Celebrities aren't the only influencers worth their salt. YouTube stars, Instagram success stories and popular Vine users can have just as much, if not more, appeal to digital natives.

Call it the modern day word of mouth. Social influencer marketing is proving its worth in a world where consumers are dubious of conspicuous marketing and brands are raring to get their attention. Last week marked the launch of a new social influencer marketplace – aptly named The Influential Network – that aims to partner celebrities popular on social sites with agencies and brands. According to VentureBeat, 25 companies are already on board.

As an alternative to the influencer outreach programs that can require a lot of legwork by brands, this tech startup promises to facilitate the production of third-party content that puts brands in a positive light. Whether they're creating product reviews, sharing brand imagery, or amplifying a brand's marketing message to their community of followers, social influencers have a power over consumers that's tremendously valuable to businesses of all kinds. Consumer surveys like that of global market research firm Mintel have shown that close to 70 percent of shoppers – and 82 percent of millennials – consult online reviews before making a buy. Whereas once shoppers relied on their network of family and friends to guide their purchases, they now trust in influencers whose opinions they respect to point them to the products that are worth their while.


Mintel says that 56 percent of US adults use online reviews created by people they don't know to inform their decisions. And brands, take note: more than 50 percent of respondents were willing to pay more for a product that received positive reviews online.

The Appeal of the Everyman

"Social influencers are relatable. They're the guy or girl next door (Read more...) videos on their phone," says Reed Berglund, chief executive (CEO) of California-based influencer marketing agency FullBottle.

"These influencers live similar lives to their fans, and in many cases have more street cred than a TV or movie star," he added. For this reason brands are investing in social influencer campaigns that are well equipped to reach banner blind and media-fragmented consumers – traditional media companies among them.

Berglund's agency has been working with iHeart Media, which boasts the largest radio and TV reach of any media company in the country. In February, FullBottle and iHeartMedia Atlanta combined "the legendary appeal of terrestrial radio with the engagement power of the digital world" in a campaign designed to connect Power 96.1 Atlanta with its millennial listenership.

By sourcing original video content from the social influencers in its network for use on iHeart Media Atlanta's social media channels, FullBottle was able to deliver 10.5 million video views; 350,000 shares, likes, and comments; and reach 700,000 new fans. Next up? A campaign for the company's country station, 94.9 The Bull that sources country music themed content from Instagram and Vine using hashtags like #SaveAHorseRideABull, #CaffeinatedRadio and #SouthernSecrets.

Social Marketing Meets Branded Content

Social influencer marketing falls somewhere between social media marketing and branded content, and thus requires a departure from the traditional marketing mindset. Brands must be willing to cede control to consumers. That's difficult to do, but in the interest of authenticity it's best to give social influencers a wide berth. Brands are free to set guidelines, as iHeart Media did by providing a list of approved hashtags. Prescribing specific content, however, often produces spurious results.

Berglund recommends that brands have a clear understanding of their narrative voice and the themes that set them apart before launching an influencer campaign. "If a brand knows itself it can clearly articulate its narrative in relevant terms—time, place, creative vehicle—based on where the consumer is in the decision journey." He also notes that while social influencer campaigns like those created for iHeart Media fall under the social media marketing umbrella, it's important for an integrated brand team with expertise in content marketing to execute the campaigns. "A project like this has two functions: producing content for channel continuity, and promoting specific campaigns that drive larger fan count and increase channel engagement rates," he says. That necessitates a deep understanding of the type of content that resonates with each audience segment.

As social media's role as a content channel continues to expand and more millennials shirk old school ads, brands are discovering a remarkable truth: the best partners with which to engage consumers are consumers themselves.

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