Everything I Need to Know About Influencer Marketing I Learned in Middle School

Four Lessons for Smarter Influencer Marketing:

My son Tucker completed his first year of middle school last week. A scary time, parents will tell you, because it’s when our children’s peers begin to have more influence over them than we do. It’s a proposition made all the more scary because we remember those middle school days so vividly, easily conjuring up images of the specific people who wielded their power and influence to shape our world.

Like all children of the 80’s, I feel like every middle school had a Heather. She had feathered hair and a mouth full of braces and Hubba Bubba, and she wore OP shorts or Guess jeans with zippers at the ankles and a ripped sweatshirt. Many of my best and worst moments were in reaction to the Heathers of this world. (I still remember the skinny red leather tie I wore the first day of my new middle school. To this day I blame Heather.)

So based on my wisdom and extensive personal experience in the middle school arena I told Tucker, Your peers are going to influence you, that’s a fact. Be smart and choose wisely.

Thank God middle school doesn’t last forever. Or does it? Right now one of the hottest trends in marketing is so-called influencer marketing. (One survey I read recently reported that 65 percent of brands plan to up their influencer marketing budget in 2016.) Find the people who can influence the people you want to reach and arm them with tweets and product and cash (often a lot of it). Then let them use the power of social media to connect with the constituencies that matter most to your brand.

While I’ve escaped middle school, my professional career is a highly organized and nuanced peer pressure system designed to produce a positive outcome for a client. Harnessing peer pressure should not be taken lightly and should only be used for good. (This is why it’s so important to only work for clients when you believe in their product, mission or cause.)

So how do you organize peer pressure for the power of good? Like the famous Robert Fulgham poem “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” everything I need to know about influencer marketing I learned in middle school. Here are a few lessons—straight from middle school— to help you navigate one of the fastest growing marketing channels available today.

1. Stay true to your core values instead of falling for fads
Just like Heather’s red leather tie, your product or service is not the essence of what your consumer wants. It's just the vessel for the idea that your product or service represents—the same idea that forms the heart of your company.

To be authentic, stay focused on the idea, not the product. Take Target. One of the company's core beliefs (and an ad campaign) is "design for all." Target believes that great design should be fun, accessible and affordable. It’s that can-do, everyone's-invited, energetic spirit that appeals to consumers.

When you're thinking of what to look for in influencers who will make a difference for your brand, be sure you've identified the Big, Inspiring Idea behind what you offer. The best influencers will embody that idea.

2. Lasting friends are better than the most popular friends
Look beyond reach to find an influencer who will bring you a stronger, deeper connection. Generally speaking, you're going to have better success with mid-level influencers—typically those who have tens of thousands of followers— as opposed to the top tier. Not only will this middle tier be much cheaper, but they tend to generate higher quality content and a more loyal following. Skip over the top swath of influencers ranked by reach (sorry, Justin Bieber) to find those who will have the time and interest to engage thoughtfully and otherwise nurture social relationships. Then assess what they write about, endorse and communicate to gauge their fit.

And speaking of quality over quantity, you don't need dozens of influencers. A handful that you can develop a long-term relationship with will help you create brand ambassadors who have an authentic connection to both your brand and their followers.

3. The right peers don’t take away your voice; they encourage you to be heard
I've worked in PR for more than 20 years. In that time, one of the most important things I've learned is that there's really only a small group of people that you can persuade through your campaign, idea or product. There are many, many more things you simply can't change people's minds about. Because of this, the more targeted you can be in your marketing, the higher the payoffs will be.

Let your brand be your guide by starting with three or four of your brand characteristics—those adjectives that would describe your brand if it were a person. Then look for influencers who embody these traits. The best influencers will regularly be involved in two-way conversations. They listen. They’re not all about themselves. They engage meaningfully and authentically with their audiences and they help your brand shine.

There are a number of digital tools and services you can use to find influencers, but you can also mine your current customer base for passionate consumers who are very active on social media. Beloved consumer brands Zappos and Birchbox have both had great success partnering with lifestyle and fashion bloggers and vloggers who use their products and who also reflect their brand personalities.

4. Secret handshakes are important
Complicated handshakes, silly rhymes and inside jokes are what connected us in middle school. They identified us as belonging to the cool group; as belonging to each other. The influencer marketing equivalent is that you want to let consumers begin to self-identify with your brand through insider behavior and knowledge. Arm your influencers with meaningful information and content that will help them make consumers feel—and act—like they belong.

When it comes to influencers, you're not looking for people like your consumers as much as for those who inspire your consumers. I love Tom Brady because he's an awesome competitor and because he's attractive; but he and I share very little in common. Again, people buy into ideas, not products, so think big when you're considering the influencer pool.

We live in times that can be overwhelming for marketers (and middle-schoolers), as new tactics and technologies seem to multiply overnight. It's true that tactics will continue to change rapidly, but keeping your efforts grounded in an understanding of how people work is a ticket to long-term success. People want authenticity, honesty and a human connection from brands, and this has always been true. Influencer marketing is just one way you can help deliver this experience.

Lesley Gold

Lesley Gold | Jun 2016