Social Media Case Studies, Influencer Outreach

Why Online Influencer Outreach is Overrated and How to Fix It

online influencer outreach is overratedTrying to convince online influencers to tweet, blog, instagram, or pin nice things about your company is the post-modern version of celebrity endorsement, but with less impact.

Public relations firms and/or in-house communication apparatchiks take the same concepts and mechanics of celebrity endorsement and bring them online, using Klout scores in lieu of celebrity Q scores, and blogger ID software like Group High in place of Hollywood agents.

The idea is that once drafted into the cause and compensated in some way, online influencers will spread the word in social media to their acolytes, increasing sales for the brand. But these programs often prove ineffective at driving behavior beyond social chatter.

There are two reasons for this.

Reasons Why Online Influencer Outreach is Overrated

First , we tend to confuse audience with influence. Having a lot of Twitter followers or a “large” blog readership doesn’t inherently make a person influential in any way. It gives them an audience. True influence drives action, not just awareness, and very few online demi-celebrities have enough juice to drive action in droves.

Second, as influencer outreach programs like this become more rampant, especially in hot verticals like Mom and Dad and tech blogs, readers and followers start to turn a jaundiced eye toward the endorsement itself. Do we actually believe that Tiger Woods’ misanthropic butt ever graces the seat of a Buick without a camera crew present? Of course not. Similarly, do we actually believe that certain bloggers and Twitter celebs have true passion for some of the things they are endorsing? Less and less so, I’m afraid.

I’m not suggesting that influencer outreach is useless or should be abandoned. But, it’s not magic beans. It needs to be looked at for what it actually is – the top of the funnel component of a larger program to generate awareness AND behavior using social media and content marketing.

The Two Dimensions of Online Influence

There are two dimensions on the scale of online influence: audience and advocacy. Online audience is simple math and isn’t conditional. The size of a person’s online audience is knowable and isn’t impacted by the brand, the program, or anything else. It’s like the wattage of a radio station.

Advocacy is a temperature scale and is wholly conditional. How fervently a person advocates on behalf of a brand varies widely based on their true passion for the product, their knowledge of the category, how and if they’ve been compensated (unfortunate, but true), and other factors.

We overrate audience and underrate advocacy.

A year ago, Chris Brogan did a video review of a leather jacket sent to him by Wilson. Wilson was probably ecstatic. They got coverage on one of the largest business advice blogs in America, for the price of one jacket.

chris brogan influence graphBut did anyone buy a jacket as a result? I don’t know. Chris’ review was positive, but not glowing (modest advocacy), and Chris is not known as a jacket guy, fashion blogger, or a frequent reviewer of consumer products (modest advocacy). The post generated 128 tweets and 17 comments (about 250% less than Chris gets on an average post). I’ll wager that the AUDIENCE was made aware of the jacket, but that Chris’ INFLUENCE didn’t translate (in this case).

You can’t live on audience alone, you need true advocacy, too. And the source of that advocacy is right under your nose.

Don’t Let the Audience Tail Wag the Advocacy Dog

In their excellent book “Brains on Fire,” Geno Church, Spike Jones, Robbin Phillips, and Greg Cordell write extensively about brands that create sustainable movements of passion that are built and powered not by influencers, but by real customers. These are the people who may score low on audience, but are off-the-charts on advocacy. And until you’ve tapped into the passion that your current customers have for your product or service, why are you even bothering with influencer outreach?

You need to identify and activate the passion for your brand. Don’t just collect your fans like baseball cards, help them DO something! Your Facebook page isn’t a place to create new customers from thin air, it’s a clubhouse. It’s the place where your current, passionate fans should be enabled and encouraged to go from like to love, to grow their personal and collective advocacy, with your brand cheering them on and giving them passion-worthy access and assignments.

What’s going to influence more behavior? A tepid vote of confidence from an online celeb, or overwhelming statements of support from dozens, hundreds, or thousands of actual customers who have experienced the product over the long haul and LOVE it?

Start with Advocacy

The FIRST part of your influence campaign should be to find those raving fans, get them into the same online room (and hopefully, offline too) and give them the sandbox and the encouragement to become volunteer ambassadors. This isn’t solely the domain of consumer products, either. If you’re a viable company – of any size, shape, type, or description – you have passionate fans. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be in business.

You can even use those fans to help run your business, like Needle is doing. They help you find your best and most educated customers, and put them to work as online chat agents, answering questions and creating sales.

Then Find an Audience

Once you’ve activated your fans, your SECOND job is to throw gas on the advocacy fire by making people with inherent audience aware of what you’re doing. But the trick is not to ask influencers to cover the product, but rather to ask them to cover the movement.

Imagine if the Chris Brogan video was him talking about this amazing online community where Wilson leather jacket owners from around North America upload photos from their motorcycle rides, and give each other advice about the best gear, scenic views, and places to picnic. Chris could have interviewed some of the community members via Skype, or gone on a ride with them on a Saturday. I guarantee a post like that would have generated more clicks, more tweets, AND more jacket purchases.

Make influencers a part of your movement, even temporarily, and they’ll understand the brand and its worth far greater than if you just invite them on a factory tour or send them free product. That translates to an endorsement from a perspective of greater knowledge, insight, and feeling. The audience stays large, but the advocacy quotient goes way up. The result = influence, not just idle chatter.

In the comments, give me some examples of companies that are using social media to activate passionate fans, and I’ll write a follow up post with your best ideas. 

Facebook Comments


  1. rohnjaymiller says

    I think any post that correctly uses the term “apparatchik” is to be roundly applauded.
    I gave a presentation on the difference between reach and influence two months ago called “The Myth of Social Influence,” which highlighted some recent formal studies of online influence which show that very prominent people on social networks have almost no real influence, and that when we do spread social messages that have influence it tends to be among a small group of friends and peers–5 to 10 people, not 5,000 to 10,000.  
    I think there are two causes for the blind adoption of the “big influencer” theory among marketers.  The first is that many of us still long for the days in advertising when we could buy “scale” easily.  “Big influencer” theory gives some hope that social media can work just like old media did.  By reaching out to “big influencers” we can get social media to scale.  The only problem is that it doesn’t work.
    The second cause of adopting the “big influencer” theory is Malcolm Gladwell, or more precisely how his book “The Tipping Point” has been adopted as gospel and theology by marketers.  This pointed-headed devotion to the theories of Gladwell’s causes some to transfer the models of maven and connector to social media–if they work in the real world, surely they apply to the virtual world as well, right?
    Wrong.  Alas.  Here’s my deck with the research studies highlighted:
    Great post as always, Jay.

    • says

       @rohnjaymiller My mom the English teacher thanks you! Totally agree about Gladwell. The fact is that 90% of word-of-mouth happens offline (Keller Fay Group stat), so taking offline principles like Maven and Connector and blindly moving them into social media is incorrect. Further, Mavens and Connectors connect a few at a time, and drive behavior that way. They are not “new media” which is how most influencer outreach programs work online – replacing bloggers with reporters to try to secure broad awareness and action. 

    • marksalke says

       @rohnjaymiller Great point, Rohn. You’ve hit (forgive the understatement) on the power of Facebook marketing! (If, that is, marketers ever figure that out.) If one can tap that power, the ‘influence’ that we have on our small groups, then the promise of social marketing has taken a step forward.

  2. says

    Jay what do you think about the idea that influencers allow the brand to gain exposure to people who were probably not aware of the “item?”  It sounds like you are stating that, yet many times I see companies forgetting to “dance with the ones who brought them” — their current customers.
    I have long advise clients you want to validate and empower the current customers who love you in ways they appreciate and feel part of “the clubhouse” as you put so well.  Yet, there comes a time when if the club is small and talking to each other over and over, it is time to bring in some new playmates.
    When you met new kids in the neighborhood did you like them all?  Nope, me neither. Yet, if my friends had not exposed me to their extended friends and I had learned new games to play — life as a kid would have been dang boring.
    One area I have seen as important to reach out and tap into an influencers audience is when you are stepping into a community no one knows you.  Finding that influencer that sees your company’s brilliant solution as helpful and needed.  
    I proactively look for solutions for colleagues and radio show listeners from a deep listening to what they say are their current problems.  When I find a company that has a good solution for those problems, I then check them out to see if they really walk their talk.  Once confident they are “all that”, I approach them to help create an outreach to my community that makes sense for everyone involved.
    In my camp it is called a win-win-win.  Much deeper than just talk about us and give us exposure.  It has to serve both parties in a way it creates a new level of win.
    It seems to me, when you operate form a “Serving” mentality, then it takes on a whole new perspective to generate meaningful outreach.
    BTW I enjoy how you break down your thoughts – makes it fun to read.

    • says

       @prosperitygal yes, exactly. I’m not saying you don’t need influencers. I am saying, however, that you need advocates too, and ideally you should build that bridge first. 

  3. johnpoz says

    You missed one extremely valuable point when it comes to influential people talking about your product / brand / service – the ability to quote them.
    Chris Brogan might not have sold a lot of those jackets, but he did move the bar a bit from a branding perspective with his audience I’m sure.  Indirectly that will likely result in unmeasurable sales down the road.  
    However, if the brand pulls out and uses Brogan, and say 10 other well known people’s public comments about their product, it will definitely help move more volume, in the same way favorable Amazon reviews help sell a product.  
    John P.

    • says

       @johnpoz I don’t necessarily agree. That’s my whole point, that audience and awareness don’t equal influence.
      Does a quote from a famous person (or 10) who are not known to be experts in the category influence purchase, especially when they were given the product for free? I do agree that Amazon reviews help sell (and there is considerable research proving that) but the colossal difference is that those people paid for the product. They are not Tiger Woods driving a Buick, they are people that bought a Buick because they wanted one. 

      • johnpoz says

         @JayBaer I can appreciate your dissenting opinion.  My experience suggests that if we are talking about people on par with Brogan or bigger (from a “social media” perspective), these people can indeed still influence behaviors outside of their own relative area of expertise.
        To the same extent as within their own area? Not at all.  So I’m not arguing your original point, though there may be room to suggest that even 1/10th the “normal” effectiveness of a celebrity is still 100X the effectiveness of a normal person.  But that is a digression.
        There may be one other thing you’re underestimating.  Just because a famous person gets something for free doesn’t mean they are going to say something good about it.  People expect famous people to get stuff for free.  But they also expect those people to be honest when they say they like it or not.
        Its true that we all trust domain experts more.  If my doctor, who I hardly know, tells me I have a virus, I believe him.  Even if my wife tells me I don’t.  But celebrity opinions are almost always given greater weight than they deserve if viewed on a logical basis.  
        So, I generally agree with your premis that PR firms and agencies over-inflate the benefit of web-celeb endorsement.  But my point is that a shrewd marketing department can still turn those endorsements into longer term benefits by showcasing them. 
        John P.

  4. Jay Hammond says

    Great article! I found a lot to take away and think about so I’d like to give something back: an usual example, maybe, of the problems with online influencer outreach and the principles you describe. Here it is: my online role playing characters have more klout/online influence than I do.
    This isn’t a huge surprise. I spend most of my time online engaged in some sort of collaborative storytelling and I make my living writing about it. My characters are popular, that is a decent number of people follow my story arcs, and they are vocal advocates for the brands (TV shows, films and books) that inspired them. Thanks to the Preternatural Post ( , the news site I publish covering “role playing, fictional characters and legendary creatures, their fans and creators”, I wield some influence within that audience but not nearly as much as my characters do.I even wrote an article about it (“Does an RP character really have klout?”)
    My personal advocacy is much quieter and more scattered which probably dilutes my influence. In addition I am not nearly as active as my characters and therefore, presumably, not as “interesting”. As a result, I appear to have less influence online than they do. I, of course, also have the benefit of interacting with people offline, something they really don’t.
    Until measures and those who try to measure online influence find a way to deal with people like me the data will always be flawed as will any campaigns or efforts to capitalize on that data.
    BTW. Love your name!

  5. margieclayman says

    Hi there Jay!
    This is something that a lot of people seem to have a hard time grasping. It’s actually one aspect of the “Kony” viral effort that I thought was most damaging to future social media business efforts. A big stink was made about how the video was sent to people with huge online footprints and, oh, that’s how it went viral. I’m worried a lot of people thought, “Sure, I’ll send my next press release to Oprah and I’ll be all set.
    I wrote about this not too long ago over at the Razoo blog – I think it is just as relevant for businesses as it is for NPOs. If people aren’t enmeshed in your cause or in your industry, their broadcasting of your efforts isn’t going to resonate. They aren’t talking to the right people for you. And let’s not even begin to mention the fact that probably 1/3 or more of Twitter followers are spam bots or dead accounts, because that just gets toooooo depressing.

    • says

       @margieclayman 10000% true about NPO. It’s even more important there. If someone who has little or no experience with a cause asks me to support it, I’m “meh” at best. If someone who has walked a mile in those shoes asks, it’s a whole different story. 

  6. brandcottage says

    Love this Jay! Real customers who advocate for the Brand are the only advocates that can truly influence.
    The exception might be in the teen market where celebrity endorsement has long proven successful.
    Another movement that seems a bit disturbing at the most and disheartening at the least are influencers who tweet about almost anything. Is this the only way they can make a living? At the end of the day, consumers (not just the insular twitterati community) see through this shallow brand “advocacy”. These so called “influencers” lose credibility very quickly.  As the old sayng goes: buyer beware.
    Thanks for writing this great blog post. It is spot on.

  7. says

    I look forward to hearing you speak at BlogWorld 2:30 June 5th Jay and hope to see you at the speaker reception tonight. Very good points about engaging your existing advocates. My deck makes a similar point about engaging advocates in my How Big Brands Are Using Pinterest to Drive Business session on June 7. I agree that identifying those advocates is half the battle and brands need to know how to do that.

    • says

       @LindaSherman Unfortunately, won’t be at the reception. I get in late. See you tomorrow though. Very interesting about Pinterest. That might make a good guest post here, if you’d be interested in writing one?

  8. brandcottage says

    Love this Jay! Real customers who advocate for the Brand are the only advocates that can truly influence. 
    The exception might be in the teen market where celebrity endorsement has long proven successful.
    Another movement that seems a bit disturbing at the most and disheartening at the least are influencers who tweet about almost anything.  At the end of the day, consumers (not just the insular twitterati community) see through this shallow brand “advocacy”. These so called “influencers” lose credibility very quickly.  Reach means nothing if the message is diluted by promoting a lot of difference brands.
    As the old sayng goes: buyer beware.
    Thanks for writing this great blog post. It is spot on.

  9. cksyme says

    Right on, as usual. I always love it when someone stamps the truth on influence measures like Klout. It takes more work to mine the nugget of advocacy. Klout is a great crutch/shortcut/whatever. Do the real work, get the real reward. Thanks again.

    • says

       @cksyme I’m not anti-Klout. Far from it, actually. I think Klout and other influence measures will only grow in popularity and importance. My issue is in putting too much faith in the power of the influencer. 

      • cksyme says

         @JayBaer I agree. My problem is that Klout and other influence measures encourage the wrong perception you alluded to in the post. When I hear of people getting jobs because of their Klout score, I am a little skeptical of how the tool is being used. 

    • rickyyean says

       @cksyme  @JayBaer in Klout’s defense, I think they totally understand the difference between audience and advocacy. It’s a hard problem to tackle but I’m confident they will get there, starting with Klout topics.

  10. says

    Recently Brian Solis posted a Slideshare on this and a post for Altimeter that was such full of smug lying BS I couldn’t believe he had the nerve to publish it. It highlighted 6 brands that used this to launch products. Not one case study had proof it worked! One was the Windows phone which was a full on bust. Want to know his one token case study of this working? A roller coaster at sea world in texas from 2008! 2008!!!! He couldn’t pull one since then out of his ass?
    Reminds me of the Facebook S-1 that used two cases of Facebook ads/marketing working. One for Men’s Secret and one for a Photography Studio also both with zero proof the campaigns worked. And we wonder why the IPO flopped,
    You highlight flaws in influence measuring, klout and social media here Jay. I don’t always agree with your takes but I respect you immensely and love this post.

    • says

       @HowieSPM The IPO flop had more to do with underwriters setting the price too high and not controlling the narrative, more so than underlying flaws in the business model (IMHO). I’m a Facebook owner, and plan to be laughing all the way to the bank someday. But it’s a long hold, or should be in my estimation. 
      As to Brian’s post, I read it. I like Brian. He does a lot of good in the social media world. He and I disagree about the power of influence sometimes. That’s okay. 
      And if you agreed with everything I wrote Howie, I wouldn’t be doing my job. 

  11. says

    Many thanks for the kind shout out about the book and great post as well. You hit a lot of great points, but the one that shines is “Start with Advocacy.” Influence can be created. Passion can’t. And as a brand, we have this huge spotlight we can shine on people so it’s no longer, “Hey everybody, look at us!” It’s “Hey everybody! Look at this cool person doing cool things!” And we get credit without taking credit Plus, we have an authentic avenue into the conversation.
    Great stuff.

  12. says

    Great post, thanks for sharing, Jay. We talk about quality vs quantity all the time but I love how you point out the difference between audience and influence. This is overlooked far too often and is so important.

  13. Courtney Doman says

    Great post, Jay. I love the suggestion that influencers be tapped to talk movement, not product. It is after all, where they really do have expertise and insight to offer.
    As for companies that do a great job of activating passionate fans- I’d throw out birchbox , the beauty/lifestyle subscription service, as a great example. Over and over again, I find myself sharing their blog and facebook content because it’s relevant and compelling. It’s catalyzed conversations on and offline about the service and led to purchases by friends. 
    I have appreciated the humility and thoughtfulness as the “influencer” conversation has gained traction-your insight on the sequence/significance of influencers is an interesting new point to consider, thanks!

  14. dchancogne says

    Great post Jay. Problems in influencer outreach always start when people think that 1 tool, 1 score will solve their problems and make their job easy. Finding influencers is just the beginning of any influencer outreach campaign .. then the real work start. And as you mention, popularity is not a good proxy for influence. Relevance is a much better metric to target the right influencers for a campaign.
    I will be at Blog World (#bweny) this week. Would love to connect and discuss more.

  15. says

    First, thanks for providing some much-needed clarity about influencers, which have become all the rage in the past year as brands looking for short-cuts to drive awareness and sales. The reality is influencers come in different shapes and sizes but we try to label them with the “quantity” because it’s easier than drilling down to discover more information. The challenge with creating evangelists and advocates is it’s more difficult and takes more time, which is counter to the instant gratification many brands expect when using social media. Thanks for the post! 

  16. says

    Jay – You hit the nail on the head: having an audience does not necessarily make someone influential. In many ways, trying to utilize “influential” people can create branded spam, or inauthentic relationships. If followers find out that an influencer is only writing about a topic for money or swag, they might feel cheated or lied to. 
    It’s important for brands to identify the right influencers, those with passion and loyalty, but it’s often difficult to find them. At SocialChorus we have found that identifying a group of ‘power middle’ influencers will help harness brand loyalty. Additionally, we identify “super fans,” or existing brand advocates who love the brand and have positive things to share on and offline (I love the term “clubhouse” that you used here). This allows brands to own the relationships, instead of renting them for one-off campaigns. Our technology also provides real-time results so a brand can see who moves the needle for them, and activate those influencers for future campaigns. 
    We’d love to chat more with you about your ideas at BlogWorld! I see you’re scheduled to be at our booth on Wed, let’s try to chat afterwards! For anyone that will not be at BlogWorld this year, you can learn more about our platform by watching this video:

    Hillary Frazier
    Influencer Marketing Strategist

  17. says

    Excellent post, Jay. You’ve done a great job outlining the ground work for doing influencer outreach the right way. You hinted at this, but I would add another important element to successful influencer outreach – context.
    Chris Brogan does indeed have influence, but he probably isn’t the best person to advocate for a leather jacket. On the other hand, someone who’s influential on motorcycles or fashion would be a much better fit for talking about this product. Sadly, a lot of companies miss this and only focus on Klout scores or number of Twitter followers when finding someone to reach out to. 
    Instead, it should be about finding the RIGHT people who have influence in a topic area that matters to your brand – and not just people who are on Twitter. That’s why we created Appinions – to give companies a better way to identify influencers that matter to them.
    And then, as you stated, once you find the right people, you should give them something to talk about – not just a free product. Find ways to get them excited – whether it’s an influencer or dedicated fans. Either way, you’ll get much better results.

  18. says

    Although the link from Chris Brogan’s site probably did wonders for their SEO…. ;)Admittedly it’s totally awesome if this converts to sales in the first instance too… but… there might be other things at play there. 

  19. webnavgal says

    Terrific insight, always. Some juicy tweetables here, Jay. Make it easy for me to tweet this from your post directly with “tweet this” and it will be even better!
    Going to tweet the following right now-

    “the trick is not to ask influencers to cover the product, but rather to ask them to cover the movement.”

  20. carmenhill says

    Very timely, Jay. Great stuff, as usual! Key element is relevance and domain expertise, I think. Chris B is influential, but not for his passion for/knowledge about leather jackets. Context matters, and to truly have an impact, a person must have reach AND relevance AND take action.

  21. Krithika Rangarajan says

    WOWWWW – I finally understand the difference between ‘influence’ and ‘advocacy’ – thank you, Jay! WOW

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