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Be honest: when’s the last time your eyes glazed over because you saw a sponsored post or #Ad caption?
If it was recent, you’re not alone. Instagram saw over 6 million sponsored posts last year, easily breaking the previous year’s all-time high.
The problem? Social media users are getting used to big-time influencers pushing products. They’ve learned to spot ads, and they don’t always like it. Only 18% of social media users told a survey they trust sponsored ads over general consumer content like reviews.
But the question isn’t whether you should try influencer strategies outside of sponsored posts. Of course you should. The question is: what are those strategies?
In this post, we’ll look at organic influencer strategies that increase engagement and ROI.
“Product seed” by gifting free products
It sounds counterintuitive: Increase ROI by giving more products away? But it works.
As ever, in influencer marketing, it all comes back to social proof. Social proof is the psychological phenomenon behind influencer marketing. If we see someone we trust with a product, we’ll trust that product. After all, there’s a reason Nike paid Michael Jordan so much to wear its shoes.
The problem, however, is when sponsored influencers lose this authentic connection with their audiences.
How do you escape the cycle of paying influencers for sponsored posts? How else are you supposed to access their followers?
One way is to start seeding new, organic relationships with sponsors by giving away products. See who responds. See which influencers resonate with your gifts. See which ones reach out to you because they’re so happy to find a fit. Chances are, these are the influencers capable of giving you the engagement you seek.
Product gifting without any expectation of posting comes across as more organic without the #sponsored tag.
—Phoebe Bain, Morning Brew
Kristen Jones of SuitShop cited a campaign in which they gifted an influencer a suit and paid $1,500 for video content and found great success. “[The influencer] loves our suit and wears it in many of his live streams,” said Jones. “He also did a full post and reel dressed as a character from Squid Game in our suit—without any additional pay.”
After SuitShop sent influencer @dandyinthebronx a complimentary suit for a new campaign, it inspired a “Squid Game” Instagram post—at no additional cost to SuitShop.
Create organic content together
62% of followers agree it’s unethical for influencers to promote a product they don’t use. The result: People can tell when influencers are faking it. And when sponsored posts start to feel robotic, they generate almost no engagement.
The obvious solution is to pair up with an influencer to create organic content.
But what does that look like in practice? Nik Sharma of Sharma Brands will sometimes engage influencers solely for their content creation skills. Sometimes, he’s not even after the influencer’s audience. He just wants that knack for creating content.
They have a following because they are really good at making content.
The challenge is finding these influencers.
One way is to first evaluate an influencer’s non-sponsored posts, according to Gina Michnowicz of the Craftsman Agency. Is there genuine engagement between the influencer and their following? When sponsorships do occur, does it feel “real”?
Influencers didn’t gain an enthusiastic audience by accident. They learned what people love, and they learned how to create content that resonates with them. Take advantage of that fact.
When you use influencers to create content that is truly authentic to your audience and authentic to the platform, it can create a powerful halo effect on a lot of your traditional performance marketing channels.
—David Hoos, the Outloud Group
Launch new products together
Claire’s is an American retailer focusing on tweens and teens products: ear piercing kits, jewelry, hair & beauty products, and backpacks.
Pop quiz: what kind of influencer makes sense for a brand like Claire’s? Young celebrities and TV stars? YouTubers with active tween/teen followings? Raise your hand if you guessed “celebrity pug influencer.”
Claire’s teamed up with Doug the Pug—a real, live pug with millions of followers—to create plush toys, backpacks, handbags, and even crossover products with “unicorn” editions.
“Doug the Pug” might seem like an unusual choice for an influencer, yet the pairing (and line of toys) is an oddly successful match for Claire’s.
In retrospect, the fit seems obvious—cute toys, cute dog. But pugs-and-unicorns is a more creative pairing than the more obvious influencers Claire’s could have chosen. It leads to a key lesson:
Pair up with influencers on products and you can build campaigns greater than the sum of its parts.
Jason Wong, CEO of Doe Lashes, reported that a recent Jessyluxe x Doe launch quickly sold out because of this strategy. According to Wong, it was largely due to the creator’s influence in supporting the product with a deeper integration than just a typical sponsored post.
The Jessyluxe x Doe “Resting Angel Face” Collection sent fans of influencer Jessica Vu to Doe Lashes. The new products quickly sold out.
Team up for events
When CBD brand Highline Wellness was looking to leverage influencers to connect with relevant audiences during COVID in 2020 (when in-person events weren’t really happening), they landed on a creative workaround: A virtual event.
They teamed up with elevari, a holistic wellness brand with a cult following, to offer a virtual yoga class with complimentary CBD sent to attendees. This allowed Highline Wellness to get their products in the hands of relevant, interested customers looking for a way to decompress during a stressful time.
To leverage the experience aspect of events during the pandemic, elevari and Highline Wellness teamed up to offer a virtual experience.
The online event sold out and filled Highline Wellness’s pipeline with first-party data for continued marketing efforts after the event wrapped up.
However, sometimes event promotion via influencers doesn’t quite pan out. When Fyre Festival reached out to influencers to promote their music event, they had the budget to do it. What they didn’t have was the strategy. Paying Kendall Jenner $250,000 for one sponsored post, Fyre Festival only sold 8,000 tickets on a goal of 40,000.
What went wrong? Aside from the disarray behind the scenes, there was no specific connection between the influencer and the event. Without that connection, even Jenner’s star power wasn’t enough to generate excitement.
The lesson here: Make sure there’s a big pull to attend and a genuine, relevant connection between influencers and their audiences when teaming up for events.
Let an influencer take over your social media
Sick of influencer relationships that don’t resonate? Consider going to the next level. Give your influencers complete control with a takeover or a long-term arrangement.
Hire [influencers] to run parts of your marketing stack. Creators are experts in building and maintaining communities. They also understand social platforms better than most. If you're looking to break into Instagram or TikTok, hire the experts on that platform and let them build your brand for you.
—Hannah Cameron, Content at #Paid
After all, a sponsored post is one thing. But when an influencer tells their following that they’re taking over a company’s entire social media presence for an entire day? It creates a whole different kind of buzz.
An influencer can use the takeover to provide a fresh perspective. For example, influencer Kanchan Koya has a Ph.D. in biomedicine from Harvard—so when she took over BuzzFeed’s “Tasty” channel for a day, it provided a completely new perspective on preparing recipes from everyday home ingredients. Plus: it generated over 1.1 million views for the channel.
Kanchan Koya’s social media recipe contributions to BuzzFeed helped generate over 1.1 million views.
Form a brand ambassador program
Brands like Alo Yoga get around sponsored post requirements by contracting brand ambassadors as freelancers. The influencers post their content and then include a note at the end of the caption, like “Outfit by @Aloyoga.”
Pura Vida used this strategy to build one of the most engaged jewelry brands on Instagram. They credit their success to building an “army of micro-influencers, 275,000 strong.”
The key difference between brand ambassadors and influencers: ambassadors are real people who don’t do it for a living. They enjoy your product already and love talking about it—so they might as well get paid for it.
Pura Vida rewards its ambassadors with rewards, sneak peeks at upcoming products, cash commissions, and exclusive content.
One advantage of doing it this way: these brand ambassadors “feel” much more like completely spontaneous content. With Pura Vida, you’ll have to squint hard to see the #puravidacrew hashtag:
A post from Kaylee, a Pura Vida ambassador, needs no “#ad” hashtag. Pura Vida recruited an “army” of brand ambassadors to help it become one of the most engaged jewelry brands on Instagram.
Brand ambassador relationships go deeper than the pay-per-post model. They connect your brand ambassadors to the success of your campaigns. The more sales you earn, the more income the ambassador draws. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. The incentive lands on both sides to do the best marketing they can.
There is also the halo effect to consider: your brand takes on the best traits of the influencers you engage.
After all, what company wouldn’t want loyal, influential brand ambassadors on its side? Just keep in mind that some upfront investment will be necessary here. Potential brand ambassadors will expect product samples. They’ll expect marketing materials. And they could do with some guidance on how to best represent your brand. If you don’t provide that guidance, you’re leaving it up to their best guess.
Build a community of enthusiastic followers
Pura Vida’s success goes beyond recruiting brand ambassadors. Notice the hashtag #puravidacrew. Its brand ambassadors feel like they’re part of a community. This creates a much more organic feel to the engagement of Pura Vida on Instagram, and their results show it.
While you can leverage influencers to generate inertia, there are strategies for building a lasting community on social media. Glossier is a key example here.
How do they do it? Their weekly “Top 5” Instagram story highlights the best posts in which users tagged the brand. This incentivizes consumers to reach out to the brand—after all, who doesn't want to see themselves in a feature from a brand with 2 million followers?
The result: Glossier has one of the best referral rates around. About 80% of customers report hearing about the brand from a friend.
There’s nothing wrong with sponsoring posts. But when you want more engagement, higher AOV, and long-term relationships with professional influencers, not every sponsored post is going to feel like enough. Use these strategies to go beyond the sponsored post. Your audience will reward you with deeper brand loyalty.