Are Your Influencers Really Influencing?

Opinion: Unpaid influencers are not obligated to use, wear or recommend a brands’ product in their social media posts or show up at their events

Marketers have long relied on unpaid celebrity endorsements to get their products into the mainstream and turn in-person events into public-relations buzz. On the product side, this has often meant blindly sending their publicists or agents free products in hopes that they’ll pass them along to their clients, who will then publicly wear or use those products. For events, the process is much the same: Track down a handler, send an invite and cross your fingers that one or two actually show up. Basically, it’s a game of chance.

While paid partnerships might offer brands more control, the coveted unpaid celebrity endorsement communicates an entirely different message: “I like this. I want to be here. No one has paid me to say this.”

In the age of social media, influencers are the new celebrities. With thousands to millions of engaged followers who look to them for recommendations on everything from what to buy, where to go, where to eat and stay and who to pay attention to, brands are shelling out more free products—and more invitations—than ever before in the hope that unpaid influencers will become fans and blanket social media with branded posts.

Influencers are now a standard part of many marketing strategies, and they allow brands to cast a far wider, and more nuanced, net. But brands are also discovering that it’s hard to count on influencers to do what they want them to without a little influence of their own. Just like unpaid celebrities, unpaid influencers are not obligated to use, wear or recommend a brands’ product in their social media posts or show up at their events.

Fortunately, there are more strategic approaches to getting influencers to influence in return for free products and/or event access.

Establish in advance what you want influencers to do

Just because brands aren’t paying influencers, this doesn’t mean they have no control of what influencers post about them. Brands often forget that if they have a good product—or a brand that influencers want to align with to build their own social equity—influencers will be open to following their lead.

So before dishing out a bunch of free products or spending lavishly on events, brands should define for themselves what they want influencers to do. Do they want to be tagged? Do they want to be directly referenced within the caption? Is there a branded event or campaign hashtag they should use? Is there a theme that should come through in photo content? Are there messages the brand is currently focused on perpetuating? At events, are there specific backgrounds they want influencers to capture?

These things might seem obvious to the brand, but influencers aren’t naturally thinking about the brand’s goals when they post; they’re thinking about presenting great content to their fans.

The brand’s job is to design programs that encourage specific outcomes—and specifically, posts that work in service of its goals.

Create opportunities that make influencers want to influence

Influencers, like celebrities, get dozens of event invitations, so they’re unlikely to show up at just any event. They want to feel like they’ve been invited to something special—and something they want to post about. While their expectations might seem inflated, most influencers understand that there’s an unwritten contract: “I get a special experience; you get in front of my fans.”

For social influencers, a special experience is often one that translates into unique, shareable social content. The challenge for brands is to create photo-friendly moments or picture-perfect vignettes throughout the event that will leave influencers—who are always on the lookout for new and interesting ways to perpetuate their own fabulous lifestyles to fans—no choice but to post.

When Google Play hosted the one-year anniversary celebration of Janelle Monae’s Wonderland Records, for instance, the company created an intimate dinner built around an Alice in Wonderland theme. Google Play not only designed the entire event space to create multiple unique photo opportunities for guests, but it went a step further and placed branded interactive photo displays at key locations to remind guests to snap, tag and share photos from the evening—and print their own takeaway memories.

Maximize your ROFS (return on free swag)

Offering generous gifts at events is an age-old way of getting your product in front of influencers, but if there’s no immediate reason for them to share with their fans and followers, there’s no guarantee that gifts will translate into meaningful social sharing. One way of capitalizing on free swag is by turning VIP areas or gifting suites into photo-capturing, photo-friendly influence hubs.

Throwback sportswear brand Mitchell & Ness knew that it would have no problem luring influencers to its gifting suite at Lollapalooza, but it wanted a defined plan for activating influencer brand fans. The brand created a dedicated hashtag for artist and influencer visitors to its backstage retail lounge. Only by sharing backstage photos—featuring their products and tagged with a designated hashtag—were influencers able to unlock access to limited-edition jerseys and headwear.

Over the course of the four-day event, the company garnered more than 20 million social media impressions, creating a unified brand awareness upswell that measurably increased brand sales.

In short, influencers will influence their audiences. But you’ve got to influence them.

Jim Hopper is CEO of marketing technology provider M-ND.

Image courtesy of runeer/iStock.