Micro-Influencers and the Blind Spot in Your Influencer Marketing

Opinion: Advertisers' old bad habits are damaging a new and invaluable marketing tool

At some point in the past year, “micro-influencer” became the advertising industry’s staple buzzword for up-and-coming bloggers, YouTubers and social media personalities who promote a brand or product as part of a larger marketing campaign.

The appeals of working with micro-influencers are clear: They reach niche markets, they add unique voices to a brand conversation and they’re cost-effective. Endorsements and recommendations from content creators of this caliber are often perceived as more authentic than those from influencers with millions of fans and followers, because these spokespeople haven’t “sold out.”

In an environment where only 33 percent of consumers trust online ads and a whopping 90 percent trust peer recommendations, brands can’t afford to ignore influencer marketing as a whole. Teens even say their favorite YouTube personalities understand them better than their friends do. If a brand wants to implement a powerful marketing tactic, they only need engage the influencers.

Yet the marketing world is poisoning this invaluable well by applying the same bad habits seen with larger-scale influencers to the new, “untapped” audiences of smaller, micro-influencers. Brands too often work with creators on one-time engagements only to move on to the next, when they should instead be forming long-lasting, mutually beneficial partnerships.

This short-term thinking dilutes brand and influencer equity alike, negatively impacting consumer engagement.

Consider LeBron James. He doesn’t swap shoe brands every other game; to do so would dilute his brand and those of the sponsors.

Unfortunately, this isn’t what brands are expecting from influencers now, and the concept of engaging them with as real people has become lost. They’re here today, gone tomorrow, and the influencer is left trying to earn a living. When a brand engages them for a short-term project, there’s little stopping them from saying yes when a competitor comes knocking next time. You’re best off thinking about influencers as scaled-down celebrities who are ready to be turned into a long-lived mouthpiece for your brand.

You can be forgiven for thinking that these guys are disposable pitchmen. The sheer number of micro-influencers (as well as their lower price tags) give many brands permission to view and treat them as single-serving publicity opportunities, but isn’t the goal to make every click and view count, every time?

For brands who want to use influencer marketing to reach the most relevant consumer with the highest level of engagement, this noncommittal window-shopping approach doesn’t cut it. Don’t let the investment distract you from what’s ultimately important: the return on that investment.

To maximize that return, brands ought to have their influencers drinking the Kool-Aid before sending them into the great unknown to rep their products. A micro-influencer’s limited reach can make it seem like a lot of unnecessary work to integrate them into your brand’s vision, but this only makes them a more valuable asset in the longer term. The best influencer relationships, like any other sponsorship or endorsement, implement a formal onboarding process that endows the influencer with a meaningful understanding of the brand.

Face time on this level gives brands and creators the opportunity to know each other personally. It lets creators learn about the brand and its managers in an organic, unforced way. Influencers then feel like they’ve been brought in as part of the marketing team as opposed to an outside hired gun. They grok the brand’s message more easily, and they carry it to the public more readily.

I’ve found success here by organizing immersive “influencer summits,” inviting creators to get in-person briefings directly from a brand’s team. This lets creators test the waters before becoming intimately acquainted with a brand, and it also empowers them to ask questions. These briefings get everybody on the same page, speaking the same language. It changes the paradigm from rote regurgitation of talking points to integrating the message into one’s life.

Meaningful influencer relationships can open compelling worlds of marketing opportunities. Brands and creators collaborate to make ongoing episodic content, setting the stage for them to cultivate the community that springs up in that content’s wake. Longer-term partnerships may also open brands up to obtaining category exclusivity—no other competitors can collaborate with that same creator. It works for Nike and LeBron.

Too many advertisers opt for a transactional approach in their engagements with influencers, and this yields lower-quality content as the finished product. Applying the same “one off” strategies to micro-influencers is simply continuing bad practices and throwing good money after bad.

When brands instead take time to find the right creator, talk shop in person and engage them for the long-term, it makes a much surer recipe for success, whatever the size of an influencer’s audience.

Brendan Gahan is the founder of social agency Epic Signal.

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