We've had a problem in digital media for a while now, and it's been compounded by the number of platforms claiming to identify influence online.

Moreover, influencer marketing can be an amazingly successful program to acquire new customers, but more often than not, it falls flat.

Here are three primary reasons why.

1. It's not about size, it's about relevance. The influencer's audience needs to match your target audience.

2. It's not about the influencer's opinion. It's about the influencer sharing the most compelling story that engages their audience.

3. It's not about clicks, it's about conversions. The influencer should be driving its audience to buy, not just visit.

Influencers are the biggest pushers of influencer marketing out on the Web. It's a growing and lucrative revenue stream for people who have grown a significant following on their blog or social media.

Popularity and Influence Aren't Synonymous

So, what's the problem?

The problem is that the industry often confuses popularity with influence. Influence scores are prevalent across myriad platforms—but interestingly, very few have any means of measuring conversions.

The result is that companies spend a lot of money identifying so-called influencers, but they don't see the return on investment (ROI) because that influencer couldn't drive the conversions home that would attain the ROI necessary to maintain or grow the influence strategy.

When we agree to grow a marketing technology company's reach, we're incredibly successful. My publication has become a destination for people researching or discovering their next marketing platform purchase. We continue to expand offerings in this area with sponsored and co-sponsored content, webinars, podcasts, and videos because it works so well. I am able to drive people in my audience through to a demo or download, and our clients' sales teams are able to pull them through to a purchase.

However, when the influence campaign is event-driven—such as an in-person conference—I'm terrible. We have some events listed on the site and in our newsletter, but rarely do we see high conversion rates for them. Why? Because my audience trusts my content related to technology, not conferences. I'm not a conference expert, and I've spent more than a decade influencing marketing technology, not events.

The lesson here is not only recognizing where my influence lies but also in understanding why my audience follows me and what information they're seeking from me.

When I throw a curveball outside of my actual influence, the result is... crickets.

Understanding the Numbers

If you do the math, bigger follower numbers might seem better. However, in this case, size doesn't matter in the way you think.

Let's say you use an influencer platform to identify an influencer in your industry, and perhaps it reaches 100,000 people a month in your industry. When you go to its site and social feeds, you see a load of information, conversation, and ads using its influence.

Yet, here's what you missed...

  • Its ads are rotating all the time because they simply don't work. The site lacks long-term, sizable sponsors because it's a popular site but not an influential one.
  • The audience reach is wide and covers a ton of topics outside your company's focus. So while 100,000 people a month in your industry are there to find information, only a handful actually match the leads that you're seeking.
  • Ads, ads, ads... but no stories. Ads are interruptive technologies that have very, very low click-through rates but they're simple to publish so everyone uses them. What this influencer is missing are compelling use cases and stories about the companies they represent. No infographics, no whitepapers, no case studies, no videos. Not even a compelling blog post.

Real Influencers Are Difficult to Find

Sort ordering a list by influencers' social media followings in descending order is not the best way to rank which ones would have the most influence on your intended audience.

With the prevalence of paid social acquisition, purchased lists and bots on the Internet, the ranking may not even be real. If you're going to sort order the list, you may want to do it in ascending order and find the very niche influencers whose audiences absolutely match yours. I would rather market to an influencer with 1,000 relevant followers than 100,000 irrelevant ones any day.

There is the exception of using influencers for brand awareness, but we're not talking about that here. Kim Kardashian may get people talking about my agency, but I'll go bankrupt on the expense and waiting for a return on investment.

Pay for Performance

Often, there's really not a way to tell whether an influencer can actually influence a conversion.

Signing a one-year contract with an influencer is not advisable. Though the influencer may be hungry to monetize its audience and have some rates that appear affordable in comparison to other strategies, more often than not you're going to lose money on the deal.

There's nothing quite as uncomfortable as being mad at an influencer. (Heck, you can't even go online and complain about one!)

Let's avoid that by working on a pilot program. Let the influencer know that you want to run a test for a month or two before making a final decision. Your expectations should be lower than a long-term engagement, but it should provide you with insight on whether the opportunity will work.

If at all possible, negotiate a base plus engagement. Pay to cover the costs in developing, publishing, and promoting content—but provide the influencer a referral for each closed deal. We even have engagements where our referral is ongoing, providing a growing revenue stream month after month.

Arm Your Influencers

Influencers don't know about you, your company, your products, or your services.

Having them say they "saw your stuff and it's really cool" doesn't affect anyone. Let's go back to me for an example. I run an agency not an enterprise corporation. So if an enterprise marketing platform comes to me for an influencer marketing strategy, the last thing I'm going to do is throw in my two cents and opinions about the technology.

What I will do is work with the client to interview their customers and identify very compelling stories from the client's enterprise customers. My audience trusts me to tell them the truth. But since I'm not running an enterprise corporation and never budgeted nor implemented the solution, my audience is going to be skeptical of my opinion. I need to use the trust I have and combine it with like stories from customers just like my audience, so members can relate and engage with the client.

Storytelling is imperative. And it doesn't just have to be in a blog post. It can be in an infographic, whitepaper, case study, podcast, or even a video.

Using my influence and adding your compelling story will make us both successful.

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The Rules of Successful Effective Influencer Marketing

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image of Douglas Karr

Douglas Karr is CEO of DK New Media, the author of Corporate Blogging for Dummies, and chief blogger/founder of the Marketing Technology Blog .

LinkedIn: Douglas Karr