Every October, Starbucks launches a new holiday cup, usually with an eye-catching design, but in 2017, the brand decided to change it up, releasing a cup that customers would decorate themselves – think coloring books for adults – and then engage with their social media followings to spread the word.
Canadian PR firm Media Profile, which was tasked with creating buzz around the cup’s launch, sent social media influencers a cup to color in, with the hope they would post their designs online. Prior to the cup’s official launch, Media Profile contacted people with sizable followings who had previously shown an affinity for the coffee company.
“We wanted to tap into existing relationships and offer people a sneak peek,” said Maxine McDonald, director at Media Profile. “It was successful.”
Using well-liked personalities is becoming an even bigger part of a PR pro’s job. McDonald revealed that about 25% of her time is focused on influencer marketing.
The first step in creating a successful influencer campaign is to figure out the target group. Is it the public at large? Industry insiders? A certain kind of crowd? If a brand wants to get its products in front of as many eyeballs as possible, it should engage with an Instagram influencer with a large following. Some brands, however, prefer using micro influencers – someone who may not have a large following, but is followed by other influential people. However finding the right people involves some legwork.
Greg Matusky, president and founder of Gregory FCA, an Ardmore, Pennsylvania-based comms firm, created an awards program and gala dinner for top-tier dentists on behalf of a software company client. The goal was to have the dentists attend the dinner and talk about the award on their social accounts to spread brand awareness to their peers.
“By recognizing influential dentists and networking with them, and listening to what they have to say, we’re building relationships that would have taken a long time to create,” Matusky said. “Now we can find influential individuals and proactively build a relationship with them.”
To pay or not to pay
According to Cision’s Global Communications report, 48% of comms pros said paying influencers is an important part of their influencer strategy.
“It’s the first question out of their mouth,” said Matusky. “More and more influencers know what they’re worth and they want compensation.”
Gregory FCA doesn’t get involved in the paid aspects of influencer relations — Matusky wants to use people who might want to try a new product first versus getting money for their posts — but PR pros are often tasked with negotiating rates or, for the more sought-after influencers, working with managers.
Influencer relations is not the same as media relations — and that’s fine as long as the client wants to pay, emphasized Maggie O’Neill, MD and partner at Peppercomm, a New York-based comms agency.
Prices range, but anything above $25,000 per campaign is moving into celebrity endorsement territory, she said. Most campaigns can be done for below that amount. What’s more important, though, is that the influencer discloses the relationship upfront on their feed. Consumers are fine with someone getting paid, they just don’t want to be misled.
“If influencers are forthcoming — they can say they’re working with a certain brand — then consumers are open to that and believe the people they follow are doing it for the right reasons,” added O’Neill.
Success looks different for each campaign, but it’s always defined before we go out and interact with influencers
Maxine McDonald, Media Profile
One advantage of paying an influencer is that the brand has more control over the process, including detailing the frequency and content of posts. “Have clear guidelines and be direct on the ask,” said McDonald. “Be clear on deliverable dates and get it all in writing.”
If it’s not a paid arrangement, the brand can make suggestions on content, but the influencer will retain more control over how and when they post.
In either case, PR professionals will likely need to provide background material on the company or product they want the influencer to promote. Unlike with journalists, who tend to be knowledgeable in a topic area, influencers are often “subject-matter enthusiasts,” said McDonald, and not subject-matter experts.
“Brands need to take some time to make sure they’re providing influencers with the necessary information to get them comfortable with the subject,” she noted.
While influencer relations is centered mostly around social media, there are other ways to use influencers to promote a brand.
One of Matusky’s clients, a sportswear manufacturer, wanted to promote its e-commerce site. Matusky reached out to several fitness buffs — mostly fitness instructors who have followers, but not a celebrity-like fan base — and asked them if they wanted to design their own sports clothing. The brand then helped their influencers design their own line of clothing and even set up an online store where those items could be sold. While these instructors weren’t paid upfront, they did receive a portion of the sales they made.
This worked for several reasons: the fitness instructors could differentiate themselves from their peers, they could monetize their following by selling products, and they could create clothes for no cost – something they wouldn’t have done otherwise. The athletics brand drove thousands of people to its online store, where customers would buy their fitness instructors’ clothing, and then see what else the company was selling.
While social media certainly played a role — these influencers posted their designs on their social sites — it wasn’t the centerpiece of the campaign.
“It’s important to place product, but that’s an easier, quick-hit solution,” Matusky stressed. “The real art is engaging influencers and delivering value. By going the extra step, you give back to their community and show you’re in it for mutual success. You’re not begging them to simply post your product.”
Set measurements for success
According to Cision’s Global Communications report, 63% of comms pros cited the inability to measure impact effectively as one of the three most difficult challenges they face.
Most people start by looking at impressions and engagement. If a post is shared widely, if it receives a lot of positive comments, if it’s being retweeted — those are all signs that something’s worked, said McDonald.
Success may also be determined by how many times people click on an embedded URL embedded or if key people in the influencer’s network comment on a tweet.
“Success looks different for each campaign, but it’s always defined before we go out and interact with influencers,” said McDonald.
Let your influencers influence
Most influencers want to try products they care about — and many are looking for the next big thing to show their followers, in the same way a technology reporter may be looking for the next trend, explained Matusky. If a product isn’t right for an influencer, they’ll tell you.
“They will let you know, in no uncertain terms, whether it’s right for them or not,” he said.
While some brands may want to control an influencer, generally, they should be left alone to create their own content.
“You wouldn’t call an editor and say use this headline and these people in a photo,” O’Neill said. “Influencers need to be able to have the freedom to create content in a way that’s going to resonate with their audience.”
Ultimately, success often comes down authenticity and choosing the right person to promote a brand. If the influencer you use likes your company and can create content as he or she sees fit, then success will come.
“Choose wisely. Pick an influencer who has a natural affinity to your brand and shares similar aesthetics and language,” said McDonald. “Give them the freedom to create, within certain boundaries, and you’ll be pleased with the outcome.”