How do you convince someone to buy your products if they’re not innately exceptional? If you have a physical store, then you have some options — you can create an absorbing aesthetic that immediately comes across as compelling, or (more usefully) you can employ an array of convincing in-store assistants with the rhetorical skills to talk people into purchasing.
But it’s harder for ecommerce. Since it first achieved mainstream appeal, the ecommerce world has been puzzling through options for marketing items at a distance — and one of the few that has proven reliably effective is using influencers. But what are influencers in this context, and how are they changing the ecommerce model? Let’s find out.
What it means to be an influencer
Social media has given rise to a generation of sharers. People blog and vlog about the smallest events in their lives, treating those who follow them as friends. Inevitably, some attract larger followings than others — it may be due to their charisma, or their expertise, or their dedication to releasing a lot of content, or their appearance, or their career… the reasons vary wildly.
Regardless of the exact circumstances, someone reaches a point of having a significant group of followers invested in their opinions and choices. At that point, they have valuable influence. And becoming an influencer only requires them to start monetizing that power — using their position to profit, whether through working with brands or selling their own items.
Indeed, being an influencer has now become a career in itself. There are those who will proudly state that they are “social media influencers”, dropping any pretense that they are just sharing content for fun and being completely honest about their intentions.
The power of recommendations
If you see an ad from a big brand that states that a particular drink is the best on the market, will you credit it with much significance? Likely not — but what if that claim comes from a friend? We’re all inclined to trust the opinions of our friends and family members, and this is something that influencer marketing readily exploits.
Notably, an influencer doesn’t need to outright state that a particular product is the best (and will always prefer to avoid saying something like that, because it could damage their image). Instead, they just need to promote that they’re using it — eating a certain food, or wearing a particular pair of sneakers — and tell a story along the way.
Because their followers will want to be like them to some extent, and will rate their taste very highly, that mention alone will get plenty of people interested in the product. This type of effortless power is cause enough for marketers to be curious, and because ecommerce isn’t tied to specific locations, online endorsements can be spread far and wide.
The rise of affiliate relationships
Now that we know what an influencer is and why they hold such sway, let’s look at the biggest way in which influencers are changing ecommerce: they’re establishing complex and long-lasting affiliate relationships, altering what it means to do online marketing.
Essentially, it works this way: a brand reaches out to a relevant influencer, or vice versa, and an agreement is reached. The influencer will talk about the brand’s products, and provide affiliate purchase links. An affiliate link allows a brand to track the source of its buys, and provide a corresponding financial incentive when someone’s recommendation leads to a purchase.
Sometimes, this is done subtly, but increasingly often (due somewhat to legal requirements) it’s done brazenly. Execution runs the gamut from paying an influencer for a glowing endorsement to simply giving them money to talk about you, regardless of what they actually think.
How to use influencers for your brand
If you’re in the ecommerce game and you’re looking to take your marketing to new heights, getting involved with influencers can be extremely effective: but you need to get it right. Otherwise, you can end up paying an exorbitant sum for an influencer with no relevant following to talk about you a couple of times and achieve nothing in the process.
Start with research, going across all the major social media channels (including sites like Reddit) to look for communities and individuals with apparent sway in your field. Once you find some, you’ll need to decide how bold you want to be with your marketing: if you don’t want to push too hard, you can simply send some product samples out to people and ask them to provide video reviews in return. Since influencers are always happy to get free content ideas (and free products), they’ll likely go for it, getting you some publicity.
If you don’t mind pushing hard, and you’re aiming high, then you can cut to the chase and propose long-term endorsements (with trials to begin with, of course). Ask about their rates — what they charge per link, or per mention, and what affiliate rates they require. If you’re happy with a deal (you’ve worked out how much you stand to gain, and it’s in profit for you), then try it.
Influencers are also a great marketing channel for charities, helping both raise awareness and drive donations. There’s no better way to spread your message than using an engaging influencer campaign, just make sure you align your brand with highly relevant influencers who have the attention of your target audience.
Another way to go about this is to test the waters with a secondary brand. By trying out influencer marketing using a brand that isn’t overwhelmingly important to you, you can gauge the benefits without risking long-term damage to your business. Stores and ecommerce domains can be easily bought and sold through online marketplaces, so try purchasing a budget ecommerce store (you’ll likely be able to find one for under $100), filling it with some relevant products, and arranging a deal for an influencer to promote those products — if it works, then you profit, and if it backfires, then it’s no big deal (what’s $100 for an ambitious retail brand?).
In general, though, think about how you want your brand to come across to your target audience, and make influencer decisions based on that. Will your association with a particular person make people like you more? Is your tone a good match with theirs? Is there anything in their personal history that could tar your company by association? Once you start working with someone, you don’t get to take it back, so be sure it’s a good fit before you start.
To sum up, influencers — people who are consistently able to influence the decisions of their online followers — are changing the ecommerce model by fundamentally altering how marketing campaigns work. Instead of putting all their efforts into going directly to customers, brands are using influencers as go-betweens, achieving results that are vastly more subtle and compelling.
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