While a good content marketing strategy will gradually build awareness for your brand, nothing attracts eyeballs and generates leads like a recommendation from a Key Opinion Leader (KOL) or other influencer.

These are the industry experts, Instagram bloggers, YouTube creators and other thought leaders whose opinions customers and professionals trust – so getting their seal of approval can do wonders for your reputation and drive heavy traffic to your website.

Why is influencer marketing important?

While endorsements have always played a role in marketing, the popularity of influencer marketing has exploded in the last few years, thanks to the continuing growth of social media and platforms like Instagram in particular. The KOL phenomenon is commonly associated with beauty and fashion, but just about any business can benefit from having respected experts raise awareness of their brand to their engaged audience, many of whom are ready to buy.

Half of social media users follow influencers and rely on their opinions when making purchasing decisions, according to Digital Marketing Institute research. The influencer marketing industry is currently experiencing a boom that Adweek forecasts to reach $10 billion by 2020, up from just $2 billion in 2017 as businesses across the industries get savvy to the power influence can have for rapid growth.

Google searches for 'influencer marketing' have increased by 1500% from 2015 to 2019 as the practice becomes more widely adopted by marketers. A recent Mediakix survey found that:

  • 80% of marketers say influencer marketing is effective for growing their business
  • 71% say it delivers higher quality leads than other marketing channels
  • 89% say the ROI is equal or greater than that of other marketing strategies

To get the most out of your investment in influencers, it's essential to know what type of influencer is the best fit for your brand and how to make sure they're putting across the message you want. Follow these four tips to make influencer marketing work for your business.

1. Find influencers who match your audience and business goals

You might already have one or two influencers in mind who you're thinking of approaching, but it's important to do your research to find out if they're really the best options out there. You might also decide to use different influencers for different topics, depending on their individual skills and areas of interest.

If you don't have a current snapshot of your target audience, carrying out research into who your customers are and what platforms they use will enable you to shortlist the influencers with the best reach. Influencers can be found across social media, from popular accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to YouTube content creators, journalists and independent bloggers publishing sponsored posts.

You can track down appropriate influencers by:

  • Following trending keywords and hashtags relevant to your brand to get an idea of the established and up-and-coming people who focus on these areas
  • Browsing industry blogs and YouTube channels to identify journalists, bloggers and vloggers who specialize in these topics
  • Looking for influential voices in community groups on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other relevant platforms that match your field

When you've drawn up a shortlist of KOLs, rank them according to how active and engaging they are and use your own instincts to decide whether they're likely to be approachable and a good match.

You should also find out whether they talk about other brands in your industry, as there will be a conflict of interest if the influencer is already promoting a competitor.

2. Choose a micro influencer for a small business

Influencers are generally categorized according to the size of their audience:

  • Mega influencer (celebrity): more than 1 million followers
  • Macro influencer (KOL): 100,000–1,000,000 followers
  • Micro influencer: 10,000–100,000 followers
  • Nano influencer: 1,000–10,000 followers

Influencers don't have to be big names to be effective at generating interest. In fact, research by YouTube and other platforms has shown that the majority of audiences trust non-celebrity influencers over celebrities, with celebrities seen as less authentic, less relatable and less knowledgeable than the experts. (Considering the high cost of celebrity endorsement, this is great news for your marketing budget too!)

While macro influencers offer a broader reach that could be worth the investment for a large-scale marketing campaign, they're not likely to be affordable for smaller campaigns and may not be interested in working with a small business. An influencer that regularly publishes sponsored posts for a range of different brands will also be seen as less credible than one who specializes.

That's why SMBs should concentrate on micro influencers who are experts in their field and have built a loyal, highly engaged and niche audience. These influencers tend to work with fewer brands, so their recommendations are seen as more reliable and their audience is more predisposed to be interested in your brand.

If you're running a small local campaign, nano influencers can be highly effective at engaging local customers and businesses. If you don't already know local experts, you can carry out location searches on social media to find the most popular and active accounts in your area.

3. Learn how to spot fake KOLs

When you're evaluating a Key Opinion Leader (KOL), you should consider more than popularity alone. With influencer marketing now a booming business, disreputable parties have jumped on the bandwagon to present themselves as 'influencers,' when in fact they offer little of substance. What may appear to be successful profiles or channels might be supported by bought followers and bots.

There are ways to tell whether an influencer has a genuine impact and reach, and these simply involve taking the time to view their content and interactions. You should get a feeling early on about whether you're dealing with an engaging person whose opinions hold worth, but there are some telltale signs and red flags to look out for too. These include:

Not posting frequently

Unless it's for a short term campaign, you'll ideally want your collaboration with influencers to lead to ongoing engagement. If they don't publish on a regular schedule, or they cover your target area rarely, this won't maintain the momentum you need for steady growth.

Low likes, shares and comments ratio

If you've spent time analyzing social media, you might instinctively be able to spot when something's fishy. If an account has 10,000+ followers but their posts or videos have little to no interaction, this could either be a sign that their follower count is bulked out with fake profiles or that the content simply isn't interesting enough to provoke reactions. Neither is a good sign.

Unnatural growth

If you're suspicious about a profile, check its follower count periodically for any sudden growth or use a tool such as Social Blade to get an overview of follower growth over time. Outside of a post going viral, sudden spikes are a red flag that followers are being added artificially, especially if they all post from the same location and this doesn't match the influencer's location.

Unnatural comments

Read through the comments on posts or videos to see if they read like real people. Short comments that don't read naturally or contain unusual characters are signs that you're probably dealing with bots or paid comments. The same goes for robotic or formulaic usernames.

4. Make sure they have the skills you need

Even if you've confirmed that an influencer is genuine and well-liked, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be able to provide what you need. You can compare influencer statistics using sites such as ROI Influencer Score and BuzzSumo to track engagement, authority and other metrics and decide which influencer is likely to offer the best return on your investment.

You should also take a look through their posts or videos to check whether their level of knowledge and engagement in relevant topics is up to the level you need and that their opinions and values are in line with your brand. An influencer who claims expertise in various unrelated fields may be too much of an all-rounder to offer the expert insights you want. Their audience will also be more generalized, which could mean less interaction.

When you contact an influencer to make a proposal, they should be willing to take the time to understand your product or service and to know how they can help you, but that doesn't mean you can control the message or presentation. Influencers know what their followers want to see and how best to present it to them, and this authenticity is one of the key reasons influencers are respected in the first place. You should give your influencer all the freedom they need to be creative and do things their way.

A great influencer talking about your product or service won't just get your name out there – they can also guide their followers to make buying decisions. However many followers they have behind them, the best influencers blend personal and sponsored content seamlessly, because they always mean what they say.

For more marketing tips and insights into growing your business online, follow the Limecube blog.