How do you build long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with your best customers? Treat influencer marketing more like relationship building and less like a cash transaction.
Today’s guest is Magda Houalla, Director of Marketing Strategy at AspireIQ. She describes how to elevate influencer marketing beyond clichés to achieve results.
Ben: Hi, Magda. Thanks for coming on the show.
Magda: Thank you so much for having me.
Ben: Absolutely. Would you mind taking a moment to introduce yourself to our audience and explain what you do at AspireIQ?
Magda: Yes, absolutely. My name is Magda. I'm the Director of Marketing Strategy at AspireIQ. A quick brief on who AspireIQ is. We started in 2013 as an influencer marketing platform, so very much focused on helping brands find influencers to work with, manage their relationships, and analyze the results. Over the past, I would say, 1 ½-2 years, we actually have shifted or more so evolved the way we think about what it means to be influential.
With that, we have recently created our second product offering, which is a product-focused on basically community-building initiative. Expanding who is considered to be influential to allow brands to work with their customers, their enthusiasts, subject matter experts even activate their own employees. Really, the new product offering is designed to be a more flexible workflow. Instead of just having these transactional influencer relationships. They can have very, very personalized in meaningful relationships with anyone who is considered “influential” to their brand.
What I do at AspireIQ is I work with our clients to help ensure that once they have access to our tool, they have a really strong strategy in place to hit their key business objectives. One thing that we noticed is for our self-serve offering, so basically giving people access to the technology, a lot of times, the biggest question that we're coming up is okay now that I have this, what actually do I do? How do I reach out to influencers? How do I start to build my community? How do I find my enthusiasts and subject matter experts?
That's where my team was born. We basically work with our clients during the first a few months of them being on the platform to make sure that they have a super solid strategy in place that is laddering up to broader business objectives. In addition to that, I do a lot of work with our own marketing team around what's going on in the space. Influencer is such a buzzy word. Community is such a buzzy word. How can we help our clients understand what information is actually the most relevant to their goals?
Ben: Very cool. It's great stuff. Let's say I'm a marketer, I'm listening to this show, and I've got some questions about influencer marketing or maybe I've identified it as a potential area of opportunity for my company, but I maybe don't know enough about it to get started. There are a billion questions a person can have. When you're dealing with that sort of ambiguity, it can be hard to know where to start with something. Especially with something like influencer marketing where, like you said, it's very buzzy right now. If I'm in that position, how would you recommend that I begin approaching starting an influencer program and really building those initial relationships with influencers in my space?
Magda: Totally, yeah. This is a really good question. We find that sometimes brands are overwhelmed with the possibilities. The most important piece is really focusing on personalization. You could find someone who's influential just by looking at their social media follower count, but really, what it means to create a super meaningful program right out of the gate is finding someone that actually aligns with your personal brand values and someone that is ideally a fan of your brand to begin with.
One thing that I do a lot with my clients when they're just getting started, if they have no program whatsoever, is start by looking at your different customer personas. Almost all brands have an idea of who their target customer is and what those different personas look like. Then work to map that back to what an influencer could look like.
Just a very generalized example. Let's say you're a product that is targeting moms. There is a huge community of mom influencers that you can find. Through a tool like AspireIQ, we have a very robust search database, so you can find people through our tool, but it can even be easier than that. Just looking at hashtags on Instagram scrolling through your phone, that's an easy way to get started. When it comes to actually building the initial relationships with these people, once you've identified them, it's really important to have a values first approach.
What I mean by that is instead of just coming right out of the gate and saying we'll give you $200 to post about our brand, start with a story about who you are, how you got there, why you are looking to build a community of influencers, and really what your brand values are that you hope and assume are aligned with the influencer’s own brand values. That's just going to have such a stronger long-term payoff than treating it more transactional.
Ben: Yeah, for sure. I think that, stereotypically, that's the way a lot of people conceive of influencer marketing. It's like you paid somebody to post the product or something. Obviously, there's much, much more to it than that. I love this idea though of treating influencer marketing more like relationship building and less like a cash transaction, basically. On a tactical level, how would you recommend that marketers begin to form actual relationships with influencers or with their community versus the stereotypical just one-off transactional kind of thing?
Magda: This is another really good question. You don't have to go into every influencer relationship with we're going to be partners for a year, we're in this together. It is important to test the waters to begin with. I'll start by speaking about influencers then I can speak about the broader community.
When it comes to influencers, usually what I recommend is start with, again, the value-focused pitch. Start by saying this is who we are, all of that, and then work with them on something of a trial basis. It could be something like we want to work with you to do four posts on Instagram and three Instagram stories. Throughout the time that they are doing these posts, that's where communication is key. You don't really want to just send them out to work, approve their content, and not really have a dialogue.
In my past life, I was actually an influencer manager myself. That was where I saw the biggest success is while they were creating the content, have a consistent dialogue with them. Ask them for feedback around what do you think of the product? Do you like it? Is it actually providing value? Be honest with us. We want to make sure that this is something that's very mutually beneficial. The payoff there is you're going to truly get people that are more invested in your brand, and that's going to come through in the content they create.
I'm sure you've seen massive influencers that are posting just them holding a product, the caption is very generic—use my code Magda20 for 20% off. If you're building a stronger relationship and you're really getting to know these people, you can encourage them to infuse their own personal story in the caption and even face the sponsorship head-on. Say things like I'm so excited to be working with X brand. I'm very grateful for this partnership. Here's why I am working with them.
I think that it's really about the value first approach, continuing to have conversations with them, asking them for feedback, and really making them feel like they're a partner in this to you versus just doing work on your behalf. The same thing extends to other people within a brand's community. Say you want to build a program that is rewarding your top customers who are consistently talking about you on social media, it's the same thing.
Instead of just creating some sort of generic email template that goes out to everyone thanking them for being a customer, focus on personalization. Let them know that you recognize that they are frequent buyers of X product and you really appreciate that. You want to understand, again, more about how they like the product, what feedback they have. Personalization is key. That's something that consumers crave. They don't want to be shouted at, they to be engaged with. That transcends beyond the influencer and goes to just really anyone who is interacting with a brand in any capacity.
Ben: A great point that Magda makes is that the people who are most influential to your customers might not be the kinds of people that we so often think of when we think about the term influencers. Really, anyone in your space that your customers and potential customers follow as a source of information or inspiration could very well be influential in their purchasing decisions.
If you're not quite sure who might be an influencer in your space because you're not really aware of anyone who fits the typical vibe or the typical aesthetic as what pop culture understands an influencer to be, it might be time for us all to expand our own understanding from an influencer explicitly being someone's job title or explicitly being a role that they assume on say Instagram to just conceive who is influential and who was a real thought leader that your customers already know and love that you could partner with.
Combine that with a more story-based approach to making your pitch as to why those folks should want to partner with you and you can really turn influencer marketing from a simple, one-off transaction into a relationship that yields powerful results for both parties.
Now, back to Magda.
Let's say that I'm a marketer, I want to really start applying this philosophy to how I engage with other professionals, other people in my industry. Whether that's who you would traditionally think of as an influencer or if it's just experts, affiliates, customers, or potential brand partners. When you think about it, really, any of those people could be an influencer if they're willing to promote your brand to their own audiences.
What's the first thing that you would recommend I do to change the way that I engage with those people as well so that the way that I'm approaching them is not just hey could you do this thing for me, or if I do this for you will you do this for me? How do I just begin approaching people with more of a relationship building-type mindset?
Magda: It's really about the value you're providing to those individuals, first and foremost. I think that it is really, really tempting to basically say this is everything I need. I need high-quality content, I need social posts, I need product reviews, and I need my customers to tell me they love me. Of course, that's what is needed, but ultimately by flipping the script and really thinking about okay, let me take a step back and let me think about how I can invest in these individuals as individuals with the idea that this is going to have a long-term payoff.
What I mean by that is perhaps it is less about approaching a customer and saying we are so happy you love our product. We’d love for you to fill out this review. Instead, approaching them and saying we're so happy that you've been a customer since 2015. We would love to invite you to be a part of an online event that we're hosting. Something like that where you're providing them with something is going to be valuable because ultimately that is what's going to make them inclined to engage with your brand in a more meaningful way.
When it comes to an influencer it is a little bit different because influencers are in the business of content creation. They understand that there is a transaction involved there, but I still think that even when it comes to influencers having this idea like story-based selling where you're telling your story, you're offering up that value initially, and you're even letting them know that you take it very seriously—what it means to be an influencer for a brand. It's not something that you are writing off as just something that's a box you're checking. You really appreciate the content they create.
The value add is the biggest piece that I've seen some of the top brands that really are on the bleeding edge of community efforts. Brands like Revolve, Glossier, and Lululemon. That's something that we see them doing a lot of thinking about the value add first.
Ben: Sure. Maybe a simple way that I'm summarizing all of that in my mind right now is you're providing value for the influencer so the influencer can help tell your brand story rather than you're just like here's a check, here’s our product, and will you wear my yoga pants in your Instagram story? Whatever the case may be. That makes so much sense. Because I imagine that when you do that, the ROI of your investment is going to be exponentially greater over the long-term than it would be if you went for the easy thing of just waving money in front of someone's face.
Magda: Absolutely. The piece about storytelling is so critical because this is something that marketers talk about all the time, but brands are really built in the minds of their consumers. It's really important to have different people outside of your brand telling your brand story through their unique lens.
Influencers come from all walks of life. If you're an athletic brand and you're selling yoga pants, you could get 10 different people that have 10 wildly different stories about how they interact with your brand, their fitness journey, or whatever it may be. That personalization is so powerful because that's something that, as a consumer, I can look at and say oh, I see myself in one of these 10 people, and I see myself in one of these 10 stories. Not only are you getting really great stories, but a lot of the times when influencers feel invested in, they're just going to produce better work.
Assets are really something that no brand is ever going to say we have enough content. They always need more content. Influencers can create that really high-quality, beautiful, and socially-optimized content that brands can use across their entire marketing stack. That's really where, to your earlier point, you're going to see a massive increase in the ROI from the work that you're doing.
Ben: Absolutely. Say I'm that same marketer in our hypothetical example we've been creating here. Once I've learned the basics of trying to apply a more story-driven, relationship-based approach to influencer marketing, what can I do strategically to kick things up to the next level? Once I’ve got the basics of this concept down and I've started to change my thinking about how I approach this a little bit, what's the next step beyond that?
Magda: The next step is really around providing value beyond money and products. Really focusing on what experiences you can create for these individuals to make them feel even more invested. I'll give you an example. In the pre-COVID world, a lot of brands would do things like retreats with their influencers and their community. Again, going back to the Lululemon example, they will take their influencers on these incredible retreats where they're really focused on health, wellness, and all things that are values of Lululemon’s brand but very separate from the product.
In these posts, the influencers aren't talking about the products at all, it's just about the experience. In a post-COVID world, a lot of these experiences are moving online. If you really want to ramp up building better relationships with your influencers or with your community, you can do things like hosting webinars, going on Instagram live, or even just picking up the phone and calling these individuals to check-in. It's ultimately more work, of course, to run this program but the payoff is going to be so much greater because you'll have people that are invested in your brand for the long term.
I would say providing experiences, events, online events, and co-creating products alongside your influencers. I'm sure you've seen different brands that have like a brand X influencer’s name product line. One that comes to mind and I'm obsessed with is the brand Billabong. They have a partnership with the influencer Sincerely Jules to create really, really beautiful beachwear. Things like that just to get these influencers more ingrained into your brand is going to turn the dial up on the quality of the output that you're going to get from them.
The last thing here is not being afraid to amicably end a partnership with people that don't make sense. If there is someone where you're trying to build that relationship, but it seems like it just keeps coming back to this transaction—you're not really connecting, it's okay to do an audit of everyone you're working with and really lean into those people that are super engaged, are super excited and part ways with some of the influencers that perhaps aren't as great of a fit.
Ben: Got you. That makes sense. The last question that I'll throw your way, are there any common mistakes that you see marketers make when it comes to influencer marketing or just community building in general? If so, what are they and what would you recommend that marketers do instead?
Magda: Totally, yeah. A big one that I'm seeing right now is a narrow view of what it means to be influential. Traditionally, we think of influencers as people that are on social media, have a high following, and have a high engagement rate, but that's really just one form of influence. Influence can mean a number of different things. Another example is I, as a brand, could want to find people that can influence the creation of my product. I actually want them to be hands-on in co-creating it with me. Those individuals will have a huge influence on your business because they're helping you create your product, but they might not have a social media presence.
Really, what I talk to a lot of our brand partners about is expanding who they consider to be influential to include people like those enthusiasts, subject matter experts, fans, and customers, of course, and evolve the way they work with these individuals. It might not be that a subject matter expert is posting on social media about your brand. It could be instead they're coming into your offices and creating really detailed subject matter expert videos that you guys are then using for your email marketing campaign.
It really is just about shaking up the way you think about influence and having a program that is really multifaceted and supports a number of different business objectives.
Ben: It makes sense. That's all I've got. Is there anything else that you think is really important to add that you maybe didn't get a chance to mention in there?
Magda: Just as a key takeaway, the most important thing that we see is treating everyone in your community—whether it's an influencer, a fan, or a customer—as really an extension of your business. If I can leave everyone with a point to drive home that really is the most critical piece because when you have that built-in loyalty, that really allows you to have this super-engaged group of people that are going to support you in good times and in tough times. I think a lot of brands are seeing that, especially right now where they're leaning into their communities more than ever. I would say incorporating those people into your brand as much as possible.
Just as a last, last take away, we have more resources that we create at AspireIQ that could be helpful for anyone that's interested in learning more about influences, community building, or any of the things that we're talking about today. The URL that we have is just aspireiq.com/actionable-marketing. A little dash between actionable and marketing, aspireiq.com/actionable-marketing. There'll be a ton of resources there as well as conflict information if anyone's interested in a deeper strategy session with someone from our team.
Ben was the Inbound Marketing Director at CoSchedule. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.