Fearless Marketers Forge into Influencer Marketing

Sitting in the Austin airport waiting to catch my ride back to SF, I’m enjoying my first calm moment since landing in this zoo three days ago. My mind wanders back to one of the most relevant panels I attended during the conference on The Secret Dangers of Online Influence Marketing with Jure Klepic, Ekaterina Walter, Debra Kaye and Matt Hixson.

This group shared some very interesting ethnographic research about online influence dynamics and what truly drives actions on the web. A key finding is that popularity is not a good indicator for potential results. If you want impact, avoid the big numbers trap and focus on small, engaged communities.

More than dangers, though, the conversation was about the influencer marketing opportunities out there for the fearless marketers who are forging ahead into the next era of social media marketing. Here are a few of my observations from the panel:

The Room Was Packed

If we take the SXSW audience as a proxy for marketers at large, I’d have to say influencer marketing is fast becoming a core component of the digital marketing toolkit. People want to understand it and start putting it to good (or better) use for their organization. From content marketing to PR to SEO and beyond, there were all walks of marketing present and the questions and debate carried over time and into the hallways.

We’re Almost Over Klout

I tweeted it once; I’ll say it again. No serious marketer believes Klout is the right way to measure influence. It’s particularly frustrating that we have to spend the first 20 minutes of a 60-minute panel harping on Klout. The real danger is that we waste our time fueling controversies that need not exist. Let’s stop feeding the social scoring beast and get on with the real influencer marketing use cases and fascinating research emerging in this field.

From Campaigns to Building Relationships

Social is inherently, well, social, which implies people. Influencer marketing isn’t about finding conduits to spread a message at one point in time. It’s about building mutually interesting relationships with people who are passionate about topics that are key to your business.

Marketers need to craft messages that resonate with these smaller groups and work on timing their messages to be as relevant as possible to the person, situation, device… Ashlee Glenn‘s tweet summed it up well, “We’re heading back to the era of personal communication, it’s no longer the era of mass media. Relationships matter.”

A New Way to Think About Scale

The most interesting question during the panel was about scale and influencer marketing. Simply put, can you scale something that is based on relationships? The answer is yes. Point blank. In fact, that’s the entire point of focusing on influencers. As you learn from and engage with the people driving the conversations you care about, your impact will scale. Think about it as a work smarter, not harder approach.

You and your brand can’t be everywhere at once and the message is more authentic when it’s created and shared by trusted people. A marketer should focus on creating relationships with people who have the ability to genuinely share a message with a large audience.

Debra Kaye encouraged us to figure out how we can help our influencers craft and spread their own messages. Sure, you could go buy an audience and throw your message at them, but it won’t have the same impact as when shared by people who have a trusted following of engaged listeners. When you build an influencer program, the numbers might seem small at first, but the impact outweighs what you could buy any day.

Where do we need to keep working?

Let’s agree to get over the Klout bashing. Popularity is not the same as influence and we’ll never be able to further the conversation and practice of influencer marketing until we can start having talks that don’t waste precious time on popularity contest apps.

Marketers need to stop thinking of influencers as mere channels to spread their company’s gospel. Influencers are your partners, your filters and your guides. They can not only amplify your message, they will indirectly or directly help shape your content, clue you into trends, help you make a bigger splash and reduce your stress levels (more on that later).

Trust in the new approach to scale by focusing on the people who can really make your actions count. Build authentic relationships, craft meaningful messages and be timely, relevant and contextual.

Let’s see how much progress we can make before SXSW 2014!