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Is influencer marketing right for your business? – Neal Schaffer
The Agents of Change

Is influencer marketing right for your business? – Neal Schaffer

In a nutshell, influencer marketing is really just a type of social media marketing that uses product mentions and endorsements from influencers – people who have already built up a loyal and dedicated following, and are perhaps seen as experts in their area or niche.

So if the thought of riding the coat tails of a well-known or well-respected influencer while they talk up your products and services sounds like an easy win, influencer marketing expert Neal Schaffer is here to remind you that it’s not always that simple. You could do more harm than good to your business’s reputation is you aren’t careful and calculated when choosing which influencers to work with. Ideally you always want to work with someone who is also aligned with what your business and brand stands for.


Rich: My guest today is a leading authority on helping businesses through their digital transformations of sales and marketing, through consulting, training, and development and execution of social media marketing strategy, influencer marketing, and social selling initiatives.

President of the digital marketing agency, PDCA Social, he also teaches digital media to executives at Rutgers University, the Irish Management Institute in Ireland, and the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, fluent in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. He is a popular keynote speaker and has been invited to speak about digital media on four continents in more than a dozen countries.

He’s also the author of four books on social media, including Maximize Your Social by Wiley, and the recently published The Age of Influence by Harper Collins Leadership, the definitive data-driven playbook for influencer marketing that marketers have been waiting for.

He resides in Irvine, California, but also frequently travels to Japan. Check out his Maximize Your Social Influence podcast for weekly inspiration. Let’s jump right now into influencer marketing with Neal Schaffer. Neal, welcome to the show.

Neal: Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be here.

Rich: So Neal, I don’t want you to put, to put you on the spot, but would you say, “Welcome to The Agents of Change Podcast” in Japanese?

Neal:  ポッドキャストへようこそ (The Agents of chenji poddokyasuto e yōkoso)

Rich: That sounds very official. I appreciate that. If we ever go global and doing it in multiple languages, at least I’ll have a promo reel right now ready to go.

So Neal, has there always been influencer marketing or is this something that’s just been around since the advent of social media?

Neal: Yeah. There’s always been this concept of celebrity endorsement. And this actually goes back in history for hundreds of years. You can look back at tobacco ads that featured baseball players like Babe Ruth back in the early 20th century. Obviously with technology we saw radio ads, TV ads, and one of the turning points definitely was Michael Jordan and Nike. And ever since then, I think celebrity endorsements has just been a part of marketing, really a part of mass advertising. But like everything else, when you see that the influence of media hasn’t been democratized, and when you have more people that are on social media or spending time on social media than spending time watching TV, you obviously need to shift your tactics. And this is really where influencer marketing gets its start.

So it’s not new. I think we hear a lot more about it than we used to be in terms of a keyword. I’d go back and say when we were talking about blogger outreach and mommy bloggers maybe 10 years ago, that was a form of influencer marketing. Because mommy bloggers had influence over communities online. We could say the same thing about affiliate marketers, they also yield some influence.

So Rich, I mentioned to you before we started the call about my father. So you know my father was an entrepreneur who created a publications company for elementary school textbooks basically. And this isn’t a time before common core where teachers pretty much decided what resources they wanted to use in their classrooms. So my father could have used a lot of mass advertising means and magazines and trade shows, which he did, but he found that by working hand in hand with the small mom and pop school supply stores and by genuinely welcoming and really opening up his content to other teachers – we now have that with Teachers Helping Teachers – he was able to really start and generate business that led his company to be one of the few top market share companies in the nation.

And it’s not influencer marketing, but it hops into the concepts of who else out there can help generate business for my company. Right? So often in digital media, companies get into the, “Okay, I need a blog. I need a great content. I have Google ads, Facebook ads, I have organic, social.” And they forget that same concept, right? That out there in digital and social media, there are media properties, right? There are blogs, there are YouTubers, there are podcasts, and there are other social media users. And these people, when aligned with what you want to do in their communities, they can generate impressive results for whatever your objective is.

So it’s funny because influencer marketing really, when we think about it today, we think about Instagrammers and YouTubers, we think about the B2C concept. But I find that my background is more B2B. I almost think that people that come from B2B sales and marketing that are used to having worked through ecosystems and having marketing partners. I almost think that it’s a little bit more intuitive for them to understand, surprisingly enough, but it just taps into that concept of who else out there can we align ourselves with to whatever marketing objective we have to help us get there faster without going through the old just spend more money on Facebook ads or what have you.

Rich: And do you think maybe because of the advent of social media or since the advent of social media that it’s maybe democratized what we’re now calling influencer marketing? Where there are maybe more influencers out there because we don’t necessarily need to hire a Michael Jordan anymore to kind of spread our message. We can instead find people who are influential in a specific niche or industry.

Neal: Absolutely. You know, I think in the book I refer to this as ‘audience fragmentation’. But you know, back in the old days, there were just a few different channels on TV. There were newspapers that we all read magazines, radio. It was pretty limited in terms of not just the information we could glean, but also the sources of that information. But today, and we really saw this with the elections here in the United States, of fake news and of we are being influenced by everybody around us.

So now you know, brands could have done the same thing they could have gone in and they could have become Instagram influencers and YouTubers, but they didn’t. People really went in and said, you know what, I’m going to start to create content. I’m going to start to share it, start to share content around a niche and really build up a community around that. And we’ve seen that happen time in and time out where instead of going to the newspaper or going to a certain website for information, they’ll do an Instagram search or they’ll do a YouTube search. And that entity that they find becomes really their center of influence.

So we’ve definitely seen with the democratization of content publication, distribution consumption, the same goes to media influence, to the extent that when I published this last book, I worked with one of the biggest book publishers in the world really. And even they were saying, you know, instead of doing traditional media outreach, you’re better off trying to engage with bloggers and podcasters. And here I am, right? So this is how far we’ve come. And it’s just for that reason, it’s not as easy to incite that sort of word of mouth that maybe in the past, when if the media wrote about you it’s one thing. Now I believe it’s a lot harder, but once we tap into these newer influencers on these newer social networks, we begin to see the potential there is out there and it’s just real simple.

If you were to look at your Facebook page and look at how much engagement you get on an average post, and even my high school daughter probably gets more engagement on our Instagram than I do on my Facebook business page. Now that doesn’t mean that my content is aligned with her community. But you begin to see that we can know the other thing we haven’t discussed is just the algorithms will and continue to favor people. And this is another thing that’s driving the growth of influencer marketing.

Rich: That is a really interesting point. And I wanted to kind of go back to something you had said a little bit earlier about, you’ve got your website, you’ve got your SEO, you get your Facebook, your Facebook ads, you basically have these channels put in place to market your business. But when I think I’m hearing you say is not enough people and companies out there are also considering influencers as yet another channel to reach their ideal customer.

Neal: That’s absolutely right. I always say in the past, I’d say social media replaces nothing, yet complements everything. Right. And I replaced social media with, with any given word. I mean, influencer marketing the same. I’m not going to say you’re going to invest 100% of your budget with influencers. You’re still going to do the other things, but it is an amazing compliment, and it’s something that I believe companies should have as a line item in their marketing budget. How can we push the ball forward, working with people in our community?

And I think one of the fundamental things I talk about in The Age of Influence is that companies traditionally are looking outside for influencers. And I’m talking about if there are other people that can help us, they don’t necessarily have to be people we don’t know. They can be people we do know. They can be employees, they can be followers of the brand, they can be those marketing partners like I talked about in that B2B aspect, and they could be customers.

And when you look at it that way, the democratization of influence has expanded so far that even in the influencer marketing industry where agencies would say you need to work with these celebrities that have over a million followers. Well, you know, now they’re saying you need to work with micro-influencers who have at least 10,000 followers. And even more recently we talk about nano influencers who only may have a thousand followers.

So once you start thinking about people in your network that might only have a thousand followers, it really opens up the potential that there’s a lot of people who already know, like, and trust your brand that you might be able to collaborate with.

Rich: So you’ve mentioned that when some people think about influencer marketing, even in today’s day and age with the fragmentation of the audiences, they might be thinking about somebody whose last name is Kardashian, which is not necessarily correct. What are some of the other misconceptions of influencer marketing?

Neal: Yeah. You know, when I think of Kardashians, that’s a celebrity. When I think of influencer marketing I’m thinking of people that aren’t celebrities, they gain influence from their ability to create content and to build community around that content. So once you get to a point, if I look at an Instagram profile and they have millions of followers and they’re a model with some magazine or what have you, they’ve already turned to become a celebrity. And then it becomes very much like a celebrity endorsement. I think for those of you that are familiar with Tik Tok, even if you’re not a user, you hear kids talk about it. There’s someone named Charlie who clearly came out of nowhere, became huge, and then was featured on ads and in Super Bowl. That’s clearly a celebrity.

So based on that I think the other misconception, just this whole celebrity versus influencer, and I sort of talk about it right there where I talk about number of followers is that obviously influence isn’t just about number of followers. It’s really about the engagement. Just like your own Facebook page, you can have tons of followers, but if you have no engagement, it has very little business value. So the same thing goes with influencers. If they just have a large following but they can’t incite a conversation and they can’t get that engagement, then even if they were to talk about you, it’s probably going to fall to deaf ears. So the engagement’s key.

And I think the other really critical point here is that contextual engagement. So influencers might get a lot of engagement, and if you have a blog, if you a podcast, it’s the same thing. You create content around a lot of different subjects. And some of them just generate more engagement than others. This is just the way that it works. So you need to make sure if you want to align yourself with an influencer, that when they post on that certain subject, that they are getting a lot of engagement and therefore that community is really aligned, not only with the influencer but also with what you want to do.

There’s other things that you need to consider, obviously. Not all this information is public, but consider the demographics of the community that the influencer has. There was a case study several years ago of a female Australian bodybuilder. And there was a bikini brand that wanted to collaborate with her, not realizing that 90%+ of the community were males, not females. So this is an example of how you can have severe misalignment. And I believe over the last several years, there’s been a lot of marketing budget that’s been wasted on these various things I talk about.

So this is why we say influencer identification, or trying to identify the right people to work with other than how do we measure and generate more ROI from influencer marketing. That’s sort of the biggest challenge that marketers have and will continue to have, because we’re talking about people here and it’s not transparent as to who their community is or why they’re following this person. All we can do is judge based on what we see the data perhaps interviewing the influencer, understanding their voice. So it’s a very, very different type of marketing for that reason, but obviously it has tremendous benefits once you can crack that code.

Rich: So that leads to a question that I’ve been having. Should we be working with an intermediary or an agency to find an influencer who may have a relationship?

Neal: Well this is a great question. I think every VP of marketing, CMO, faces the same challenge. Do we do it in house? Do we hire an agency with influencer marketing? You also have another type of intermediary called an’ influencer marketplace’ where people have signed up for X dollars. So you have three options… and every company is different. I think with everything else with the growth of influencer marketing, now we have this huge jump in influencer marketing agencies. We have web design companies that say they can now do influencer marketing. So it really comes down to do you have the time to invest in this. Because as you can imagine, we think of marketing in general as being this one to many medium. When we, when we look at influencer marketing, it comes down to one to one collaborations, right? It’s almost more of a PR effort of developing relationships with influencers, then a more scalable marketing effort. And for that reason, it’s tough for companies.

So there’s obviously no right or wrong answer here. If you do work with an agency that has experience or you’re interested in working with an agency, I mean, definitely try to understand their methodology and really, I’m a big fan. And I know that companies – and mine’s the same way – work with an agency to learn how to do this if you don’t have the resources in house. And I think by working with an agency for three to six month period, yes, it’s going to be expensive, but you’re going to learn a lot. And after that, you may decide that the agency’s got me great enough results, I’m going to keep working with them. Or, you may think we may be able to do this better in house. So that’s really the best way to test it if you have the budget.

But if you have people in house, I know that one of my clients here in Orange County hired someone that just graduated from college, a marketer. And actually when she was in college was doing internships related to influencer marketing. So she already has the expertise to know how to find people, how to reach out to them, how to sort of structure things. And you might have people in your organization that can do that as well. So it’s going to require a little bit of soul searching, but if you think this is an important branch or important line item to have, then obviously working with an agency is going to be the quickest to market or going into an influencer marketplace yourself and trying to figure that out. 

But if you have the time to invest and you really want to do this long-term and take a more slow burn approach, and I’d recommend you start mapping out and if you have been active in the industry and active on digital social media, you probably already know who those influencers are. So do some mapping out, see the brands that those influencers work with, try to figure out what sorts of relationships you have with brands and see how you might be able to emulate that. Every day I get just myself, I get brands reaching out to me. So there’s no need to be shy. It really comes down to a very open ended conversation. We’re both serving the same community, we love your content, how might we be able to work together.

Rich: I want to get to that piece of it. But before we do, I just kind of a note that when you’re talking about that person who had kind of done an internship around influencer marketing and built some relationships, in many ways it sounds like PR, except instead of journalists we’re actually targeting influencers, that a lot of this is based on personal relationships. So just kind of something that I noticed as you’re talking.

But I also wanted to ask you about these influencer marketplaces. Because I have this vision of just going to a stockyard and seeing these influencers each behind their own booth or cage, telling me what they can get. What is an influencer marketplace, can you visit one online and?

Neal: The difference is that the objective is a marketing objective. PR objectives and marketing objectives aren’t always aligned. So you still need to be marketing focused when you have the relationships. But yes, there are a lot of similarities, which is why a lot of journalists went into content marketing, and I can see a lot of PR professionals translating your skills into influencer relations.

But getting back to the influencer marketplace, there are a lot of companies that have created these marketplaces, where they send out invites to bloggers, to people on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, every social network, they say, “Hey, brands want to work with you, sign up here”, and people sign up, they authorize their social media profiles so you see their follower count. They usually pick categories like fashion. So I’m in the fashion category and businesses can basically log in and do a search for people based on maybe where they live, are they male or female, how many followers do they have, what networks are they on, what is their category?

A lot of these marketplaces are not that sophisticated to allow you to do sort of a tag or keyword search, although some of them are getting more savvy. And the idea is that if you just want to do this right now, then influencer marketplace is the place to be because you can just go there. You know, Hey, you’re offering a hundred dollars for a blog post, boom, here you go. Here’s a hundred dollars. Here’s what I want you write the blog post on, you know, go do it. Or post on Instagram for $30. Boom. So this is definitely the quickest way if you want to see some action, but obviously it’s sort of like that Facebook boost button. It sort of makes you feel good, but you know, it’s not best practice.

So working in the marketplace, it’s not best practice by any means, but for really small businesses that really don’t have any resources and they really just want to feel good about getting the word out about their business to seemingly relevant influencers. It’s sort of, you don’t think really hard about it. You spend a little bit of money and then boom, yo u might get some results. You actually might get some good results or you might get no results, but it is an option.

And you know, in my book, I do feature a case study of an e-commerce company that actually saw really, really good results. They worked with about 30 of these influencers from a marketplace. They spend about a hundred dollars per, so about $3,000. And you know, they ended up generating $15,000- $20,000 in sales. So it is possible. And like anything else in marketing, unless you experiment, you don’t know.

But the challenge with influencer marketing and the experimentation and the data, is that every influencer is going to perform differently. And this is really the challenge. It’s almost like you have a hundred different ad variations, but the Facebook Business Manager is going to automatically optimize that for your campaign. There’s no optimization here. You need to really see how these influencers do to understand how to best work with them going forward. And only when you have that data and experience, can you start to generate greater and greater ROI from influencer marketing.

Rich: So Neil, whether we’re entering the virtual stockyards of the influencer marketplace or the [inaudlible], what should we be looking for?

Neal: I think there’s a number of things. Really the most important thing is if it’s content about your brand, would it be aligned with everything else they do? I know a few years ago there was a custom suit company that reached out to me – now with work from home, we’re all in our pajamas here –  but my profile photos always feature me in a suit. And maybe they saw that and figured that I was really into suits and fashion. And that maybe by ordering a custom suit for free, that I would talk about that and talk about their brand. But you know what, I don’t talk about fashion on social media. Sorry, that’s not my gig. So right there you have this misalignment. So I think that’s really the most important thing.

Once you go from there, then you begin to look at what scale does this person have to influence others. Is it not just number of followers, but obviously that number of engagement. But we also have to remember when we look for influencers, if we’re a B2B company, Instagram probably is not our number one place to be seen. So we also need to find influencers that are active on the social networks that we believe are where our customers are. So that’s a choice of social networks. Just like we do SEO, why wouldn’t we reach out to influencers who also have a blog because, of all the benefits in the long-term beneficial things to our marketing that can achieve.

If video is really important, obviously YouTube becomes an important place. So a lot of marketers just get stuck on one social network. And really what we’re talking about here is you’re leveraging influencers for all the different marketing objectives you have. Because if it’s SEO, having a famous blogger talk about your brand – even though there’s questionable SEO value of do follow-up versus no follow-up – but just the fact that you’re mentioned you get the word out.

One of my early clients, when we did an influencer marketing campaign for them, when you do a Google search, they just wanted their name to appear on more blocks. And that’s brand awareness, top of funnel. So there’s just a lot of different ways to work with influencers. But always remember what networks do they have influence, how much influence they have – not number of followers, but engagement – but also that contextual alignment with your brand.

You know, I still get companies that reach out to me. “Neal, we’re a project management tool. We’d love to collaborate with you on your blog”. And I said, “Look, my blog really isn’t about project management. You should be reaching out to project management bloggers, not marketing bloggers because I I’ve never blogged about it”. And therefore, if I blog about it’s probably not going to perform well, because my audience isn’t used to seeing that content from me. They may also not trust me to talk about that. And because I’m very clear that this is sponsored it more and more looks like an advertisement when it’s not aligned with the followers that you have.

Rich: Well, that brings up a question. Do influencers need to admit that they’re being compensated and like within a blog post, does it have to have like an affiliate link – especially if it’s not an affiliate link – but does it have to say I was paid or somehow compensated for this post or this Instagram photo?

Neal:  Yes, it clearly has to say if you worked for another brand in the creation of this blog content, whether it’s social media content. With social media, obviously it’s a little bit more challenging, especially when you get to a platform like Twitter, because of lack of character count. The general rule is to use #ad or #sponsored. Some brands actually will request influencers to put that at the very beginning of the tweet, a #ad, so it’s very, very clear.

I’m not sure you have to go that far, but I know I work with a brand on LinkedIn and they wanted to make sure that LinkedIn, when you have text, generally only the first three lines show, and then it has like a more link. And their request was that #ad would appear basically above the fold, before you had that more link.

With blogs you obviously have more space and you should be very clear on your blog. I usually put them at the bottom of the blog, that this was a sponsored post, working with a marketing partner. And I’ve worked with a brand where they wanted me to put it at the very top of the blog. So I think disclosure is the critical thing here. And I think if I was a brand and an influencer said, “No, you know, we don’t need to disclose because it’s going to hurt the engagement”. You know, I would walk away from that influencer because that is the law and the FTC every now and then it’s not every day, but every now and then they do crack down.

Rich: And does it matter if we’re compensating them in cash? Like I know that sometimes – your suit people, for example – they were going to give you a suit. Some people might say, well, you’ve got a physical thing so maybe that isn’t payment. You got paid in clothes. Other times you might get free software or an upgrade, are those really payment that should be disclosed?

Neal: You’re getting into a little gray area. It’s really interesting because I believe it should be disclosed as talking about how we can leverage people that already know, like, and trust our brand. So we talk about employees, right? We talk about employee advocacy. So what employees are doing, they’re posting for free, but they’re employees and therefore they’re also compensated. Do we disclose that? And then if you’re a podcast and you have a sponsor, I guess you’re disclosing the fact you have a sponsor because it’s an advertisement.

So you get into this gray area of, well, how is this different from traditional advertising or other forms. But the general guideline by the FTC, and I’m not a lawyer by any means, and if you want to invest a lot of money and you’re really sensitive about this, you should obviously be consulting your lawyer or the FTC. But anytime you are compensated, I believe whether it’s money or product, you should be talking about that relationship. And I do see influencers say, “This product was provided to me, courtesy of x.” I think generally, even in those situations, you would use that #ad or #sponsored. And if you were given software, yes, you would talk about that either in the blog post, or I think if you go to like Jay Baer’s blog, I’ve seen bloggers have pages like “about me” page or “disclosure” page, where they talk about all the software that their company uses that has been provided to them from other companies.

Rich: Alright. So it sounds to me, Neal, like you’ve been on both sides of the table here. Both working with influencers and being approached as an influencer yourself. What if somebody out there listening wants to become an influencer, maybe revenue getting from staff, because even increase visibility of their own brand, what advice do you have around that?

Neal: Great question, and this is something I [inaudible] because the more of an influence your business becomes, the more other influencers want to work with you. So I believe if I wanted to become more influential either for myself or for my company, I would be following everything that we were talking about here.

I believe for instance, podcasters are some of the best influencer marketers out there. Because they tap into the communities of a lot of different people by asking them to become a guest on my podcast, or reaching out to other influencers for your blog for webinars. In B2C, we now see a lot of brands that are reaching out to influencers, not for content amplification, but for content creation. So part of becoming an influencer is what is going to be your niche. If you’re a business, you obviously have a niche. If you’re not, it’s just easier to become an influencer when you have that core zone of genius or that area in which you want to be known for. It then comes down to the obvious content creation and every influence at the heart of it is a content creator.

 And I think that when you start to build an audience and when you can leverage influencers to help you build that audience by including them in your content, that’s where you really begin to grow a lot quicker than if you did none of that. And you just did your own work. We talk about all the different things we can do from a social media, from a marketing perspective that I would recommend as well. It’s really about getting word out there through content creation, but also all the other techniques, email marketing, SEO, what have you.

And I believe that after doing that after a while, especially with influencer relationships you know, companies are going to start to reach out to you. Influencers might start to reach out to you that they’d like to collaborate with you or it’s going to be easier when your business wants to speak at an event or invite that big influencer in your industry for an interview. It becomes easier and easier. So it’s not like a one or two week process, this is obviously a long burn. But really the more you do this and the more focused you are on your subject matter that you’re an expert on, the more content you create, the more you reach out and engage with other people in your industry. And the more especially you reach out to influencers and not only engage with them, but see ways to collaborate. And often that’s around that content creation co-creation I think those are the logical steps you take to slowly grow your influence in your industry.

Rich: 30:55 This has been incredibly helpful.  I know you’ve got the new book out there. Tell us a little bit about that and [inaudible]

Neal: Sure. Well, you know, everything we talked about really revolves around [inaudible]. When I talk about [inaudible]. The Age of Influence is available everywhere. It was published with Harper Collins Leadership. So I know we’re not going into bookstores these days, so it’s primarily going to be online, but it is available online. It is available worldwide.  I had a blogger from India, say, “Neal, where can I find this?” And I found the Amazon India link for it. So it is available everywhere both digitally, paperback, or audio book.

My name is Neal Schaffer, so you can find me anywhere on social media, N-E-A-L  S-C-H-A-F-F-E-R. I’m also Nealschaffer.com. And I also have a podcast called Maximize Your Social Influence, which looks at digital and social media marketing through this unique lens of influence.

Rich: Neil, thanks so much for stopping by today and sharing your expertise.

Neal: Thank you. It was an honor.

Show Notes:

Neal Schaffer is a leading social media strategist who has helped enterprises – both large and small – implement digital marketing campaigns that have transformed their businesses. You’ll definitely want to check out one of his many books, and his podcast is sure to inspire and excite.

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

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