Some people use the term "influence marketing," and others call it "influencer marketing." I prefer the former because the latter can be misleading. How is "influencer marketing" misleading? Well, it often leads people to assume that you need to hire a famous person to promote your brand. How many companies can do that? Maybe just the Fortune 500. What good would that be for all the rest of us?
"Influence marketing," on the other hand, is something we can all engage in. In fact, "influence marketing" levels the playing field. Even a sole proprietor can use the influence of various online and social media platforms to market a product, a service, a brand. It may take hard work to establish far-reaching social networks, to turn your followers into influencers, and to do that sustainably. But it does not take money.
You can blog to your heart's content without spending a dime. You can have a presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest… They are all free.
Here is another way to look at it. Let's say you go to Amazon to buy a soccer ball for your kid. You will not find Beckham promoting his favorite soccer ball on Amazon. You will find ratings and comments, testimonials, and recommendations from lots of soccer moms. They are credible. They are the experts. They speak with authority. Soccer moms are influencers!
Social media has democratized authority and influence.
My Interview with Neal Schaffer, Author, The Age of Influence
When it comes to influence marketing, Neal is an influencer. He has written several books on the influence of social media. He teaches social media at the graduate level. He is sought after as a speaker on that topic. The Age of Influence, published in March 2020, is arguably his most comprehensive work to date.
I have had the privilege of interviewing Neal for this article.
J.R. (Jon Rivers): Neal, before we delve into your most recent book, The Age of Influence, I thought we would step back a bit in time to establish some background. Your first three books, beginning with Windmill Networking in 2009, all focused on LinkedIn. What prompted you to choose that topic 11 years ago?
N.S. (Neal Schaffer): I've written three books before, my first two were focused on LinkedIn. My third one called Maximize Your Social was really about social media strategy and was based on the social media strategy consulting work that I began doing in 2010. So, before that, in 2009, my first book was about LinkedIn and a guide to using it as a networking vehicle through a concept I created called Windmill Networking. It was all about plugging yourself into the grid and open networking, meeting other people on LinkedIn who might be able to help in your professional life as well as meeting those that you might be able to help.
Back in 2009, pretty much the only social network for professionals was LinkedIn. Facebook was still primarily for college students, although it was starting to open up. Twitter just became big at SXSW in 2008. So after mastering LinkedIn, I began becoming very active on Twitter in the fall of 2008. And then, I launched my Facebook account in March of 2009.
But I really acquired authority in the LinkedIn space, beginning with just being extremely active on LinkedIn and starting a blog which turned into a book. In 2011, I wrote my second book because, in 2010, I was already doing social media for a living. When I wrote my first book, Windmill Networking, I was really in transition. So with that in mind, I wanted to make a business book, and I was either going to write a Twitter business book or a LinkedIn business book because my first book really wasn't a business book. And that's why I wrote Maximizing LinkedIn for Sales and Social Media Marketing as my second book.
J.R.: You then expanded your coverage to include other social media platforms with your fourth book, Maximize Your Social, in 2013. How had the landscape changed between book 1 and book 4?
NS: Windmill Networking, Understanding, Leveraging & Maximizing LinkedIn in 2009, was my first book. Maximizing LinkedIn for Sales and Social Media Marketing in 2011 was my second book. Maximize Your Social, published in 2013, was my third book. So between book one and book three, well, I mean, businesses were starting to use social media for business, right? It started really with P.R. using social media. A lot of small businesses weren't using it yet.
And it was primarily B2C companies leveraging social media. In Maximize Your Social I cover things like employee advocacy and social selling. Back in 2011, I covered these as concepts because those keywords weren't around then. And here we are today. So when I got to 2013, I'd already been consulting for two, two and a half years before I started writing the manuscript with experience working with businesses from all sorts of different industries.
So companies were starting to delve into social media, but they still didn't see the ROI. They still didn't know how to create a strategy and how to align their corporate activities with social media. This is also before social became pay to play, where a lot of marketers were thinking, why do we have to spend money on advertising in social media, which should be free? And indeed, until then, you could have gotten great organic results.
Obviously, today we know that's not the case. But back in 2013, that still was the case. Google Plus was pretty big at the time, and it had tremendous SEO benefits for those that "got it." So that was covered in the book. LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook were obviously covered as well. And then we were just seeing the visual social networks like Pinterest and Instagram emerging. And obviously we always had YouTube.
So these social networks became the focus of that book with an eye on creating, maintaining, and maximizing a social media marketing strategy. And it was very different because the industry had begun to mature. Still not as mature as it is now, but it had already started to begin. Companies were starting to take the plunge into social media. The book then advises those companies that were going to take the plunge what they needed to know and how to derive strategic value from social media as part of their marketing efforts.
J.R.: Now, with the publication of The Age of Influence two months ago, you have moved from a focus on specific tools or platforms to a more strategic, almost philosophical look at marketing and branding in a digital world. Could you comment on that?
NS: The Age of Influence is the result of me always creating content for the needs of my audience. We always talk about how you need to serve your audience as a business. You need to serve your customers. As someone who does speaking, consulting, coaching, and teaching, I need to serve my customers. I need to speak to my audience, whether it's through speaking or training or blogging or podcasts. In doing so you pick up on the challenges that entrepreneurs, business owners, and marketers have. With that in mind, I noticed over the last two or three years that there were a lot of questions about not just influencer marketing, but how to become an influencer.
And it's become a very, very interesting question. The questions that used to hear frequently were about social media strategy and social media ROI. That's why I wrote Maximize Your Social. And then in 2014 through 2016 there were a lot of questions about social media tools and "martech" [marketing technology]. That's why I created the Social Tool Summit, a series of 4 events in the United States. That was not a book but an event that served that purpose of educating my community.
So in late 2017, I'm thinking of writing another book and what would be around influencer marketing that might make for a good read. The more I did research on it, the more I realized that the future actually is quite bright for influencers and influencer marketing, once people realize what it is. There's a certain mindset that you need to have to leverage it. And there's also a certain re-education that is necessary because I believe that marketers were misled and they have a lot of misconceptions about influencer marketing.
So I wouldn't say it's philosophical. That being said, I do spend a good part of the book at the beginning really talking about that mindset and what are the trends that are pushing influencer marketing to become more important, more powerful, more strategic over time. And even with COVID-19, that is still the case. And I think it's really, really important for marketers to understand that. And once they do, it's like, OK, I get it now, how do I make use of this? If that is me waxing philosophy, then I suppose it is philosophical ;-)
And that's where the part two goes into the practical. How to include influencers as part of your marketing strategy, who to choose, how to engage, what tools exist to help you, etc. Part three is where I tackle that notion of why businesses should become more influential, how you can become an influencer yourself, and then what is the future of influencer marketing through the lens of A.I. (artificial intelligence).
As you can imagine, I also want this book to become a vehicle for my thought leadership as well. I want to show those who read it, because a book is a business card, that I have a certain view, a certain perspective. And this is not a how-to, because without the right mindset, without understanding the trends, the how-to will just have no value. So I had to go through extra efforts and create a lot of that content, in the beginning, to really win people over to the fact that this is real and it's regardless of industry and the trends show that it's going to grow.
And if you don't believe that, you'll have to read the book to find out for yourself.
J.R.: There is a lot of anecdotal material in your new book. One example you use is the case of "Sully," the pilot in command in the 2009 forced water landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River off Manhattan after a bird strike disabled both engines. What did you learn from that story that you wanted to share with your readers?
NS: it's funny because that's actually a story that I used in Maximize Your Social as well. It was the first time I believe that CNN said, "as reported on Twitter," and this is just to show the influence that social media has had even until today starting with that incident.
Media influence has become democratized, but nowhere more than on Twitter. But digital influence goes beyond any single social media platform. Twitter is actually as influential for some as Instagram or YouTube might be for others. They just influence different audiences.
And that was another point that digital influence really is everywhere. And part of the reason why digital influence is everywhere is because it's become democratized. And that incident of Captain Sully landing the plane is the first instance I've found where the mass media reported from social media. Today, we're in the second decade of social media, so this happens all the time. Back then, it was the first time and very, very rare.
J.R.: How would you summarize the key message or messages in The Age of Influence?
NS: Well, I think the key message is that if you are in marketing today, you need to have a digital-first mentality, especially with COVID-19. With a digital-first mentality, you need to understand that there are certain arenas, certain channels on which you can be active, and you could spend budget in. And influencer marketing deserves to be one of those channels. Influencer marketing is not just about TikTok or YouTube or Instagram. It's about LinkedIn. It's about Twitter. It's about Facebook. It's about Pinterest. It's about blogs. It's about podcasts. It's anyone who has a digital influence that has reach in the community you want to influence.
And I also want to point out that influence isn't just based on the number of followers. Even within the influencer marketing industry, we talk about micro-influencers and nano influencers. Micro-influencers may have between 10 to 50,000 followers and nano influencers, have between one to ten thousand followers. So when we talk about nano influencers, you begin to look around at people that already have a brand affinity for you. Your employees, your partners, your customers, your followers on social media, those that mentioned you in social media.
How many of those people are nano influencers themselves? They have a thousand LinkedIn connections. And especially with millennials who are digital natives becoming the majority of the workforce. This is only going to grow. So I say influencer marketing is about creating a campaign. It's about a long-term relationship, not a one night stand. And with that, it's time to invest in people. It's time to invest in people that already love your company, love your brand, love your products and services, and to create a program that's going to, through collaboration, become a win-win from a marketing perspective, in so many ways for your company. And they're going to love being part of it as well because they love what you do.
J.R.: Just out of curiosity, Neal, is the title of your book in any way a reference to Edith Wharton's acclaimed novel, The Age of Innocence?
NS: No. The book was actually originally called The Business of Influence. I had a crowdfunding campaign on a platform called Publishizer, and that was the name that the co-founder of the platform liked from the alternatives I gave him. After I contracted with my publisher HarperCollins leadership, as part of the publishing process, they had an internal look into potential names for books. And the only name from their internal survey that beat The Business of Influence was The Age of Influence. And the rest is history!
J.R.: To wrap up this interview, what is the single most important takeaway for all our readers?
NS: Digital influence is everywhere, it's powerful, but it can also be hard to measure. It's not like an ad campaign, which is an on-off activity. It's about relationships. And the more you invest in these relationships with people that have a brand affinity for you, and that have a community that can help influence others into wanting to do business with you, the more you invest in that, the more dividends it pays long term. And it becomes a driver for your business in many ways.
So that's one of the key messages that hopefully will help reset your view on influencer marketing. And like I said, regardless of industry – B2C, B2B, nonprofit, government – there is a way to leverage influencers. It's about investing in long-term relationships in people, not giving the Facebooks, the Twitters, the LinkedIns, the YouTubes more of your money.
J.R.: Can you tell me something most people wouldn't know about you?
NS: Well, I speak fluent Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. I actually started learning both in college, spent my junior year abroad in Beijing, and then spent the first 15 years of my career in Japan. Maybe some of you know that. Maybe you don't.
I also was a drummer for a band in Japan called "Jak-o'-lan" and actually learned how to play drums there. And it's funny because I was in my twenties, and I was learning to play drums with high schoolers and junior high schoolers after work. I was in my suit, and they were in T-shirts and shorts. I ended up teaming up with another guy from my company who played bass, we found a guitarist, we went through a number of vocalists, and we eventually recorded two C.D.s and played a few dozen live shows. If you were curious, the sound was a hybrid of pop, funk, and a touch of Jamiroquai.
J.R.: Thank you, Neal. It's been great speaking with you, and you have given our audience a lot of food for thought regarding not just the concept of influence marketing but the importance of having a plan!
Your Influence Marketing Plan
Here is a recap of the steps you need to take to develop a successful influence marketing plan:
Identify, approach, and engage the right influencers for your products, services, and brands.
Determine what resources to put behind influencer campaigns.
Manage the business side of influence marketing, including tools that will help measure ROI.
Develop your brand's social media voice to become an influencer in your own right.
For more information, contact me, Jon Rivers, at Marketing Monarchs.