How to Identify and Engage Local Influencers

Monday Nov 5th 2012
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Social network marketing is a must for small businesses, but finding and courting online influencers can potentially attract lots of new customers. Here’s how to get started.

By Mike Merrill

Influencer marketing is typically a public relations tactic employed and executed by agencies with big budgets on behalf of their clients. However, as small businesses seek out cost-effective ways to reach a new audience, engaging online local influencers is a tactic worth considering.

Brian Solis, the principal analyst at the Altimeter Group, defines influence as, "The ability to cause effect, change behavior, and drive measurable outcomes online."

But what is the value of using influencers and brand advocates? And where does a small business start when trying to identify and engage potential influencers?

Online local influencers typically have built trust with their readers, and they offer businesses an opportunity to reach a new, carefully curated audience in their local market. The Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising survey data confirms that 92 percent of consumers trust recommendations from people they know, while a paltry 15 percent trust brand messages.

Influence is typically determined by expertise in a specific topic. For example, if I’m a popular blogger reviewing restaurants, a recommendation for a particular restaurant can potentially influence my audience to give the restaurant a try.

How to Identify Influencers

When identifying potential influencers, start by looking at the fans and followers on your existing social networks. These folks have already identified themselves as fans of your business and could be advocates already. Advocacy is one consumer telling another consumer where to find a great experience.

Identify the fans that are most likely to share your content and talk about your products and services. In many cases, these folks may already be happy customers. It’s also worth noting we are not targeting A-list influencers here. They tend to get inundated by requests for their time already, so increase your odds by focusing on what David Sifry, the founder of popular blog-ranking service Technorati, calls the Magic Middle.

Sifry defines The Magic Middle as bloggers who have anywhere from 20 to 1,000 in-bound links. I recommend that you create a spreadsheet of potential influencers as you collect this data.

Here are a few free tools to help you assess the people in your existing networks.

Free Tools to Evaluate Your Social Network Fans and Followers

Booshaka

Booshaka helps you assess existing advocates of your brand by pulling a list of your most engaged Facebook fans and ranking them by engagement. While the most engaged could potentially be employees, it’s a decent place to start to see if any are potentially influencers. Take the top 20-30 users and add to your spreadsheet.

SimplyMeasured

SimplyMeasured offers a free report to help you assess your Twitter audience by their Klout score. Once you generate the report, delete the brands and followers who are not local. Then you’ll have a list of your top followers by Klout Score.

Foursquare

Identify folks who have already checked into your business or who have checked in the most. Add these folks to the list, and see if there is overlap.

Klout plugin for Chrome

Looking beyond your networks requires more diligence in searching. Often times you need an enterprise (paid) platform like Radian6 or Sysomos to help you identify influencers by topic and location. Still, here's one way that you can search Twitter for free.

Before performing any advanced Twitter searches by location and /or topic, install the Klout plugin for Chrome. This handy tool will show individual Klout scores in the search results. For example, you could search specific topics related to your business and identify whether the folks who are discussing those topics are, in fact, influential. Again, they may or may not be, topic but it’s a place to start.

How to Engage with Your Top 10 Influencers

Once you have identified a short list of 10 potential influencers your first step is to step back and get to know them better. Using a spreadsheet, create a column for Blog, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Linkedin, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube and Flickr.

Identify the URL or username for the influencers on each of these platforms so you can monitor and listen. Over the next few days or weeks, look back through these networks to get a better understanding of the influencer’s topics of interest.

Try to identify demographics about each of them -- such as where they work, what they do, and whether they have a family. Do they live or work near your place of business? You are also looking to identify their preferred social network, where they have the most engagement and what topics they typically write about.

Armed with this knowledge you can engage them in a non-invasive way to get noticed. For example, you might try retweeting and/or commenting on their latest blog post to get their attention.

In most cases, you’ll want to do this from your personal account and not that of the brand unless you have broad market awareness in your local market, and they already follow your brand. Other ways may include responding to various tweets or Google+ posts with your feedback and ideas to further the discussion.

Ask an Influencer

Now that you have garnered their attention, your next step is to get them to take action. You can do this via email, Twitter direct message or by a contact form on their blog. The goal of your campaign and type of business will determine the next step here. If you want them to try out your new restaurant or retail store invite them to a private event and the more exclusive the better.

If you want them to trial your local service, provide the service for free to get their feedback. A car dealership owner, for example, should consider inviting influencers to take an extended test drive for a week. All of these activities depend on your type of business.

If the person knows she has influence then this can get tricky as she may ask for compensation. It’s up to you to offer paid compensation, but most of the time if you have chosen folks that aren’t A-list celebrities they’ll just be glad you recognized their influence and be honored to participate. However, sometimes your product or service won’t be a fit, so don’t be surprised if some choose not to participate at all.

Before you start an influencer campaign, be sure to benchmark your social profiles and Web traffic to see whether influencer outreach has any impact. Your ultimate goal is to get an endorsement from the influencer about your products or services. Rarely will someone speak negatively of your product or service if they are receiving it for free, but all of that depends on how you treat them during the process.

Ultimately, you may not drive additional sales from your influencer marketing efforts, but you could influence the influencer to become a customer. As they say, people buy from people they know.

Mike Merrill, director of marketing for ReachLocal (NASDAQ:RLOC), is a community builder, speaker, author, and online marketing strategist at Bacon Marketing, his own consulting practice.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
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