What Brands Can Learn from Influencers, Instead of Throwing Money at Them


Big caveat on this one: Influencers have no value.

Even bigger caveat: We’re aware there are legitimate, passionate creators out there who work super hard to bring people and ideas together. This post isn’t taking shots at you, and if you read ahead, you’ll see that.

However, just because influencers have no value doesn’t mean we can’t learn from all the things they’ve done right. It’s easy to see today’s influencers as mere mico-celebrities, but the very reason the influencer market got so prominent (and so saturated) in the first place — before it became the dumpster fire that it is now — was because they knew and understood their audience. 

Influencers had a very different approach than traditional marketing/advertising from the get-go. They were audience-centric, highly accessible and emotionally connected. Brands need to actively learn from these tactics, instead of throwing money at influencers, hoping they’ll fix the strained relationship between business and consumer. 

To understand what initially made influencers so popular, you have to understand WHO they are.  And who they are...is not what you expect.

1. They didn’t just sit in front of the camera and "Wing it.”

One minute of video takes hours of shooting and editing to get right. Planning, research, and work go into each piece of content. Maintaining a channel (or an Instagram account or blog) is much like running a micro daily newsroom. You need to feed the content monster constantly, and audience expectations are always growing. 

 We all know people who have rolled their eyes and said things like, "I'm in the wrong career. I wish I could just sit around making YouTube videos all day and make money." To this, the answer is..."Have you tried?” Not to mention content marketing may not be what your brand needs in the first place. In any case, it's really not as easy as it looks, which leads us to the next point...


2. They worked hard to build their audience

It's hard work to build an audience and even harder work to keep that audience engaged. With very few exceptions, digital influencers are not overnight success stories. Most of the influencers you've heard of never had a breakout “viral video.” They built their audience one by one, subscriber by subscriber, year after year. 

Brands, take note. You can keep chasing the elusive viral hit, but real value isn’t about going viral; it’s about building relationships. Don’t just toss money at an Instagram model or LinkedIn hacker and hope those relationships will build themselves. 

3. They served their audience first and last

Today, it may seem like influencer content is all about the influencer, but it wasn’t always this way. Influencers became influential because they knew how to read and respond to their audiences. They lived and died by their fans’ responses.

 Most brands are still creating content to satisfy their own needs/goals, but they should be learning from and adapting to what their audience wants and cares about. In other words, it's not about you, it's about your audience.

4. Their Content was the Opposite of Traditional Marketing/Advertising

There are significant differences between the original content YouTubers, Instagrammers, bloggers, and other digital influencers post versus what brands tend to put out there: 

  • Accessibility - Many beauty brands posted tutorials by top-flight stylists and makeup artists, but most of us don't have stylists and makeup artists at home. We want to see how we can achieve a particular look ourselves. In this aspect, amateur content will always have an advantage over professional content.

  • Relatability - Consumers connect to influencers who they can relate to. People who are too perfect make us feel bad about ourselves, and when someone we look up to has flaws, we feel better. This was true 10 years ago when influencers started gaining traction and is still true today.

  • Emotionality - Even the most scripted content (like top 10 lists or fun facts) has a human touch to it. It may be casual language, a humorous angle, funky jump cuts or silly outtakes, but watching a YouTuber explain something deeply scientific or economic is almost always entertaining. It makes people smile, laugh, stare in awe and overall, remember the content. Remember Bill Nye's show? Beakman's world? The success of these shows was a testament to approaching a serious subject with humour + emotional arousal.

So remember, if your audience calls for it, make your brand accessible, relatable, and emotional. This matters now more than ever, especially because today we’d be hard-pressed to differentiate an influencer model’s post from a glossy ad.

5. Their 'Best Practices' Are Different

There are also some pretty basic practices that digital influencers follow to keep their audiences happy:

  • They posted consistently/regularly. Weekly or bi-weekly or even daily, they have a schedule and stick to it. It's all part of answering to an audience.

  • They interact with their audience. They answer questions, emails and tweets. They retweet and promote their fans. They ask for and listened to fan suggestions and feedback. They incorporate fan input into their future work. Once again, this is inherent to an audience-centric creation model. 

The most successful influencers still post regularly and interact with their audience. Brands need to follow their lead. 


6. Their Rules Are...Actually the Same (if you want to appeal to this audience)

Influencers aren't tied to a length of post or video. There isn't a specific time of day to post that works better than another (though as discussed, they post on a certain day to satisfy audience expectations — which is different than posting at optimal periods). Of course they title, tag, properly thumbnail, describe and otherwise optimize their videos for better discovery, but the secret sauce is really in their audience-centric, emotionally-connecting, highly accessible model. There isn't really an all-encompassing best-practice that suits everyone, as different audiences respond in unique ways.

The biggest takeaway here is that influencers and YouTubers are not marketers, a fact that both works for and against them. We’re not saying that you should throw your rulebook out completely, pick up a GoPro, dye your hair blue and shout “it’s your boy!” at your audience. Marketers often have greater resources and tools at their disposal than influencers, so use them. Leverage your resources in conjunction with the methods above and an insights-based strategy and your brand will be better for it.