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The Right Way to Work with Influencers – Jason Falls
The Agents of Change

The Right Way to Work with Influencers - Jason Falls

In this current world of social platforms like TikTok and Instagram, we’ve all no doubt seen the influencer marketing boom hit like a ton of bricks. Celebrities, and even once unknowns, are thrust into celebrity courtesy of their ability to influence their large group of followers, are called upon by brands and companies to collaborate to market products and services.

But Jason Falls, digital strategist, and author of Winfluence, cautions us to ask ourselves, do you just want people posting about you, or do you want them to influence an audience? There is a difference, and today we’re going to learn all about influencer marketing versus influence marketing.

Rich: My guest today is a problem solver. Most of the time, those problems have to do with digital marketing for Cornett, a full service advertising agency based in Lexington, Kentucky, where he leads digital strategy and hosts two marketing podcast, Digging Deeper and Winfluence.

His work has touched a number of major brands and has been recognized with several national and many regional awards, including a 2020 Shorty award for his influencer marketing work.

He’s worked with a number of the world’s most iconic brands, including Buffalo Trace – my go-to bourbon by the way – Weller, 1792, Jim Bean and Maker’s Mark bourbons, GE appliances, AT&T, Valvoline, Humana Rawlings, Tempur-Pedic, Fireball Whiskey, General Motors, and more.

His third book, Winfluence – Reframing Influencer Marketing to Ignite Your Brand, was published in February 2021 from Entrepreneur Press. He loves the kick ass state of Kentucky, sports, and bourbon. Today, I’m going to be talking with my good friend, Jason Falls, about Winfluence. Jason, welcome to the podcast.

Jason: Thanks, Rich. Great to be here. And thank you to my mom for writing that bio.

Rich: So what is the problem with influencer marketing as you see it?

Jason: Well, the biggest problem is that most business owners and marketers who are not really into the practice yet are being, I think, misled by the mainstream media. When they talk about influencers and influencer marketing, they have a tendency to sort of paint it in a very superficial light.

You know, there’s a documentary on HBO right now called Fake Famous, where Nick Bilton, the former technology writer for the New York Times, currently Vanity Fair contributor, basically did a little documentary experiment where he bought a couple of influencers a bunch of followers – fake bot followers – to prove that influencers could fake their credibility, their following, et cetera. But the film actually implies that all influencers do it that way, that there’s nobody honest out there, that it’s the majority of people that are doing that. And that’s just not the case.

I mean, I work at an agency and I’ve worked with influencers for years now, even before we called them influencers. We called it ‘blogger relations’ about 10 years ago. And prior to that, it was just media relations and PR. And I know there to be probably 80% to 90% of the content creators and “influencers” out there are really engaged content creators that have really engaged audiences. They engage with their audience, they have influence and impact on their audience, and when brands partner with them, good things happen.

And so the biggest problem is that term ‘influencer’, I think, has become a negative term. And so in this book I kind of wanted to reframe everything a little bit so that business owners didn’t sort of superficially dismiss it as, “I don’t want to deal with people who are constantly posting selfies with peace signs and duck lips.”

Rich: Okay. So this is timely because this past week I had been blown away and exasperated by the attention on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Why do we care about celebrities and influencers anyway?

Jason: Well, I think that’s almost a meta question. The celebrities are even in a different category than what I would consider an influencer. But there are certainly influencers out there like the ones that Nick Bilton portrays in that documentary I mentioned that their whole goal in life is to be famous. They want to be famous for being famous. And it’s all about this, you know, let’s just collect a lot of followers so brands will pay us to use their products and our Instagram posts.

And I think that the meta issue there is that people are fascinated with fame because it’s an aspirational lifestyle. You know, if you see someone who is “living their best life”, which a lot of these life coaches and people talk about online, right? There’s an element to that that you’re like, “Well, I want to vacation there. I want to wear those clothes. I want to drive that car”, et cetera. So it’s an aspirational thing. I think where it gets out of whack is when those people don’t really have a whole lot of substance to the content that they’re providing. And they’re kind of doing it in a sense of, you know, “Neener, neener, neener. Look at me, my life is better than yours”. And Bilton, in his documentary, actually very accurately says that influencers like that just make you feel like crap, and it’s a negative thing.

But again, I think that little sliver of the influencer marketing space or the potential influencers you could use, is a very small sliver. Whereas there’s this vast world of people that are just really good content creators who people love to follow. And it’s not about an aspiration. it’s about usefulness.

Rich: Right, right. You make a note in your book about the difference between influencers and those who actually have influence. So what is the difference? How do you know?

Jason: Well, an influencer, under the sort of label that we’re all sort of used to, is someone who has a lot of followers online. But a person with influence is someone who can actually motivate an audience to take action. And so that those might be one in the same, but they don’t have to be.

So for instance, there’s a gentleman that I talk about in the book named Derek Wolfe, whose Instagram handle and YouTube channel are called, Over the Fire Cooking. And so he does these very useful how to videos on how to grill out exotic meals and just the perfect grill and char for a steak and all this good stuff. And you can learn a lot from his channel. I would call him a person of influence because it’s not about how many followers he has, it’s about you can get something from his content that you can use. And so he has influence over his audience. He’s a person of influence. Whereas if he just had a lot of followers and was, “Look at me, I can grill, Oh, this steak is awesome. See you next week”, and he doesn’t actually give you anything that you can use, then you’re an influencer. You just have a lot of followers, you don’t really do anything with them.

Rich: I see. And is it also dependent on like, for example, even if he was doing those kick ass videos on outdoor cooking, and then he started talking about skincare for men because he was paid for that, you know? He might be able to get your product in front of a lot of people, but not necessarily. Do we look at him as an expert or as an influencer in that particular topic? So is it partially based on the kind of content they’re creating as well?

Jason: You’re absolutely right, it is contextual.

Rich: That’s the word I was looking for, “contextual”.

Jason: So I’ll give you a perfect example. So our mutual friend, Chris Brogan, has a sponsor on one of his live shows, Johnsonville Brats. And I love Johnsonville Brats, it’s only kind of brat that I buy. I don’t have a relationship with them, I don’t hock those things, I just eat them. And probably more than I should. But anyway, so I went on his show and just as a goof, he said, “Hey, you like Johnsonville Brats, can I send you some and you do a video and I’ll play it on the show?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” I don’t care. Whatever. So I did that.

And so Johnsonville sends me this care package and all this kind of stuff. Well, I’m a digital marketing guy. I talk about influencer marketing, social media, public relations, content marketing, SEO. Those are the kinds of things I talk about. Me posting a YouTube video about Johnsonville Brats does nothing, because I don’t have that kind of contextual influence over what people buy to eat.

Now, people might take a look at me and say, “Well, that guy eats healthy. I’ll eat what he’s eating”, but that’s going to be a random kind of thing. It’s not actually going to work over the long haul. So I’m not the right kind of influential person for Johnsonville Brats, but I can do a YouTube video and promote it on my social channels and get Johnsonville Brats in front of a lot of people. I just don’t think it’ll have much impact.

Rich: Right. Right. So if we haven’t done a lot with influencer marketing. And I have to admit, I have not really ever – purposefully or knowingly – I should say, engaged in influencer marketing for Agents of Change. And maybe I have, I just didn’t know I was doing it. How can I tell the difference between an influencer and somebody with influence? Are there metrics I have access to, or are there other methods that you might recommend?

Jason: So before I go into how you know, I want to say that you absolutely engage in influencer marketing with every episode of the show you do, because you have guests on and they turn around and promote this show to their networks. Right? So that in and of itself, you’re leveraging the influence of the people on your show. I would assume you’re asking them to promote their episode, and if they do, that’s influencer marketing,

Rich: But I haven’t paid them any money. Does influencer marketing require payment or anything like that? I mean, I give them visibility, I give them links, which in SEO world actually is worth something.

Jason: That’s a value exchange. And so I’ve done stuff in the past for IBM Watson’s marketing group, and they haven’t paid me a dime for some of it. They’ve paid to fly me out to an event or two here or there, so there’s value exchange. But I don’t charge them a fee, or I haven’t charged them a fee in the past, for what I’ve done for them.

And there’s other opportunities like that. So no, money doesn’t have to exchange hands. Value probably does. Because if value doesn’t exchange hands, then it’s kind of a hollow relationship. So you do use influence marketing every time you interview someone, or someone turns around and says, “Hey, I listened to this show”, someone is influencing their audience on your behalf.

Now, how do you figure out who those people are? It’s not very easy if you’re thinking about what metric do I look at, what tool do I subscribe to, et cetera. That’s thinking about it too hard. What you have to do is actually go to that person’s content and consume it and say, “Is this person persuasive? Are they engaging with this audience? If I am a member of the target audience that I’m trying to reach, and I consume this content, am I going to be engaged? Am I going to be interested? Am I going to trust this person?” If the answer is ‘yes’, and there’s some substance there, they’re probably a person of influence. If they’re just superficial and it’s amusing, but it’s not really going to convince me to do anything, then you know you can probably find a better spend somewhere else.

Rich: So I’m thinking very selfishly right now about one of my clients, and they build risers for motorcycles. In other words, they lift the motorcycle bars up for those people who don’t ride. And that’s helpful because if you ride a lot, your back starts to hurt, all these sorts of things. As we’ve done some research for them, we found that there’s a number of people on YouTube especially, and Instagram to a lesser degree, that have reviewed their products along with other products as well. How would we approach those people? Or should we just say, “Hey, look, they’re already talking about our products anyways. Why upset anything? Let’s just let them be and go find somebody else.” How might you approach when you discover that you already have some influencers out there?

Jason: Sure. I mean, I think reaching out to them and saying, “Hey, we’re this company and we sell this product. We noticed that you reviewed it in the past. We really like your content. We like the audience that you talked to. Are there any opportunities for us to collaborate?” And we’re just asking them, how do you collaborate with brands? You might even if they say, “Well, I’ve never done that before. What do you suggest?” Well, then it’s back in your court now to say, “Well, why don’t we provide you with some product or why don’t we provide you with something to give away to your audience so that you have a reason to talk about us. And here’s some things that we’re trying to promote with our product, what would be a good way for us to collaborate so that you could tell your audience about it? Would you like to interview someone from our company? Can we provide you with some product demo videos that you can use in your show?” You know, you can just have that conversation and see what works.

What you want, what you hope from the brand perspective is that the creator says, “I know exactly how to excite my audience about your product. Here’s the idea that I think will work.” Because if they respond that way, then they understand the relationship and they understand you’re trying to get value out of this, too. If they’re like, “Well, just send me your video and stuff and I’ll include it in a post”, they’re not engaged. They’re not involved with you. They’re not trying to help you do something. So you’re looking for those people that are really engaged and interested and try to work with you to find a way to convince their audience that your product is worth trying or buying or considering or whatever. So I think I would just reach out to them and start the conversation with, “We love your content. We noticed you’ve reviewed this before. How can we work together? What can we do to collaborate so that we can give you information to give to your audience in the future?”

Rich: All right. Now your book is called, Winfluence. What’s the big difference between your approach and maybe what’s come before?

Jason: Well, I think Winfluence is really, I mean, it’s a gimmick, obviously. It’s just a clever name to put on the title of a book. But in the book, I kind of spell out that Winfluence is sort of the label that I would put on what I would call, influence marketing, not influencer marketing. So take the ‘R’ off of that. Because if you take the ‘R’ off of influencer marketing, remember what we talked about earlier, you get rid of that bad word that people are putting in a bad light these days. So you’re not focusing on the influence, or you’re not focusing on the person or the noun or the channel. You’re actually focusing more strategically on what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to influence, that’s the action that you’re taking. That’s your goal.

So if you look at influencer marketing through that different sort of reframing and say, no, its influence marketing, not influencer marketing, now all of a sudden, the possibilities open up. The horizons are a lot wider for you, because you’re ultimately trying to design programs that influence the audience. You’re trying to reach to take action.

Well, that might be through someone who has a lot of followers on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn or YouTube. But it might also, if you’re a local business and your target audience are parents in the local community, then your number one influencer might be the president of the local PTA, or it might be a local community member or community leader who’s involved in parenting organizations, or it might be a coach in the local soccer league. And those people don’t necessarily have to have online audiences. So influence is something that happens on and offline. And it happens with people who have access to large audiences, but it also happens with people who don’t have access to large audiences but have an impact over a small one.

So when you look at that filter and say influence marketing, now you’re what I would call when influencing you’re looking at it from a strategic perspective.

Rich: Okay. Now I noticed that you have dedicated an entire chapter to reviews. So I’m curious, how can influencers influence reviews, or are you just focused on getting them to leave reviews themselves?

Jason: It’s a little bit of both. It’s primarily how can you leverage influencers to drive your reviews? Now there’s a number of ways to do this. First of all, the first thing we have to clarify here is sites like Google My Business, and Yelp, and TripAdvisor, and so on and so forth, they have terms of service policies that say that you cannot solicit reviews here. So let’s be clear, we don’t ever want to send an influencer to review our product on a site where the terms of service dictate that’s not fair or right. So I’d never do that.

But in another place, a very valuable place, that the search engines look for product reviews is your website. And you control that completely. So if you were to say, “Look, we are launching a brand-new brand, a brand-new product website and e-commerce portal for this one thing. We don’t have any reviews. In order to rank well for search for this category, we need reviews.” Well, there are services out there where you can say, look, I want to send product to a hundred nano influencers in exchange for a review and a picture that I can use on my website, and we want them to post it to Instagram, but we want permission to use it on our website, too. And you know, in a matter of weeks you got a hundred reviews on your site. And so you can use influencers of any size, it doesn’t have to be nano influencers.

The higher their follower count and whatnot, the more you might have to pay them. It might be more than product in order to secure that review or that social post, but you can absolutely drive ratings and reviews through working with influencers. And it falls into sort of, one of the four purposes of influence that I carve out in the book, which is to validate. You’re validating your product and your brand by having third-party people say, “Yes, I like this stuff. It’s good.”

Rich: All right. Well since you brought up the four pillars, what are the other three?

Jason: Well, I don’t actually point this out in the book. I’m kind of curious as to why I didn’t, it it’s a nice little acronym, P A V E. But I don’t talk about PAVE the book, for whatever reason. I didn’t get too clever, or I don’t know, chintzy with it there. But four purposes of influence marketing are PAVE.

So number one is to persuade. And persuasion goes along with advertising, right? It’s something we can understand. You can use influencers to purchase a post, or a series of posts, or some content engagement to persuade an audience to try or buy your product.

You can also associate, that’s the A. So association is more along the lines of public relations. It’s not so much that we’re trying to drive people to buy, but we’re trying to align our brand with that particular influencer’s vibe, their look and feel, their lifestyle. You know what it is that why it is that people associate with them. We want to align with that as well. So association comes in there.

Talk about, validate, is the V. That’s the validation of ratings and reviews.

And then the third one is enthuse, which I sort of parallel and align to word-of-mouth marketing. So if you can leverage influencers who can get really passionate about your product or service and turn to their audience and say almost in that one-to-one way, “This is why I love this product”, or “This is why I love this service.” That enthusiasm is going to filter down to their followers and their friends, the people who pay attention to their content. And now all of a sudden, you’ve got a word-of-mouth instigator online for you.

Rich: So one of the things that I’m sure will come up is how specific we need to be in our relationship with influencers. And do you generally recommend that brands have a contract or some sort of written agreement with influencers, or does that somehow sully the relationship in some way?

Jason: You know it’s almost imperative, I think, to have a contract with influencers. Even the ones that you have really close relationships with. Because I mean, this is business. And in business, there’s no such thing as a handshake and a smile these days. You have to have those agreements and the value exchange mapped out. Now depending upon what value you’re asking for in return and whether or not you really care about it, you maybe don’t have to have paperwork involved. But if you’re going to do anything where you’re going to pay them money or you’re going to get them product and you do expect something in return and you do expect them to maybe talk nice about your brand – even though I would always recommend let them be honest – and you take that honest feedback because that helps you too. But if you want to make sure that they post a certain number of times, or underline a certain number of talking points, et cetera, it’s always better to have that in writing so that there’s expectations on their end, there’s expectations on your end, and they’re met. And if there’s any question or conflict, you’ve got some document to go back to.

I would never recommend entering into an agreement with someone for business without some sort of contract. But I do think you have to approach all people who you’re doing an influence partnership with, either online or offline, which gets a little bit more money. But in the online space, I would never recommend that you not have a contract. But I would recommend that you approach them with that relationship in mind and say,” Hey look, we have to have this paperwork over here for legal and compliance and stuff and you and I can talk. But that has to happen, and I don’t have anything to do with that. And we got to have it. But you and I are the important relationship here, so let’s make sure that the value exchange is happening, and the paperwork will cross those T’s and dot those I’s, and it’s just a formality.” If you approach it that way, it has a tendency to continue to be very personal.

I will say a quick note about the offline influence when you are working with offline influencers. So let’s say you’re going out to that local PTA member in situations like that. Those people don’t necessarily compute that a brand is approaching them and asking them for something in return. They’re probably not going to ask you to pay them. They’re probably just in it for a relationship with the brand, or you’re going to provide their whole group with free product or coupons or something. And they’re glad to do it for you in those situations. You may not need paperwork, but you also can’t have real high expectations.

So if there’s not a contract, if there’s not paperwork there, you can hand them $3,000 worth of coupons. And if they decided to keep them at home and use them themselves, well, then you lost.

Rich: So I want to switch this around before I let you go today. For those people listening who might be interested in becoming an influencer or a Winfluencer, what advice do you have for them?

Jason: Well, I think it all goes back to content. If you can create really good content around whatever it is that you’re passionate about, whether it’s a topical area of interest, or if you’re an artist or a photographer, or a filmmaker or a comedian or something like that, or even a musician, right. If you’re creating good content that will attract an audience. focus on that first. Because if you don’t have that, you’re not going to have the audience.

And then the second thing you need to focus on is engaging that audience around the content. There’s a lot of people out there, especially artists who have a tendency to say, “Well, my art speaks for itself. I don’t need to have conversations with these people.” Well, at that point, you’re an influencer, but you don’t have influence. Because the people who have influence are the people who say, “Here’s this piece of art, what do you think? I want your feedback”, and you have conversations with them. And you have conversations about things that are not about your art, so that you’re really engaged with your community.

If your audience sees you as a friend, as a person that they can engage with on a regular basis, that’s when a brand is going to look at your content and your engagement and say, this is someone I want to work with because they can influence their audience. They are a person of influence, not necessarily an influencer only.

So focus on your content first. Focus on your engagement second. And then when you get to the point to where either your content is really good or your audience is growing or both, then you’re going to start to get those questions from brands about, “Hey, how can we work together?” And I would just say be creative. But always keep in mind that if you can’t provide value to the brand in delivering their message to your audience, it’s not going to be a long-term engagement, and that’s what you want. You want to figure out how can I motivate my audience to do things that my brand partners want them to do, but in a way that’s really genuine and they won’t mind doing. Because we’re all in this together. If you can trip that wire, you’re going to be in good shape.

Rich: One of the things that I’ve heard from you a couple of times today, and I just want to really draw a fine point to, is that influencers – or winfluencers – are people who don’t just have a big audience but are actively engaged with them. Really leading that conversation, or at least participating in it. And that’s really the big difference between success and failure.

Jason: I think it’s absolutely right. And that’s going to separate the influencers, if you will, or the content creators who have high engagement and are really productive for brands, and those fame chasers, superficial, peace sign, duck lips people that are not really substantive.

If you are engaged with your audience and you can talk to them about subject matters, topics, products, services, and persuade them to think differently – try or buy – you’re very different from that sliver that HBO documentary talks about. Which is very superficial and not really substantive folks.

Rich: Jason, this has been great. For people who want to learn more about your book or learn more about you, where can we send them online?

Jason: Jason Falls is, I’m everywhere, man. Jasonfalls.com is the website. There’s a kind of a shortcut to get to the book page, it’s winfluencebook.com. But I’m Jason Falls on all the social networks. I love to answer questions. I love to help. So reach out and find me, I’m there.

Rich: Awesome. Thanks so much for stopping by today, Jason.

Jason: Thanks so much for having me, Rich.

Show Notes:

Jason Falls is an author, podcaster, and champion of the strategic aspect of influencer marketing. Grab his new book and check out his podcast.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.