Every startup CEO wants to get the company's product in front of millions of users, but only a tiny fraction of startups scale to see that reality. With many founders wondering what else they can do to shift the odds in their favor, here's one approach that may be underutilized: influencer marketing.
Influencer marketing can be a key user acquisition strategy for almost any startup, says Monica Ohara, co-founder and CEO of the growth marketing consultancy DataScore. She believes all startups should give it a try.
Ohara — along with DataScore Director of Scalability and Growth Hannah Russin — recently joined RocketSpace to present a workshop on influencer marketing. The duo shared their thoughts and insights on what influencer marketing is, how it works and how it can be beneficial for growing startups. We asked Ohara about key takeaways and put together this 101 primer for startups looking to grow through influencer marketing.
What Is Influencer Marketing?
Influencers are people who affect buying decisions. They are known and trusted entities online, and their audiences respect and trust their opinions.
Influencer marketing involves partnering with key influencers who have extensive reach in a given network that overlaps with a brand's target audience. Ohara says influencers come in four categories:
- Celebrities: dominant figures in pop culture
- Domain experts: trusted sources within specific industries or verticals
- Trendsetters: lifestyle sharers on platforms, such as Instagram or Snapchat
- Bloggers: commentators who write about specific industries or verticals
Influencers don't even have to be human, Ohara says. One DataScore client — Pupbox, a subscription service for puppy treats and toys — works with 75 "Insta-famous dogs," Ohara says, with a little help from their owners. The dogs receive free treats and toys and have collectively generated about $60,000 in revenue in six months, accounting for more than 50 percent of Pupbox's referral traffic.
Why Is Influence Marketing Important?
"Influencer marketing can align a company with people who have the same sort of brand positioning that the startup wants to have," says Ohara. "If the startup wants to be seen as cool or trendy, or gain respect from stay-at-home moms, there are influencers out there in every category and every vertical who could be a fit."
Influencer marketing also provides social proof, says Ohara. "One of the biggest challenges startups have when they're starting out is that no one knows who they are and nobody trusts them," she says. "Why would someone buy a product or service from a company they've never heard of?"
Partnerships with influencers help startups gain enough credibility and trust for customers to make a buying decision. "Social proof, or people feeling confident enough to give your brand a try, is usually the tipping point of whether your startup will succeed or not," says Ohara.
Four Simple Steps to Working With Influencers
Influencer marketing can be outsourced or managed internally. Ohara suggests that founders seek to balance cost and speed when deciding whether to manage or outsource. Either way, there are four key steps to the process.
1. Find Your Influencers
Regardless of industry, there are influencers in every category. Ohara suggests starting on social media platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, to find potential partners. Seek out individuals with high post engagement (likes, comments, clicks, shares), not just high follower counts, she warns. It's important that an influencer is having an engaging, two-way conversation with their audience.
Furthermore, Ohara says "mid-size influencers" are better than larger personalities. Generally, that includes individuals with 10,000 to 20,000 followers on a given platform with qualitatively engaging content. "Big influencers with massive reach are expensive to work with, and we've found that they're less effective," says Ohara. "We found, for example, when Pupbox partnered with four mid-sized influencers, it drove more sales and traffic than one large one." So, the startup partners with 75 mid-size influencers to power its referrals.
DataScore has used tools such as TapInfluence and The Shelf to find and partner with influencers. Those tools feature pre-negotiated deals and a platform for managing workflow. They're more expensive than rolling up your sleeves and putting in the work, though, Ohara says. And, influencers on those platforms have higher expectations than those "mid-size influencers" you could find on your own. A few more startup-friendly tools Ohara recommends are:
- BuzzSumo: a tool for finding top-ranked content and identifying influencers
- ListBuilder.io: a bulk contact finder, for finding social media handles, websites and emails. (Note: This tool was built by DataScore. You can request 100 free credits by registering and mentioning this blog post in an email to ListBuilder support.)
- Yet Another Mail Merge: a Chrome plug-in for sending personalized mass emails
2. Pitch Them
Pitching influencers from scratch can be nerve-racking, but remember that you're simply connecting with another person. "Enter the relationship warm," suggests Ohara. "Follow the influencer on social media. Interact with them." The idea is to warm him or her up to your brand before reaching out.
When you reach out after initial engagement, aim for email or private message on social media. Explain what's in it for them and why this partnership is a good fit.
Before reaching out, make sure you understand their motivation, says Ohara. Startups often confuse public relations (PR), affiliate marketing and influencer marketing. The three types of influencers overlap, but journalists, affiliates and social media/blogging influencers have different motivations. Ohara breaks it down:
- Journalists are in it to get newsworthy content relevant to their audience, and they don't accept payments from startups to write about their products.
- Affiliates are in it for the money. They've grown their site traffic and they're looking to partner for profit.
- Social media and blogging influencers are primarily in it for the fame. But on the side, they've learned they can make money.
There are many possibilities on what you should give and get. Some influencers, much like journalists, won't need anything. They just love to share great products. Others will want samples, while some will want payment. In return, a startup could receive a quote, product endorsement, photo of the influencer using the product, a giveaway on the influencer's platform, promo codes or a newsletter inclusion. Think about the content that will be generated and how you'll re-use it and optimize from there.
3. Measure If It's Working
If your influencer marketing is working, do more. If it's not, stop. In order to make that call, you'll need to measure the effectiveness of your current influencer marketing. To do this, startups should:
- Use tracking links or unique promo codes. Understand which influencers are driving the most traffic and sales.
- Check referral sources in Google Analytics. See which blog domains are referring the most traffic.
- Look for the overall effect. Marketing attribution can be a soft science, because marketing activities often grow organic traffic. Know that not all influencer marketing will be able to be attributed, so try to look at the bigger picture to see if there is an overall increase in growth.
4. Amplify Your Efforts
"If things are going well, find ways to get the most out of the hard-earned content you've produced with these influencers," says Ohara. "The content is only valuable to the extent that people see it. We suggest using influencer content in ads on Facebook — don't be afraid to send people to a piece of content that's speaking about you instead of sending them to your site. They'll come back to your site and be more likely to engage with your brand."
Go beyond the initial promotion that influencers do within their follower base and re-use the content in a different context, she suggests. Re-sharing helps the content feel fresh again and get more reach.
On Instagram, for example, you can turn a post into an advertisement by taking a screenshot and promoting it. For blog posts, you can create a landing page that entices visitors to purchase based on a testimonial. Or, consider adding a call-to-action (CTA) to any URL using a tool like Linkboost to make it super easy for users to click through to your site.
Make Influencer Marketing Work for You
"Startups often ask, 'Can influencer marketing work for my company?' The answer is most likely 'yes,'" says Ohara. "Influencers are a key channel for growth, and they exist in every industry and niche."
"Just remember that you're dealing with people. It's not just a business transaction; you're striking up a relationship," she says.
If you choose to give influencer marketing a try, make your efforts worth it. "This is hard-earned content that you've generated. Don't forget to give it a boost," Ohara concludes.
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