How to think about influencer marketing—content creation or distribution?

May 13, 2024
Emmy Liederman
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What are marketers actually buying when they pay creators?

It's a topic that comes up over and over again, and the answer I hear is consistently content or distribution. I've noticed that the answer skews depending on what you do in marketing. For example, brand and social teams tend to see the value of the content created in every campaign, whereas the growth and performance folks tend to primarily care for the distribution potential.

But before creators can distribute your message, they need to create content for you. Creators do the work of a creative agency and production studio, but they’re also getting your message in front of your target group of consumers (just like TV or display advertising).

So brands should be thinking about influencer marketing as both a way to develop content and distribute it.

I'll explain more about each one.

Influencer marketing for content creation:

A lot of brands have been able to increase the amount of content they produce by simply partnering with creators.

They have the creativity—proven by the sheer amount of people who have subscribed to their channel or account. And they can execute the production. Sometimes they do it solo, sometimes as a team. It doesn’t really matter, because they get the content finished and delivered.

Think about it: a lot of that expensive work your creative agency would do, is now being done by creators. The difference is that every creator has to prove, every day, with every post, that they continue to have the emotional intelligence, the right tone, and creativity to engage consumers. That’s why people keep their eyes on creator content 7 times longer than any other digital ads.

And most of them do all of that incredible work without any overhead, which means their rates are significantly more affordable. Often, even more affordable than producing the content in-house.

You might be thinking, “Surely their creative can’t be as good, right?”

I can tell you it's better. But see for yourself →

The most efficient brands are then taking that really good content and repurposing it across a number of channels. Some use it on their brand-owned social accounts, some in paid social and display channels, and then others use the content for traditional stuff like print and TV.

Influencer marketing as a distribution channel

When you’re using influencer marketing as a go-to-market channel, you can do it in two ways: run organic posts, creator whitelisting, or both.

What’s the difference? Let’s cover each one, because they both offer something valuable.

→ Organic:

Organic distribution is what we normally think of when we talk about influencer marketing. Someone with an audience online makes content that talks about your brand.

Then they post it to their blog, channel, or feed so that the consumers you’re targeting are exposed to that message. It’s a legitimate way to get an impression—just like any other media channel.

And hopefully, if they’re worth their pay, they can effectively call that audience to action. The goal can be anything you and the creator think is appropriate for that audience.

The first exciting thing about running organic influencer marketing is that it’s a lot like word-of-mouth. The content and the message are coming from someone that people have said “yes” to.

This is where it’s different from TV or display advertising. Influencer marketing isn’t interruptive. People subscribe for that exact content. They want to know what products and services creators are using. They want to see those brands used in the context of life. They want new ideas.

But they want them from people they trust. And that’s another reason to partner with creators: their reputation is attributed to your brand. If the creator is trusted by her audience, then the trust is extended to you.

Also extended to you: creator personality. They are living and breathing people who bring your brand to life. In creators, consumers get a chance to see your brand applied in real life, with someone they know and trust. It’s not your brand telling them what you’re all about, it’s a trusted voice—confirming and approving your brand’s personality and tone.

Quick recap: organic influencer marketing is like word-of-mouth marketing

  • Use it to mobilize your audience,
  • Use it to get people to trust your brand the way they trust the creator
  • Use it to highlight elements in the tone and personality of your brand

→ Creator whitelisting:

Where the organic campaign targeted a creator’s earned audience—remember, people who said, “yes”—whitelisting targets whole new audiences.

It works like this: you take a creator you’re working with, and pick out their best-performing content. Then you create brand new paid social ads  with the creator content. But instead of running those ads through your brand handle, you run them through the creator’s handle (still in your Facebook ad account, though).

Here's what it looks like in the end:

This allows you to leverage paid social in a whole new way. Here are two benefits.

Benefit 1: Use the ad platform’s algorithm to optimize towards conversionssales, signups, or whatever you like. The benefit is that tracking and optimization are totally hands off. When you hop into your paid social platform, you’ll see the whitelisted ads right next to the others.

Benefit 2: To achieve enough scale with influencer marketing, you needed to have either a large-enough creator (like in the millions…), or you needed to have a load of smaller ones. But it doesn’t matter anymore. You can work with less expensive creators, with smaller and more targeted audiences, and then achieve the same reach, and sales volume, by running paid social ads through creator handles. It’s a high spend ceiling. And you can always add another creator or two if you feel like you need to grow exponentially.

Benefit 3: You don’t need a team of people to manage this. Once you launch, it’s pretty hands off. Keep monitoring, and optimizing—and keep cycling in that killer content your creator sends you.

Good practice

Brands who’ve caught on are doing something smart—they’re using influencer marketing for both—and then splitting the budget into different line items. Content production costs get their own line item (where you’d normally put your agency cost). One team owns that budget. And then the distribution cost gets popped into another line item (where you’d normally put your paid social, for example).

So the already-affordable content just got even more affordable. And the cost of acquiring your customers through this channel just took a big drop, too.

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