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Influence, Relationships and Your Personal Brand




Andy: Welcome everybody to the SEMrush Influencer marketing webinar. Today we have one of my favorite marketers and one of the best minds in content, one of the original influencer marketers you could say, Mark Schaefer. Welcome, Mark.

There is an approach to influencer marketing that you and I both believe in and probably we were both doing since before influencer marketing became a big trend.

It is a hugely popular tactic and strategy being embraced by thousands of content programs and agencies. My conversation with Lee Odden revealed that influencer relationship management is now a sought-after skill, it is a category of software and it is an entirely new breed of agency, the influencer marketing agency.

The Current State of Influencer Marketing

Start with, if you don't mind please, the state of influencer marketing; is it dead, where are we?

Mark: No, and the reason that a lot of the things that we used to believe in, in marketing, advertising, and public relations and social media, a lot of that stuff doesn't work as well as it used to.

Today, anybody can create their own power on the web. And you think about how wonderful this is because when you and I were growing up in business, to be known, to have influence, someone had to pick you. How would you become known? You'd have to be on TV, you'd have to be in the newspaper, you'd have to jump through all these hoops.

But today, influence has been democratized and the power has shifted from companies and brands and advertising to consumers. And naturally, businesses want to have a piece of that, they see this power.

There's been a lot of articles written about how influencer marketing is dead. But here's the thing: that is very predictable. If anything is going well, it will become corrupt. Where corruption can occur, corruption will occur, whether it's SEO, whether it's content, whether it's Facebook news, whether it's Twitter. When something starts to build momentum, it's a target for corruption.

And influencer marketing is no different, but that doesn't mean that at its core, that power, that elegant beauty of the authentic voice and advocacy of real people isn't important. And in my view, influencer marketing is not dying, it's just starting.

Andy: So is it successful now because of some of the corruption or the reduced results from social media? Are we moving toward it because we are seeing weaker results in the classic channels the same way that content sort of benefited from a decline in the effectiveness of advertising?

Mark: Everything is down. I watch more TV than I've ever watched in my life, but I never see ads. Because I watch it on Netflix, I watch it on Amazon. I listen to the radio in my car all the time. I never hear an ad because I'm listening to Sirius XM or a podcast. I wake up, I read the news, I never see any ads. A lot of people have ad blockers on their devices.

So my personal advertising consumption is down 95% in five years. Organic reach on Facebook is down 99% in the last five years. So even social media, the hot new thing. I mean there's no organic reach, it's all paid.

So where's that money going to go? We still have a story to tell.

Andy: I see.

Mark: We still have a product to sell and the research shows that over the last 10 years, trust in companies, brands, and advertising has declined 10 years in a row. Who do people trust? Their friends, their family. And we use the word influencer but their friends. These are people that we admire, that we trust.

So influencer sort of is an emotional word to some people. My definition of an influencer is very simple; it's a person that can move content. Because the content is the heart of everything that we do in marketing, whether that's an ad or a blog post or even a product can be content that you share. The economic value of your content, if it's not seen and shared, is zero.

So all of your economic benefit from digital marketing is from the transmission of content, not the content, not the distribution channel, not having a Facebook post. Is it seen, is it shared? And that's what influencers do, they share content, that's the power of the web.

Andy: I love my conversations with you because the definitions of things tend to become broader and clearer at the same time. So, you've actually brought into that perspective to just sort of remind us that an influencer is anybody in your network who's helping move these messages out to a broader audience.

Mark: Exactly right, I mean content is not the finish line, it's the starting line. How are you going to get that to move? You can pay for an ad, you can create better content maybe, but you've got to nurture an audience, you've got to engage with people, you've got to find people who might have some propensity to be interested in you and support you and nurture those relationships. So it's the transmission of the content that's power on the web today.

Defining Influencer Marketing

Andy: I'll ask the dumb question, how does it work or how do we define it or what is influencer marketing? The packaging of content and making it shareable? Facilitating the transmission?

Mark: There's no simple answer because there are so many different types of influencers and so many different types of strategies. So if I work for L'Oreal, influencer marketing is paying Kim Kardashian $250,000 for a tweet. If I'm Dell, influencer marketing is connecting with a thought-leader who has a passionate following on a blog about servers or something. If I'm the local pizza place, it might be finding people in the community who are talking about food.

So it's a combination of the different types of influencers, could be a celebrity, could be a content-driven influencer like you and me, it could be an advocate who just loves you. And then it's a combination of the different options around influencers, their different channels, their different content types and what are your goals? Do I want to sell something? That's what most people think of but not always. It could be raising money for a charity, it could be advocating a certain political position, it could be running for office.

There's no single truth, there's no single strategy. At its heart, it's about igniting an idea, it's about igniting content or igniting an idea. That's really the thread that runs through all of those.

Andy: So there are different types of influencers, Mark laid out for us that there are the celebrities, which a lot of people think of when they think of influencer marketing. There are the content creators with whom you might want to have a collaborative effort and work on a content program and make something together.

I'm a fan of using contributor quotes and doing interviews or this show here now, there are tons of ways to collaborate with people on content. And then the third level down, you say an advocate of the brand, anyone who shares.

So if we have three levels of influencers and we have different channels, I begin to in my mind see kind of a matrix of how ... if we start with the goal, brand advocacy, visibility, could be link building, and then combine that with the type of influencer, celebrity, content creator, advocate and the channel, blogs, PR style, social media, Facebook, Instagram. It's giving me a framework that's helpful.

Mark: The other thing about that framework Andy, is that whoever resides in one of those boxes, you could possibly have a sustainable competitive advantage. There are only so many influencers to go around. Operating effectively in that matrix can create competitive advantages for your company.

Andy: Lee talked about this a little bit, the competition for influencers and how this space gets crowded depending on the category and depending on the level of influencer that you're targeting.

I wrote something recently about content marketing metrics and I gave a kind of a classic perspective on this and the point of it was that the more visible the metric, the less useful it is or the less closely related to business impact it is.

We have conversion rates or sales, leads, sales, referrals, then there are conversion rates and there's website traffic. And I put social media metrics way at the top. These are super visible but kind of easy to fake, they're not related to business goals, there are tons of companies that are going bankrupt that have large social followings. And I made the case in this piece that social metrics were overvalued because they’re super visible, and the cognitive bias called the availability heuristic makes us overvalue things we can see.


I showed you this piece and I said “Mark, do you agree that influencer marketing is going to get skewed by the fact that social metrics are so visible they're overvalued. Are we overvaluing these peoples' social followings and engagement and likes and shares?”

And then you have a kind of a counterintuitive perspective on that. You said in your view that they are quite valuable. Can you explain?

Mark: First of all, I think generally you're right but with the exception that a lot of people overlook this idea of social sharing as a vanity metric. And I completely disagree; the real goal of your marketing is to get content to spread. So it's like, man, other than conversions, social sharing is the most important metric on the web. Because social sharing is advocacy. It's better than any ad than you could ever buy.

70% of adults say their purchasing decisions are influenced by content they see shared on the web. So I mean you just can't ignore that, it's a very powerful metric.

What's happening is that marketing is moving outside the walls of our companies. So McKinsey did this study which showed that two-thirds of our marketing is not our marketing. One-third is this stuff that we're familiar with and the two-thirds of stuff that's going on out there without us. The customers are the marketers and by customer I also mean influencer.

Once you get outside the walls, it gets really hard to measure what's going on. You can't ignore it; two-thirds of our marketing is not our marketing.

Influencer Activation

Andy: Just unpack for me the context of “activate” with influencers. I mean what's being activated?

Mark: An activation is something that you would do to help an influencer or anyone unpack your story. So it has to be congruent with your brand, your philosophy, your values, the story that you tell about yourself, but you have to do it in a way that's relevant to the influencer. So it has to be authentic, it has to be relevant, it has to connect with them in some organic way and it's got to be interesting or entertaining in a way that it provides the fuel for them to ignite it.

Andy: I think a lot of influencer marketing campaigns, the agency or the marketer wants to be kind of controlling. They have an idea, they really want that influencer to do one specific thing, they want to appear in a picture or they want to get mentioned, they want to get linked to a specific thing. That's activation.

Mark: That'll never work. You've got to stop right there, that's bad.

Andy: You can't control it too much, it sounds like.

Mark: I mean it might work in the short term but here's the problem. If you have a specific sell, if you go to an influencer and say I want to promote this movie or this soft drink in this timeframe, I want you to hold it like this; there was actually a big blowup about this.

The brand went to an influencer and said we want you to present this idea in this certain way and this young woman, she like posed on her bed, fully made up with her hair all done and she was in this pose with her nightgown and it was like mouthwash; I think it was Listerine.

This young woman, I mean she had a directive from the brand, she was trying to live up to this directive from the brand. And it became a meme, everybody was embarrassed because it was so bad. It wasn't organic, it wasn't relevant.

If you create a relationship with an influencer, you've got to trust that person. You can't just be buying an ad, you've got to be trusting in a person to be a professional.

Andy: Their voice. They're trusted because they have a voice and you want to leverage their trust, you have to let them keep their voice.

Selecting the Right Influencer

Mark: And that's why selecting influencers is so vitally important.

Andy: Influencer identification is like something that people do with software. There's a whole massive industry appearing, with these tools for finding and tracking your engagement with influencers and organizing your paperwork and contracts and types of outreach and size of followings and all this stuff. And they put a lot of emphasis on the influencer identification, but you called it influencer qualification.

Mark: The right way to do this is to embark on a long-term relationship with a person that you believe in and that you trust. If you do that well, over time, that person is going to become associated with your company and your brand. That person is going to be more known for your brand than anybody in your company, including you and your employees.

So why wouldn't you hire an influencer the same way you would hire a new employee? You wouldn't go to a piece of software and say oh this person's great, boom, you're hired. You start with the software then you Google the person, you'd look at what do they do, what's their voice, what's their tone, what's their audience, how do they act? You'd want to meet them, you'd want to talk to them, you'd want to say do our values align? Is this person going to embarrass me someday or is this person that we can really trust and believe in?

There's nothing more important than the trust that you establish with your brand. You can't violate that and you certainly can't take any shortcuts when you're working with influencers.

Andy: I think the shortcut is what these people are looking for when they sign up for a big software tool or when they do the social media searches. The shortcut is saying, “oh look, they've got a big following.”

Mark: The fatal flaw of all the software out there today is that it's almost entirely Twitter-centric. Because that's what you can measure, that's what you can see, everything else is kind of behind a firewall. So in my view, Twitter is the least influential social platform, period.

What you need to be looking at is the person's blog. Their YouTube channel, you need to listen to their podcast, you need to go look at the comments on their YouTube channel.

People say, “oh, influencer marketing doesn't work, these influencers are stupid.” Who is stupid? The people who didn't do the work. It's the marketer's job to be a marketer, your job is to protect the brand. That includes everybody you hire, everything you say, everything you don't say and the relationships you have with influencers too. That's where the responsibility lies, with the marketer.

Andy: It doesn't seem like it'd be a really technology-heavy strategy. It's a lot of high engagement; you're interacting, you're doing outreach, you're sharing creative ideas, you're listening, reading, viewing their content, imagining them as a voice. And then you have this hiring process or interview qualification process and then outreach.

Influencer Outreach

I want to ask you about outreach. It seems like there's lots of opportunity for interesting outreach. Have you seen this?

Mark: I think once again, the keyword is activation. I get probably two to three books in the mail every week. I would say 95% of the books are put aside. I have never even opened them.

So you've got to think, how do I cut through the clutter? How do I connect in an emotional, meaningful way with these very busy people and capitalize on these relationships and provide something that's fun and interesting and something that's easy for them to activate?

Andy: There are so many fun stories about interesting types of outreach. Never send a cold email, it just should never be sent. I don't think cold email ever works. It's so rare for that to work.

I think the community that we're talking to now maybe send a lot of emails, just automated things, and outreach, email outreach tools that just send the same email to hundreds of people. But if you're trying to connect with someone who has a lot of influence, it's worth an extra hour, two hours, three hours to order that thing, to make the video introduction, to go to the post office, to send them some fancy thing.

Mark: I think that example is sort of a microcosm of our marketing world. So the marketing “easy button” is to find a list or buy a list of marketing bloggers, send the list to a fulfillment site, have them send out a book. That goes in the category of the 95% of the books I never open.

When I get a book, and here's an example, I got a book in the mail with a handwritten letter from the person telling me what an inspiration I've been. That's meaningful to me, that's somebody that of course, I'm going to help. They've put a lot of thought into this.

But that takes work, you've got to roll up your sleeves. The marketing easy button is over, the marketing easy button doesn't work. The automation, the spam, it doesn't connect with people in a human way.

Andy: We've got a couple of questions. The first question is “what if you're a small business, how can you find the right person to promote your brand?”

I'm going to channel a little bit of Mark Schaefer here and say that the first step is probably to find those that are already promoting your brand and to thank them and engage with them and to create a bit of an experience for them, maybe something nice or handwritten thank-you notes are totally unrelated. Whoever the top people who are already activated, you should probably focus on them first and quickly.

But if you're looking to move up to that next level, he gave three levels, celebrity, influential content creator and the person moving your content.

Mark: Advocate.

Andy: Thank you.

The next level, the Mark Schaefer's of the world, look at your industry, look at your top competitors, look at your top search competitors and SEMrush will show you who is linking to their content; find those people. Look into SEMrush and see who's linking to their content: those are possible collaborators for you.

Look at who's sharing their content, look who your audience is also reading.  And then reach out to the people who are presumably getting the attention and love on those topics from your competitors.

Mark: The only thing I would add is that almost every business has some group of people who are sharing their content, who are their fans. And I call this the alpha audience. This is your most important marketing asset because they're igniting your content.

So I agree, that's the first place to go. I consult all over the world and I always ask this question, “do you know who's sharing your content, by name?” And of all the times I've asked that question only one person answered yes and she really did, she was doing amazing things with influencer marketing.

Mark: But that's the first place to go, who's your alpha audience? Who are people who already love you? Start there.

What To Pay for An Influencer?

Andy: The next question is closer to that classic angle and it's not organic influencer marketing, it's the paid side of IM. “How much is a reasonable rate to pay an influencer? How much would you pay a YouTube influencer for a very niche industry with 100,000 followers to promote a product?”

Mark: The way I look at it is, that's really impossible to view because again, you‘ve got to look at the goals, you’ve got to look at what's the market rate? The only wisdom I might add to that is that every purchase someone makes is a bargain. Because they're weighing what's the value of this versus what I'm going to cost? So whatever you pay, it's got to be a bargain.

You've got to look beyond social media breadcrumbs for the true impact of an influencer. So if you're looking at some social media dashboard and tracking, did my influencer promote blah blah? You could be disappointed.

What you need to do is talk to the influencer and say, how many conversations have you had about this? How many times have you blogged about us? How many times have you mentioned us in a class or a workshop or a speech or a public appearance?

You've got to go beyond the dashboard. You've got to go beyond these quantitative measures like mentions and tweets to qualitative measures like this person talked about us in a class. It's not something you can count, but sometimes great success comes through stories not so much numbers.

How To Become Known as An Influencer

Andy: We have plenty of attendees who want to understand how to become more influential themselves, how to become better known themselves.

Mark: First I'd like to differentiate between being known and being famous. We've talked a lot about influence and Kim Kardashian and so what does this really mean? What's the objective here?

Being known doesn't mean breaking the internet. It doesn't mean being Kim Kardashian. It's having the presence, the authority and the reputation to get your job done. To be mindful about how you are known in the world today, having an effective social media presence is a life skill, if you can have that life skill a little bit better than your competitors then you have a sustainable competitive advantage.

So I struggled with this question, can anybody become known? Is there a process? And I went through an incredible amount of research and did original research and found out that, yes, as a matter of fact, there is. And what I found is I interviewed 97 people around the world who are known, kind of the go-to person in their industry and found that every single person in every field, everywhere in the world did the same four things. Maybe they stumbled onto it, maybe it took a lot of trial and error, but eventually, they got there.

The first step: you need to really identify what do you want to be known for? And that's harder than it sounds. It's not necessarily just what you're passionate about, because if you're passionate about something but not enough people care about it, it's not going to work.

So I'll give you an example, there was a fellow that came to me, he was an expert in autograph collecting, kind of interesting niche, but he had been working on this for years and years, he was doing all the right things, but there just weren't enough autograph collectors in the world for him to really monetize anything. It's okay to have a hobby of autograph collecting, but that doesn't mean that you're going to be successful doing that.

So it's got to be a combination of something that you love and something that's sustainable. You have to identify what's the story I'm going to tell, then you mentioned space, the space is where am I going to tell that story? Is there some niche that's uncontested or at least not saturated where I have a chance of owning this? And there's lots and lots of different ways.

Here's a really great example. I think you probably know John Lee Dumas. He has the wonderful podcast, Entrepreneur on Fire. So how much content today is being created about being an entrepreneur? Saturated or unsaturated? Saturated.

What John realized was that he loved podcasts and he wanted to learn something every day and he realized there was no daily podcast about entrepreneurship. Even though this was a super crowded market, he found a little space that he could own and now he's a multimillionaire.

Andy: It's a great story.

Mark: But it's a perfect example that even in a crowded space, you can find a place to maneuver.

Andy: I think basically what you're saying here is that this needs to be a deliberate choice, it needs to be strategic, you're deciding in advance on something that both you feel passionate about, there's a large enough audience for.

Mark: The other thing is this mantra on the web that says follow your dream. That doesn't necessarily work. It's not a matter of opinion, it's the data doesn't support it. Most business failures come from people who follow their dream but didn't have a plan.

Andy: I think Seth Godin said this, tell me if you agree, there are two kinds of currency, there's money and there's attention. And there are lots of people who just want lots of YouTube views and they don't really care about or connect it back to monetization. It helps you understand a lot of activity online when you think of it that way, that there are really two kinds of currency and there are people who seek one or who seek the other or seek both.

Mark: There's an internet author and futurist named Kevin Kelly and he wrote a wonderful book called The Inevitable, which I highly recommend, but he wrote a blog post called A Thousand True Fans. And basically, he said was all you need is 1,000 people who are willing to pay you $100 a year for something and you're making six figures. That seems so attainable.

Let me tell you something, that's almost impossible. It may take years. You've got to have a plan, it can't just be following your passion.

Andy: Again, that question, we talked about it, what's the reasonable rate to pay? I'm going to answer it. The reasonable rate to pay an influencer in a niche industry with 100,000 followers on YouTube, the answer to that question is $550. People like specific answers. I just made that up. Honestly, if I had to guess though, I think the market rate for that kind of work, if it's not original, if it's a mention, not an original content creation would be $400 to $2,000.

Mark: Another way to think about it though is what could you do for that influencer that would be so insanely great that they just love?

Andy: My suggestion is to not make it a discrete single action. I'm thinking of a VIP experience for them. I'm thinking of content for them. You're mixing ingredients together to create something that drives value for everyone. You just happen to be the activator or the nexus or the connector in the middle.

Mark: I think one of the things missing from a lot of influencer marketing strategy and word-of-mouth marketing strategy is the idea of repetition. There is some psychology behind advertising; it's this repetition. Whenever I was doing consulting and was very involved in change management, I used to have this little saying that people had to hear it seven times before it started to sink in. And so buying a one-off mention from an influencer is not as good as something like you just talked about, creating an entire program, let's call it an activation, that make people excited, that makes content ignite.

Andy: I think that content marketers create content, great content marketers create a series of content. If you're creating a series of content then your outreach to that influencer might be I'm running a series and I've got these people involved and these people involved and I'm reaching out to these three people for these upcoming programs. Would you be interested in being part of this bigger thing? People want to be part of a bigger thing.

But the big takeaway from this and as we close, I want to just thank you for sharing this idea of activation, because I had kind of set that aside. What we are doing in influencer marketing is empowering an audience. The simple advocates at the bottom level, content, collaborative content, PR style, producers of content in the middle level and then in the extreme examples maybe celebrities.

But that idea of activation, any final tips about how best to or not to activate an audience and to leverage influencers for the greatest gain?

Mark: I think it's pretty simple, you just have to look through this lens. How can I do something that's authentic? Because people are putting their own name out there, they're risking their brand. How do I make it interesting and exciting? So it's going to spur me to create it and is it relevant to me and what I do?

Andy: Thank you so much.

Mark: You're welcome, Andy. Thank you for having me.

Andy: And thank you, of course, our hosts at SEMrush. And we will see you all next month.

All levels