“Influencer marketing” is a term that recently made it into the marketing lexicon, but even the uninitiated are familiar with the practice. Using popular personalities to endorse products harkens back to the days of old-fashioned celebrity endorsements pushed over TV and radio.

The idea was that if advertisers teamed up with a recognizable face in their messaging, consumers would be more likely to create positive associations between the personality and the product. And if the personality was considered a trusted authority on the product (say, LeBron backing Nike sports gear), it would telegraph sentiments of unquestionable quality to consumers.

Influencer marketing is based on the same principle. Popular users on social media partner with companies and get paid to promote products or services. And given that the global influencer marketing industry is expected to reach $5 to $10 billion by 2020, the trend is clearly catching on.

What is an influencer?

In influencer marketing, “influencers” refer to any social media users who have the potential to reach large numbers of followers and generate value for a brand. There’s no formula for the “perfect” influencer, as each company will have specific criteria for what they want to see in a celebrity sponsor.

However, a user’s potential influence is generally measured with the following criteria:

  • How many followers do they have?
  • How often do followers engage with the user’s posts?
  • How do followers (and the world at large) perceive the user?

There’s a lot more to it, of course, but these are the broad guidelines used to assess the value of various candidates.

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Where do these influencers come from?

All influencers, regardless of their niche, share one defining characteristic: They’re recognizable and popular personalities who have substantial followings on social media. For brand sponsorships, these users tend to fall into one of two categories:

  • Celebrities who live in the public eye, such as actors, athletes, musicians, or models.
  • Digital celebrities who have built followings online, such as YouTube creators, bloggers, vloggers, or photographers.

There are no concrete rules to what influencers can or can’t be; all that matters is their ability to connect other users to a brand’s products.

Why does influencer marketing work?

While celebrity endorsements through traditional media are still used today, modern consumers aren’t swayed by a stranger’s endorsements like they used to be.

Research on consumer trust in advertising by Neilsen found that 83% of consumers trust recommendations from friends and family more than any other advertising method. And in our age of never-ending digital advertisement, it makes sense that consumers would naturally start to filter out the white noise of ads and rely on the opinions of those they trust.

Here’s the trick: Social media influencers fall into this category. Consumers don’t just watch social media personalities; they engage with them. They get to know them. They build ongoing relationships that make them feel as if they have legitimate connections with the user on the other side of the screen. Influencer marketing helps brands tap into this trust to deliver positive, targeted advertising to users through channels that they naturally enjoy.

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How does influencer marketing work?

The influencer marketing process is simple enough to understand:

  1. Companies decide to invest in influencer marketing and begin identifying what type of social media personalities will be best suited to spreading their message.
  2. These companies connect with influencer marketing matchmaking partners like Influential, which can assess thousands of candidates based on the parent company’s criteria.
  3. The influencer matchmaking company sorts through the users on each platform and creates a shortlist of candidates.
  4. Depending on how in-demand the influencers are, the parent company may interview these candidates or make them an offer outright.
  5. Upon agreement, the influencer joins the brand and works with the company’s marketing team to create a series of sponsored posts around a particular product or service.
  6. The company assesses the results of these campaigns, determines whether to continue, and the process repeats itself.

Influencer matchmaking makes it happen

As you might guess, the most crucial aspect of this process is making sure the company connects with the right influencer. The perfect influencer for a fashion brand would be completely unsuitable for a company selling gaming products, for example. And beyond that, there are other factors to consider: The influencer’s public image, psychological variables, previous post history, and so on.

Companies that want to leverage the value of influence marketing partnerships need to make this matchmaking process a priority. But it can’t be done overnight, and with the right effort put into developing the right partnerships, nearly any company can enjoy the benefits of an influencer partnership.