Give-to-Get vs. Pay-To-Play: Conquer Influencer Marketing By Doing Stuff That Doesn’t Scale


Banner blindness is the wrong name for how consumers behave today, because it blames a brand’s failure to connect on a format. We’d be better off thinking of it as “selling blindness.” If the consumer didn’t seek it out, they get good at tuning it out.

You can assume the same blindness will eventually apply to sales messages in pop ups, email blasts, “thought leadership” microsites and podcasts. If it’s pushing your agenda instead of helping them with theirs, they won’t see it, they won’t hear it and they won’t speak of it.

The same thing is starting to happen with influencer marketing via Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest. The basic strategy is to use a talent agency to make a deal with a celebrity to insert your brand into their stream. It’s the modern version of the product placement.

But, like with banner blindness, influencer marketing is at risk of diminishing returns. A celebrity might have followers in the tens of millions, but at what point does that influencer stop being credible or truly engaging those followers? Consumers can become desensitized if that person is just hawking products, and influencer deafness will become the new banner blindness. There’s no word of mouth if people stop listening.

There are no shortcuts to influence

The only way to keep them listening is to “do things that don’t scale,” as Paul Graham, co-founder at Y Combinator says. There is a ton of opportunity in the area of influencer marketing, mainly by working with niche communities, but impact and scale aren’t necessarily going to go hand-in-hand at first.

Or, as Jeff Bezos has put it:

A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well. People notice that over time. I don’t think there are any shortcuts.

You have to do the things people can’t blind themselves to and don’t want to tune out because they’ve never seen or heard it before.

Influencers are a moving target

Leaving aside family and friends, I believe there are three kinds of influencers that marketers should be investing in right now.

Household name ‘celebrity’ influencers like Kim Kardashian. These are mass influencers with followings in the tens of millions. And they are pay-to-play. You put a coin in, and a tweet with your brand mention comes out. It’s very much like programmatic media buying.

Emerging celebrities who originate on new digital channels. Michelle Phan, whose homegrown beauty and makeup channel on YouTube now has 8 million followers, is the best known example. I think of them as power influencers. Their following may be smaller but it is more devoted and more authentic. They are still pay-to-play.

The problem with these first two categories is obvious. As soon as you turn off the spigot, the endorsement ends. They can create awareness, but unless that awareness converts into something that engages the customer and secures their commitment, it was a flash in the pan.

The third category is organic influencers, who are active users of a product and also active voices. I think of them as superfans. They are going to talk about, blog about and tweet about their experience with your product no matter what, and in the course of a year, are they going to tell 300 people why they should buy it. You don’t have to pay-to-play with superfans, but taking a give-to-get approach can help activate them.

Organic tastes better to customers

Celebrity influencer deals still do work. If you program them right, you can get a decent lift in traffic and brand awareness, but what really drives purchase is connection and continuity. You get that by earning a relationship in an organic way with people who themselves have organic relationships with their own communities.

You can’t program for this kind of influence, and you can’t spot superfan passion by just looking at traditional measures of social influence like Kred or Klout scores. Finding them requires a different targeting strategy to find the communities that are active and then designing a way to connect with the most influential voices there.

Don’t talk about apples to orange buyers

Every channel requires its own approach.

There are a few go-to tricks you can start with to find your superfans, but at heart it’s going to require getting comfortable with bespoke, hand-to-hand tactics without being concerned with whether or not they scale.

In most cases, an always-on social listening campaign is important so you know who is actually using and talking about your product and brand. I also tell clients that when they look at their incoming traffic reports, they should look way down at the end of the long tail. You’ll often find micro-communities actively talking about you there, and often it’s someplace new to you. (For example, Slack chat rooms are starting to pop up as a referral source lately.)

Getting to these early means finding and taking advantage of the insight before others do. Most analytics reports don’t look at a few hundred page views on a scale of hundreds of thousands, but that can be the needle in the haystack your marketers and community managers need to capitalize on early opportunities.

Another place to hunt for your superfans is in emerging niches. Reebok turned its brand around in part by spotting the CrossFit craze early and getting heavily engaged there. That community had less volume in 2005 when they started, but it was a place where Reebok could activate their audience. Esports (video game competitions) is fast-growing community now, which is why Fortune 500 consumer packaged goods and automobile manufacturers sponsor them.

In the active lifestyle category, brands are connecting with surf, skating and BMX communities. Red Bull energy drink got a lot of media attention by sending a man into space to parachute back to Earth, but they got big enough to do that through a more comprehensive strategy that included sponsoring pro surfers and a professional chess player.

Win over superfans with the old give-to-get

But sponsorship isn’t the way to make your dollars stretch and get lasting value. To activate those superfans to talk about you in an organic way, you have to use what I call give-to-get. You want to find the amateur chess club that is talking about your energy drink and, at least, send them a case. As a former chess player I can say to Red Bull, “Chess players need wings too!”

It’s the principle of Wharton Professor Adam Grant’s Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success applied to influencer marketing. Grant’s research shows that saying yes, reaching out and helping others don’t have to be time-sapping energy drains that never scale. Done right, they can be the source of motivation and productivity.

I like to try two basic questions to help start identifying give-to-gets with a lot of potential: What can the brand I’m working with do to provide value for this superuser, and how can we celebrate our customer’s success in a way that makes them glad to celebrate your success?

You can think of it as like giving a case of energy drink to a loyal customer, except now:

  • They broadcast pictures of themselves drinking the product. Have you seen the unboxing video phenomenon where people record their running commentary as they open a new product? These videos had more than a billion views in 2014.
  • The product or special “thing” you say or do for them can be a badge of authentic pride in the form of a widget they put on their blog or social channels. Giving influencers easy to use embed pieces of snackable microcontent can be a great way to get your brand front-and-center.
  • The giveaway can be a chance to a chance to co-create your next product innovation. The Lego Ideas Platform, where users submit their design ideas, is the killer example of this.
  • The giveaway can be in the form of a sneak peek, like how Mitsubishi provided loaners of a new SUV to popular mom bloggers, who then talked in an authentic way about their real experience.

If you give something without asking anything in return, then one day it will pay dividends. The goal is to generate a real connection with customers. That’s when brands can start to flourish.

Influencer marketing done right is modern-day word-of-mouth

Instead of a conversation ending at the water cooler, influencer marketing is memorialized in Google’s search engines. It leverages the fact that everyone with a smartphone can act as a journalist. Earned media used to only go through traditional public relations channels, but now it goes through every pocket or purse with a phone in it.

Mass influencers and power influencers are still important components in that process. But you can’t just add those to a checklist of marketing tactics and expect that metrics like followers and likes are going necessarily to help your bottom line. My team is having great success with a mixture of human and machine-learning based approaches that activate influencers at a fraction of the cost with multiples on the value of the reach.

Smart brands are going to mix “traditional” influencer marketing with a program to engage the superfans in micro-communities. Those are the people who will drive efficacy for your brand, but you will have to work, one relationship at a time, to give them an opportunity to do so. Otherwise you’re feeding a system that trains consumers to tune you out.

Peter Sena II is an entrepreneur, angel investor, and Yale University Venture Mentor who founded Digital Surgeons, a global innovation & design firm that creates better brand experiences.

Image courtesy of Digital Surgeons.

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Top 10 Ways to Conquer Your Debt


Top 10 Ways to Conquer Your Debt

Few people these days are completely debt-free. You might have student loans, a mortgage, a balance on your credit cards, and/or other debt obligations. These top 10 tips can help you trim down or eliminate that debt so you can build wealth and finally focus on your other financial goals.

10. Know the Difference Between Good Debt and Bad Debt

Top 10 Ways to Conquer Your Debt

Some personal finance experts think all debt is bad, but that isn’t necessarily so. A loan can make all the difference between getting a degree needed for a high-paying job, for example, owning your own home, or starting your own business—and losing those opportunities. Evaluate your debt to figure out what kind of debt you have so you can prioritize paying it down or using your money for other purposes. Two simple questions can help you decide if debt is “good” or “bad”: Is the debt temporary or a lifestyle? And is it worth it?


9. Cut the Cost of Student Loans

Top 10 Ways to Conquer Your Debt

The average person carries $ 27,000 in student loan debt—a huge burden. The good news is you can refinance your student loans and save over a thousand dollars in doing so. You might even be able to get your student loans forgiven or paid for by your employer and eliminate that debt entirely. If you need help managing your loans, can help you find the most effective plan to tackle your student loans or you can use simple Excel formulas to compare different student loan options.

8. Pay Off Your Credit Cards with a Debt Consolidation Loan or a Balance Transfer

Top 10 Ways to Conquer Your Debt

You’ve probably received offers in the mail that promise to consolidate all your credit card debt into one low-interest bill—either through a debt consolidation loan or credit card balance transfers. Are they a good idea? While attractive, debt consolidation loans usually don’t make sense if the loan will cost you more over the long haul compared to paying your cards down faster. With credit card balance transfer offers (e.g., 0% promotional APRs), you’d have to pay a fee for transferring your debt to the other card and make sure you pay all the debt off before the promotional period is over. In both cases, do the math to make sure it’s worth it. (By the way, you might be able to negotiate those credit card balance transfer fees.)

7. Pay Off Your Mortgage Early

Top 10 Ways to Conquer Your Debt

Your mortgage is likely the biggest loan you’ll ever take on, and some of us are quite eager to get rid of it as soon as possible. An early payoff gives you peace of mind and financial freedom, but the low interest rate means it might make more sense to invest your money instead of paying off that debt early. The experts don’t agree on this topic, but if you’d like to pay your mortgage early and save thousands of dollars in interest, make extra principal payments, such as twice monthly half payments of your mortgage bill. Don’t use your lender’s biweekly mortgage plan, however, and set this up yourself to save money. If possible, get rid of your escrow requirement with your lender and pay taxes and insurance yourself. Another way to get rid of your mortgage faster and save a ton of money is to refinance either into a shorter-term loan or one with a lower interest rate (and continue to make the larger original payments). Find out if refinancing is worth it here.

6. Use the Debt Snowball Method to Tackle All Your Debt

Top 10 Ways to Conquer Your Debt

With the snowball method of paying off debt, you apply the majority of your available money for debt repayment to one loan and minimum payments on the others. Then when the first loan is paid off, you tackle the next loan and so on until all you’re out of debt completely. This Excel spreadsheet can help you set up your snowball payment schedule. If you’re not sure whether you should pay off your smallest balance first (for the motivational boost) or the one with the highest interest rate (which makes more financial sense), consider the “blizzard” payment method, which combines both strategies.

5. Negotiate Your Credit Card Interest Rate and Loan Amounts

Top 10 Ways to Conquer Your Debt

A lower interest rate will help you pay off your credit card balances faster. All you have to do is ask, and if you’re successful, you can save hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on your credit card balance. If you’ve got medical bills—one of the biggest sources of financial distress and common causes of debt—you might be able to get financial aid from the hospital or negotiate that medical bill. You might be able to settle other debts if you can’t pay them back completely.

4. Pay Your Most Painful Debts First

Top 10 Ways to Conquer Your Debt

All debt is sort of painful and can take an emotional toll on us. While there are lots of approaches to tackling debt, consider paying off the ones that have the biggest emotional impact on you. For example, pay off that loan from your in-laws before your pay down your credit card. Also, personalizing your debt could make you more motivated to pay it off more quickly: Remember what you bought with the debt in the first place to prevent you from getting into more debt or feel better when you pay it down.

3. Pay Down Debt and Invest at the Same Time

Top 10 Ways to Conquer Your Debt

You want to get rid of your debt but you need an emergency fund and don’t want to lose out on the power of compounding to help with your retirement savings. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. You can pay down debt and invest at the same time. Perhaps prioritize your most expensive debts (ones with interest rates above 6%) and save some money as well. Budget for an emergency fund, debt, and retirement. This hybrid approach appeals to our emotional needs while also meeting our financial goals.

2. Use “Extra” Money to Pay Down Debt

Top 10 Ways to Conquer Your Debt

As we mentioned in our step-by-step guide to getting out of debt, you might be able to find extra money (e.g., from selling crap you don’t need) to throw at your debt or add to your savings. Earmark gifts, bonuses, and other “found” money to your debt payments.

1. Stop Adding to Your Debt

Top 10 Ways to Conquer Your Debt

Paying off your credit cards is the best financial return on your money if your cards have high interest rates, but it won’t really help to start paying down your debt if you’re only going to keep the habits that might’ve made you accumulate it in the first place. Some people switch to a cash-only policy to stay debt-free. Whatever you do, make sure you have a plan for what you’re going to do with the money you’ll free up once you pay off your debt, such as setting up automatic payments to your savings. Give your money a purpose, avoid the most common mistakes that keep us in debt, and enjoy being free of debt. It really is possible to live a rich life without taking on (at least too much) debt.

Illustration by Tina Mailhot-Roberge.

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