Finding Authentic Social Influence Is Easier Than You Think

Opinion: Who is more authentic, impactful and trusted than your long-term customers?

The best option is to identify native ambassadors Ranta Images/iStock

Customers are smarter than the credit we give them. We often treat them like robots—we pull a lever, they react. We lose the human element in our love of numbers and margins. Nowhere is that more of a pain-point today than with influencer marketing.

Influencers are in the spotlight. They satiate our need to reach a key demographic and to create highly visible content, and they’ve even learned to feed us shallow numbers to keep us content.

The market is flush with money to be made by anyone with a base of followers. But what defines an influencer is opaque, nebulous and gets many brands into trouble. Unilever recently stated that it plans on ditching many of its influencers due to a lack of transparency as many buy fake followers.

Influencer marketing falls into the same trap as so many other marketing initiatives—we’ve missed the point by throwing money at a possible solution without diligence or understanding of the ecosystem.

Chief marketing officers currently spend 12 percent of their total budgets on social media, and that number is expected to double in five years.

Meanwhile, most CMOs admit that they can’t prove social’s efficacy; only 12 percent believe they’ve quantitatively proven that social has positive return on investment. Not only can they not prove social efficacy, but also the majority of them don’t believe social is effective in their marketing strategies.

So, CMOs are dedicating astronomically more budget to a strategy that they find shallow on attribution and cause. We’re building a façade to quench our own thirst for proof, but just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it works.

How did we get here?

Marketers’ lives aren’t exactly easy—we’re strapped for time, and every single minute is packed with pressure to produce results.

When time is money, sometimes we must choose money to deliver results when there is only so much time to dedicate to each channel.

But we’ve been in the social business long enough now to know that not all investments are equal. Influencers don’t always equal the sum of their parts. There’s a missing link between content and caring, between quantity and quality, and between click and conversion.

So, how do we extricate our brands from social influencers bereft of any cultural alignment to our company’s beliefs? While options are limited, there are good strategies to solve those issues.

One option is to shift from vendor budget to internal team growth. That means building a team capable of analyzing the best fits for the brand.

The goal is to guide influencer marketing that focuses on authenticity, genuine behavior and expertise over total followers. The goals are clear, the expectations are cogent and the guidelines are strict.

Customers need to look up to those individuals and respect their opinions within each segment, not just follow them. Meaningful content builds brand DNA, which in turn builds our key performance indicators.

Here are two brands driving genuine social programs with clear expectations and results:

  • Abercrombie & Fitch: Abercrombie & Fitch has focused on realigning its culture, identity and messaging to its core customer. Part of that alignment is in the recently launched ambassador program, Team Abercrombie, that focuses on driving social content, launching local initiatives and leveraging the expertise of real customers in key markets.
  • The North Face: The North Face is harnessing technical experts who many would consider micro-influencers. They don’t always have massive followings, but they have the quality and authenticity brands are searching for in today’s saturated market. What’s important is that they’re not experts in The North Face gear—they’re experts in the outdoors (climbing, biking and hiking). They’re trusted on social, and their content follows the path of genuine content, only featuring The North Face when appropriate and authentic.

The road less traveled

Even with internal team growth, it’s still challenging to manage a cadre of influencers. The best option is to identify native ambassadors. These influencers are hiding right under our noses—they’re our best customers.

Who is more authentic, impactful and trusted than your long-term customers? Who is more engaged and primed to be ambassadors than your most loyal members?

Marketers can drive better prospecting results by harnessing their current customers that operate in the right networks to drive higher conversion—and you cement stronger relationships with your members in the process.

Harness what you have and make your brand more authentic. Incentivize and use your customer file to drive better content. The most challenging part is done for you. The prospective ambassadors are on file, you have their purchase behaviors, their social engagement and their interest. All you need to do is produce a program that welcomes and rewards them for their behavior.

Own your brand DNA

Influencer marketing was reactive at its inception. Brands feared that they’d lose control of the conversation as customers took to social to talk about brands democratically—which has been positive for both brands and customers. Yet the response was knee-jerk at its best. We paid people with the most followers to share the message we wanted, regardless of opinion or expertise.

Naturally, our customers have evolved to see through such a shallow solution. It’s time for us marketers to evolve with them—to stop thinking of customers as robots and to realize that everything is a conversation with two sides. That idea can be highly beneficial to both brands and customers as we harness our known customers to help tell our stories.

Social is a bubble, and it’s about to burst. As investment balloons, other brands are ditching the strategy for more stable options. The value isn’t there, but as brands pump money—and pressure—into the network, fraud and fakes will continue to rise.

The solution to the problem is to focus on known quantities. You know your customers. You know their influence is smaller, but it’s also genuine. Harness what you have to build a stable foundation for the long-haul.

Jeff Sopko is president of full-service marketing agency Baesman Insights & Marketing.