Influence marketing: What’s next?

what's next

By Mark Schaefer

One of the things I took away from the recent SXSW conference is the frenzied search going on to find new ground for our marketing messages. The media landscape is a mess. TV, radio, and newspaper advertising are in a freefall. Online ad click-though rates are dropping. Nobody is quite sure how to master “native advertising” that cleverly embeds ad messages in content.

All the old “pipelines” for our content are drying up. So one viable alternative is to borrow somebody else’s pipeline.

Today, bloggers, podcasters, and home video producers are gaining consumer mindshare through their passionate and entertaining content. No wonder this is the new media gold rush — influencer outreach.

I have a 360-degree experience with this trend as I strategize with clients, advise agencies, and become a target for outreach programs myself. And what I see is not pretty.  Sure we have tons of content. We have lots of wonderful new alternatives to identify influencers. Now, what do we do about it?

I think the core competency that needs to develop is a mindset transformation from a “purchaser of ad space” to a “developer of relationships.” Here is a model to get you thinking about this in a new way.

social influence strategy

There are three social media influencer pipelines available to us today … let’s look at what this means.


Think in terms of Kim Kardashian and the huge and rapt social media channel she has developed.

  • Influence is based on “being known”
  • No “rich” content like blogs necessary
  • Enormous “pipeline”
  • Endorsement is purchased
  • Little or no true brand engagement
  • Goal: “Image.” Certain brands may pay to access this pipeline just to be associated with this person’s image and lifestyle.


Think in terms of a blogger like Chris Brogan who might promote products through their content, including products unrelated to his core business

  • Influence based on authoritative, original content and social proof of a large following
  • Brand content may be sponsored (purchased)
  • Large, engaged “pipeline”
  • Limited brand engagement, i.e. probably no organic advocacy exists without sponsor dollars
  • Brand goal = “Awareness”


Think of a content creator who creates passionate videos about their favorite fashions and shopping experiences.

  • Influence based on passion and authority
  • Targeted, relevant “pipeline”
  • Authentic content
  • Organic, unpaid advocacy
  • High brand engagement due to true belief in the product and company
  • Goal “Drive word of mouth attention and sales”

All of these “pipelines” are legitimate options depending on brand strategy but in a short blog post, I can only cover this on a very high level!

Obviously there are many complications and nuances to this general idea. For example, as the diagram above indicates, there can be overlaps. An “influencer” like Chris Brogan can also be an authentic advocate (and he often is).  An advocate can also be a celebrity, of course.

Arguably somebody like Seth Godin could fit in all three categories — he is a celebrity often featured through the mainstream media, he is a content-based influencer, and he goes out of his way to authentically advocate people and products he believes in, without compensation.

The transformational challenge

influence marketingI think one implication of this development is that there is still an opportunity for quick “advertising” opportunities but many companies and agencies should also be thinking about a more holistic approach to their outreach efforts, including the patient and hard work of developing authentic, long-term relationships with advocates.

These connections are not established through money, sponsorships, and endless streams of infographics. They only occur through authentic helpfulness and genuine personal connection. This requires a change in approach from “buying space” to “earning hearts:”

  • Aim to patiently develop long-term relationships
  • Maintain consistent connection — even when you don’t expect anything
  • Make a live connection whenever possible. This creates an irreplaceable bond.
  • Aim to create a partnership or friendship, not a “target audience”
  • Employ scarcity — Make them feel part of something special
  • Provide useful content and services built on “trust” not “pay”

There is so much to think about here — I could literally write a post about each of these elements! But I wanted to get the general thinking out there because I see such a dramatic need for this in the marketplace right now.

What do you think about these ideas?  Do you have an influencer outreach strategy for your company?SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Top photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons and thepinkpeppercorn.  Influencer graphic Copyright Schaefer Marketing Solutions 2013.   “Heart of Art” illustration by qthomasbower courtesy Flickr Creative Commons

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  • Great post, Mark, and so timely.
    Before I read your post, I came across to an article about the producers of Nutella (the Italian hazelnut spread) whose lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to a blogger and Nutella super advocate, requesting her to shut down her website.
    I mean, this company has an important brand advocate in their hands and they voluntarily interrupt this “helpful and genuine” relationship. This story sounds like an interesting case study to me, and I am curious to get to know the reasons why this company made this anti-social decision. At this point I wonder how they will be able to develop an influencer strategy in the future, if any!

  • Interesting article. There is so much talk about authority these days. How to get it, grow it. I like your expansion on the advocate side of the house. I believe that is really what makes someone worth listening to – taking sides where it doesn’t have a particular advantage for the brand.

    Thanks for the points to ponder.

  • You’re welcome. We need to think about the different kinds of influencers!

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  • simonemccallum

    Great article Mark, and thanks for highlighting that creating a relationship with influencers is something that is built over time. They aren’t a pool of people you can email out of the blue with some brand content you’d like them to share on your behalf – unless of course you have built up enough social equity with them in advance.

  • Funny because I’ve been thinking a lot this weekend about an influencer campaign for a relatively new client. The client and I had a call last week with a PPC consultant to consider as part of the mix. The PPC guy told my client what he’s asking for is like trim work on a paint job when he can only use a big roller brush. It made me realize we really need to do an influencer campaign as a major part of this because it allows us to truly target and do that “trim work.”

  • Claire Axelrad

    Love this perspective Mark. Especially ” This requires a change in approach from “buying space” to “earning hearts:” I work with nonprofits, who are notoriously slow to adapt to change. This is exactly what I try to convey when attempting to persuade them to hop on board the social media train (still have folks asking if it isn’t just a fad!). When they can view it as being primarily a tool for earning hearts — a huge relationship-building machine — they begin to see its value.

  • MrTonyDowling

    I love this take, thanks Mark

    But here is something Ive been thinking a lot about lately – the advertiser as influencer

    I am convinced the majority reason people are so ‘anti ad’ in terms of it interrupting their content, which is still the only way we really have to reliably serve people advertising, is the extremely poor quality of the ads in the first place.

    So flip that, and think about the ads that enthral us! The ads that are Relevant Interesting, Timely and Entertaining (as someone once said!)

    We are all happy to talk about great ads, and even happier to share them within our networks

    I am increasingly convinced that a large part of any ‘advertising fight back’ needs to be the quality

    And I dont mean ‘native ads’ I mean ads that are straight up commercials that people love.

    Most people hate ads needs to read, most people hare BAD ads

    Lets make ads great, and then see where we get to?

  • Great article Mark, I whole heatedly agree with your concluded recommendation. I think that your comments about ‘earning hearts’ has (or should have) always been the case, it’s just that businesses and people seeking authority may have over complicated matters and tried to find quicker or easier ways to achieve the same goal – authority and trust.

    You have to earn both of these qualities and, if your passionate about your field of expertise, then this should be something that you enjoy doing anyway 🙂

  • So true. i am so weary of these email blasts!

  • Good luck with that! Would love to hear how it turns out.

  • Oh gosh yes. This is especially true for non-profits and a great opportunity too!

  • Yes Barry there is the issue of expediency which is intoxicating. In fact, it is the American way : ) But that may not pay off in the long-term benefits.

  • Earning hearts can really only be done in the third way – by being an advocate. For small businesses, the next question is: how do we make a living from being advocates? Hard and frustrating. I see so many people struggle.

  • Very true 🙂

  • This is so true for fiction authors, because we’re selling something you don’t actually need, plus it requires your precious time to consume when you do buy. I’d spent years just kind of trying this and that, all low budget stuff because I can’t afford the big splashes. Then I ran into Kristen Lamb (online), who advocates this approach for authors (she calls it high concept blogging). I’d given up on my blog and she got me to reengage and refocus it on connecting, rather than selling or making it about writing or all about me. Obviously I “advertise” my books and such on the blog, but the posts are, for the most part, chats and mulling on topics of interest to me–and hopefully others will find interesting.

    My blog traffic has slowly built, but a happy thing happened on the way. I found I liked it. After a year and a half, I’m still learning and experimenting. One of my
    favorite things is the chance to share my husband’s awesome photos.

    I’ve been surprised by what posts resonate and which don’t. The main theme is always an emotional under pining, though, that sense of heart (and that’s what draws me back to my favorite blogs. There are lots of interesting and informational blogs out there, but I come back to the ones that have heart and/re information). One of my most popular posts was one on getting old. (One of MY favorite posts my “How not to kick the bucket list” didn’t do as well. LOL)

  • For many of us, that is THE question. But it is certainly happening. There are some teenage girls in our area that are making high six figures from their shopping “haul” videos. Perhaps they are moving into the celebrity category!

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment today Pauline.

  • Thank you for shining some light on why people should be building a business around their passion and monetizing the attention. I also believe this is the gold rush of personal brands. It’s never been a greater time than now to put in place the building blocks of doing what you love.

  • From an agency perspective, maintaining relationships is important but the hardest challenge for us. Being able to “scale” it in a way is tricky without seeming unauthentic. We’re figuring it out though. The key is to grow those relationships slowly and strategically instead of just trying to create a “database” to sell people.

  • Very interesting stuff Mark. I have been sitting back and watching this unfold and really haven’t felt we are getting anywhere yet. and I bet we may never get anywhere (from my CFO viewpoint)

    I really loathe the term online influence because it removes ‘influence’ in general from the equation. And depending on the business the goals are different. The NY Times wants articles read and shared. Chobani wants Yogurt bought and eaten. Two very different activities. And I have learned you can’t get a stranger to be influential for you unless you pay them. You have to find your advocates from your existing customer based and for that reason I toss Klout and all the scoring businesses out the window. In fact I have only seen one online influence effort that I would call a success to date and that was from 2008 Sea World in San Antonio the only case study of value from a white paper brian solis put out last year. All the rest of his examples like the Window’s Phone launch were actually failures.

    I think the biggest barrier to influence is credibility. If I am an expert and influential on something would I risk that just to advocate for a brand or product that bribes or asks me? No. So really the starting point is you have to have a great product/service with great customer support. And if you have that…do you need influence?

    I just question the reasoning behind this tactic. We have so many outlets for sharing and most are private. 99%+ of human communication is not public so shouldn’t the focus be on private word of mouth (email, SMS, in person, phone call etc?) vs the 1% that is public and actually not reality (we all put our best foot forward publicly) just some questions there.

  • So advertising is dead? I get the influencer marketing thing, but is there no room for well placed “traditional” advertising? It can take a while to build up true advocates, influencers, etc. How would, for example, a local restaurant reach it’s market quickly with a new dish or promotion? To me, it still seems valid for them to advertise where ever their customers are: drive time radio, signage at local sporting events, tv spots during local news, and so on.

  • As an old school advocate for customer experience I agree wholeheartedly that the approach should be relationship based and it’s better to earn hearts and friends than buying space.

    It takes more time to focus on relationships and some people cringe at giving away valuable information for free and/or with no expectation for something in return. My belief and my experience is that if you share your knowledge with passion and genuinely want to help people it comes back 100 fold.

    One of the things I find interesting is that people seem to confuse popularity with influence. The most influential people in most people’s lives are the people they have personal relationships with.

    IMO Buying space may generate some quick payback, but focusing on people and being a genuine resource for information and assistance will prevail in the end.

  • I’ve gone the celebrity route once, and it worked in the sense of creating a lasting image/connected between the brand and the persona. But it’s been my experience that advocates are a double edged sword. Often the folks who start off super enthusiastic about a brand, especially on the web, end up doing a 180 and turning on you. I’m not sure why this is the case. Perhaps certain consumers assume that brands will end up rewarding for them spreading the word even though they don’t request compensation?

  • Of course advertising isn’t dead. It still works really well. But here’s something to think about. Let’s say your restaurant advertises in the paper. I was just in a town where the daily newspaper is going to three days a week. A year from now it will probably be a weekly. Two years from now it will be gone. Then what? We need new methods of connecting. Advertising only works when there are people consuming it.

  • You were a stranger to Chobani and are now an advocate of Chobani, singing their praises at every turn. I don’t thnk Chobani is paying you, right? You are your own enigma Howie! But you probably already knew that. : )

    I really don;t see how you can dismiss this trend out of hand. Any activity that gets trusted sources talking about your product seems to make sense. Given your flow of logic, we would suspend almost all advertising and PR. And there are tons of success stories out there. Several dozen in my book. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  • Agree. Agencies geared toward “campaigns” are not organized for this kind of activity. A real challenge.

  • Thanks for commenting Patrick.

  • I agree. Certainly brands and companies can become influencers in their own right.

  • It sounds like the lawyers are running the company, not the marketers. A similar thing happened a few years ago when the Coke-Mentos thing went viral. Coke went crazy, threatening legal action. Mentos sent the folks cases of free candy! Eventually, Coke came around too. I’m guessing there will be a backlash on this and maybe Nutella will eventually “get it.”

  • I know it’s fashionable to separate popularity and influence but I’m not so sure. Justin Bieber is popular. He can also get his followers to do almost anything he wants.

    Similarly, there is a power in social proof, which may be a result of popularity alone. If somebody gets a lot of votes in a contest because they have a lot of friends voting for them, they can now claim they won this badge or prize. This may bestow influence upon them. Are they an authority? Not necessarily. Are they influential? Probably because they are backed up by the badge of social proof. Complicated and weird, but true! : )

  • I’m not sure I follow you. If a brand works to build authentic loyalty, there is almost no stopping that unless the brand disappoints them some how. We are creatures of habit and keep buying our beloved products for decades. Why would somebody suddenly turn on a brand they advocate without a good reason? Let me know what you think.

  • I am not sure what drives this behavior. I think the key word you used was “authentic”. Maybe a better word for what I’m describing is inauthentic loyalty. I’m sure other community managers have run into this. You meet a new fan. Said fan appears not only receptive to your message, but willing to voluntarily share your message with friends. And then one day, this person either vanishes out of thin air (unlikes, unfollows, etc.) or goes negative on you with or without explanation. If they do express disappoint in the brand, the issue seems pretty petty for a loyal customer to get so bent out of shape over.

  • Mark like this post a lot. Thank goodness I took your advice, “Make a live connection whenever possible, this creates an irreplaceable bond” to reach out and meet you! AMA conference one year ago!

  • … and you never know where it will lead! Appreciate you Jack.

  • An excellent distinction Mark 🙂

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  • thank you for this thoughtful post, Mark! other than the cliched “it’s a marathon not a sprint” analogy, it can be a challenge to explain to people (especially those not in our industry) why trying to achieve instant celebrity status is often the wrong approach. There needs to be meaning behind each interaction. because the flash in a pan approach dissolves real quick. We can go in so many different directions. and it’s such an interesting, exciting time to be alive. as long as we find the human, thoughtful elements within our interactions, we’ll be ok. can’t wait to see where we end up in 5 years…heck, even 2-3 years from now will be interesting!

  • Great points Jessica! Thank you.

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  • According to the blogger Sara Rosso, who received the letter, the lawyers “consider it to be an
    unauthorized use of their intellectual property and trademarks—the
    Nutella logo and brand” (BusinessWeek, 2013). The question is how far can unpaid, organic and spontaneous brand advocacy and word of mouth go, before a company/brand says it interferes with its marketing/ branding efforts. Will companies create policies for brand advocates in order to avoid “incorrect” or unauthorized use of intellectual property? For example, Trader Joe’s social media presence seems to be managed by its fans only, so far so good, but how long will this idyll last if it is not somehow regulated? On a lighter note, I wouldn’t mind free Nutella for everyone! 🙂

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  • Mark,

    This is exactly our approach. We call this means of distribution the “author channel”, and we think it is a new distribution channel that rivals all others. For example, Forbes magazine now gets over 50% of its traffic from its own contributors. For our clients (marketers) we leverage authors with existing audiences, and we see 5x the organic traffic. The hard part is to 1) recruit the right influencers to create content for you (which you can’t necessarily do well with a content network approach), and 2) create the appropriate feedback loops, incentives, and tools to get authors to move their audiences. Check out Movable Media’s site; you may be surprised how closely we match your vision here. Pretty much on the nose.

    FYI, we also don’t like to use the word influence–since the buying and selling of influence is essentially the definition of bribery. Once we start thinking about leveraging influence, we start to align the authors content with the marketers goals, which inevitably leads to shilling. Instead we look at audience (popularity), which we think is the true and appropriate currency of the author channel, just as it was the currency of publishing (reach/circulation).

    – Andrew

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  • Interesting ideas. Thanks for sharing with us.

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  • Luis Giraldes

    Hi Mark, amazing your article, I am launching and developing a new volleyball club from scratch, where I will be using exactly this same strategy. I am collecting all data to build our own case study. Best regards, Luis

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