&i travel media

Related to the previous observation, note how few @mentions are made within this user group. All they are doing is broadcasting highly shareable content (“re-tweet bait”) that is laser targeted to their audience:

successful travel tweets - i&i travel media

Some obvious tactics that emerge from this include: trying to emulate this behaviour with your own profile, as well as trying to get some of your content noticed and shared by these power users.

Target your blog outreach

Another example of how niche targeting wins the day is to look at the travel blogs that came up with the highest social authority scores. If you’re connected with the travel blogging world, the first ten may come as some surprise:

top 10 travel bloggers - i&i travel media

Remember, we’re not looking for straight up follower counts here, we’re looking at the user’s authority on Twitter as measured by their re-tweet rate.

In virtually every case the most influential bloggers are those that are highly targeted to a specific theme or destination: hiking, luxury travel, Thailand, London, British Colombia, video blogging, etc.

This could have implications for outreach programs that aim to activate influential travel bloggers in support of your campaigns. Could certain projects be better served by looking further down the long tail of the travel blogosphere and engaging bloggers with a smaller overall presence but higher engagement rates in your specific theme?

Much more to be done

These are just a few observations that came up from our quick analysis. There are clearly limitations to the data and our methodology.  The usefulness of re-tweet rates alone as an authority metric is questionable, and there is much room for error in a “broad net” approach like the one described here.

But looking into the data like this shows just how complex and fragmented the influence landscape can be, particularly when we consider the countless individuals who can influence our target demographics outside of the travel bubble.

It’s within that complexity that the real opportunity lies. Each brand and each campaign will have its own set of objectives and audiences. Data like this shows that there is a rich ecosystem of influencers out there that could become very rewarding for brands that are nimble enough to navigate the fractured and diverse digital landscape.

NB: this experiment was intended more as a demonstration of possibilities than an attempt at serious statistical analysis. Please take all figures provided with a liberal pinch of salt.

Google rewards for readable content, implications for “AuthorRank”

We already know that Google Authorship is a major deal and will continue to grow in importance. One indication of things to come is the use of the “More by author” links that are sometimes displayed in the search results:

More By results displayed via google authorship

AJ Kohn has written a thorough and useful article on the technical background to this and what kind of search behaviour triggers these displays but in a nutshell users that dwell on a page for a certain period of time and then hit ‘back’ to return to the SERPs are sometimes shown these “More by” links. Interestingly, the links can connect with content on various properties – not just the author’s own domain or the one you were visiting but also their social profiles and content on other domains that the author contributes to.

This gives us a number of insights into the direction that Google is taking with the Authorship project, and ways that we can take advantage:

Rewarding quality (again)

It’s an ongoing and well established theme that Google is continually driving for higher “quality” and rewards domains that have better quality signals. One such measure seems to be the page dwell time. The magic number is around 2 minutes, which is presumably their estimation of how long it takes to actually read a page. So the obvious takeaway here is that we need to be publishing content that people actually read.

There are a number of facets to that aside from the obvious: write good stuff. Things like headings, images, embedded video, page design & layout, etc are all important in retaining visitors on the page. There’s an entire strategic layer to determining what you’re writing about in the first place, and ensuring that your themes and subjects are appropriately targeted for your intended audience. But the basic observation is that Google wants to see visitors staying on your site and reading your content.

But the quality theme is nothing new. Where this all gets really interesting is with predictions for things to come…

Encouraging rel=author adoption

These links are only displayed for domains that have marked up their content using the rel=author tag and verified their ownership via Google+. (more on that here) Although Google’s primary aim is undoubtedly to improve the user experience and in doing so to improve the data and connections that drives the “knowledge graph” (see below), it’s still a nice bonus for us writers & publishers to win some additional exposure on the SERPs.  This is yet another reason (if one were needed) to adopt the rel=author markup immediately.

AuthorRank Optimisation

Although AuthorRank (AR) (roughly equivalent to PageRank as a measure of an individual’s authority) is still theoretical and is not a part of the ranking algorithm, this is a pretty clear indication of the kind of factors that could be used as an AR quality signal. It stands to reason: if people are spending longer reading your content then surely that’s a decent signal of your own personal quality/authority. Again: AR Optimisation does not exist yet, but if/when it does arrive then these kinds of metrics are going to become very important very quickly.

The knowledge graph beyond rel=author

The fact that Google is displaying content from various properties demonstrates that the rel=author markup is not their only signal of authorship. They can in fact identify our content and behaviour from around the web, structured markup or not. This is a major component of the emerging “knowledge graph”, the concept that entities (individuals, domains, content) are bound together by a web of connections and that these connections can be used to transform the search experience.  The “More by” links lay bare the principle of individuals as entities within the knowledge graph.

At one level it’s quite creepy to see how Google is beginning to incorporate us as individual people into their matrix. At another level it’s something that publishers and individual content creators should be aware of and start to factor into their content strategy.