Influencer Marketing 101: A Primer and How Brands can Leverage It

Influencer marketing has been the water cooler topic as of late for many brands looking to market effectively to their stakeholders. While some have used it to great effect, others have come under scrutiny for not knowing how to plan and execute their influencer campaign—at the risk of eroding customer trust, tarnishing brand and influencer reputation, and possibly getting slapped with a hefty FTC fine to boot. So what is influencer marketing and how can brands maximize its full potential to build and cement customer trust and win new customers too?

Simply put, influencer marketing is when brands market products or services to specific entities—individual persons, group, or even place—who can persuade others to buy (Source: These targeted influencers have this trusted clout because of any one or a combination of factors: reputation, expertise, popularity or even virtue of recommendation and/or reviews.

While most influencers in these type of campaigns are bloggers (they are the most trusted consumer decision tool after brand and retail sites, according to marketing research platform The Shelf), influencers can be peer consumers or celebrities. Regardless of who that person(s) is, the influencer is the link between brand and consumer. And recent data underscores the advantage in using influencer marketing for brand campaigns:

  • Blogs account for 31 percent of resources behind consumer purchase decisions, with retail sites at 56 percent and brand sites at 34 percent of decision resources.
  • 88 percent of influencers verbally tell a friend about a brand that sponsors them.
  • 92 percent of consumers trust recommendations from other people (including people they don’t know) over brand content.

–The Shelf, March 2015

So are influencers paid? Are they basically glorified spokespeople? Well, influencers are compensated but not necessarily with cash. Instead, a mutually beneficial relationship between brand and influencer is agreed upon and included with that understanding, is a contract that stipulates compensation which can take a number of forms—sponsorship, free products, discounts, and yes, sometimes money. However, the objective for brands is to secure a brand advocate but much in the way that record companies provide free albums to music critics to review them ahead of the public release date; that is, to provide access to a service or product ahead of the masses and to help create positive buzz, provided there is a fair value exchange.

Brands can leverage influencer marketing in a variety of ways. As previously mentioned, they can give or provide access to free products or services in exchange for a review or call to action. Or, as in the case of General Motors, they can create an exclusive web site with access to only a select group of individuals—specifically, GM Insiders or customers with long-standing loyalty and knowledge of their iconic brand products. The expectation is that these insiders spread the good word about new products and features among their own friends and online communities.

Some other examples of successful influencer campaigns include:

  • Barilla Pasta sent out ‘Test Kitchen’ packages containing product samples to consumers who created their own dishes, hosted parties, and uploaded their photos to the Barilla community online, inviting feedback. The brand successfully collected research on consumer eating habits and information on how they felt about the brand.
  • La Cense Beef targeted environmentally conscious consumers and foodie bloggers with a campaign about the brand’s grass-fed beef products and ranching methods. The brand created a microsite for these stakeholders to access and educate themselves about La Cense’s grass-fed beef initiative. The result was positive coverage on these bloggers’ sites, in addition to sustained customer loyalty.

MRI specializes in creating promotions on behalf of brands to engage customers and win new ones. Leveraging campaigns like sweepstakes or contests, influencers can encourage followers to participate and reward their online communities. And using a third-party agency like MRI minimizes penalties to brands for not having planned or executed an influencer campaign within federal guidelines and regulations.

When planned strategically and executed correctly, influencer marketing is a triple win for all involved. Brands raise awareness of their products or services, enhance their reputation, and increase sales. Influencers have an opportunity to enhance their status or profile within online communities, plus boost their own credibility. As for customers, they get to participate in a promotion with like-minded peers who share the same enthusiasm for digital promotions, while also gaining insider knowledge about a product or service as talked about by the influencer.

Influence, the ability to persuade or affect change, is hard to define in quantifiable terms but is nonetheless a value-add to marketers and brands. If you can find the right influencer to persuade customers to pay attention to your brand and ultimately gain their trust, then this new wave of marketing is here to stay.