The rise of digital and social platforms has shifted the spotlight to influencer programs, but from an overarching PR perspective, an influencer program is not a new concept. Back in the late ‘90s—well before the advent of social media as we now think of it—PR firms were running successful programs using influencers in “grassroots marketing” programs, also known as “word-of-mouth” or “peer-to-peer” marketing. These programs were built on the foundation that people are likely to trust what they hear from friends and family more than advertising, or even earned media.
Activating these programs meant first identifying the target audience a brand or PR program was interested in reaching, and then making a list of potential people who would be effective influencers on the targeted population. Since these were typically community-based outreach programs, locally influential people were prioritized. Having a high-profile or nationally recognized figure on board would be helpful in garnering press attention, but the primary focus was on those who had moderate, but highly relevant, visibility and a close connection to the target audience.
To put it succinctly: the success of these programs rested on the receptivity of the target audience to someone they could either relate to or respect.
Social platforms and the rise of the digital influencer
Once PR work began to incorporate digital outreach as a standard tactic, the perception was that with so many channels competing for attention, a digital influencer—whether that meant a blogger or someone on Twitter or Instagram—would have to have a substantial number of followers in order to have any impact at all. Brands began chasing celebrities with huge followings, and the paid endorsements and sponsorships started piling up.
With a number of brands courting the same influencers, confusion over what it meant to be a brand ambassador versus an influencer, and price tags on the work influencers were doing rocketing, the subsequent backlash and questions over the effectiveness of influencer marketing was both predictable and inevitable.
Enter the micro-influencer
Identifying influencers with smaller online followings to match up with subsets of target audiences makes sense; in fact it is fairly close to being the online equivalent of the peer-to-peer marketing that was being done by PR firms earlier. The biggest practical difference is that even the smallest of micro-influencers typically expects to be paid for their work on a program, and paid components of a PR program always need to be thought through carefully.
The advantages to a micro-influencer strategy are clear. By identifying influencers who are well-known in their specific niches, versus the broad popularity of a celebrity, campaigns that use micro-influencers frankly feel more authentic. The closer and more logically an individual is tied to a brand or program, the more believable the overall campaign is. Clambering to get a big name to support a PR cause or program might provide a quick boost, but a long-term engagement with a smaller name with a deeper connection to a product or cause will have the staying power needed to drive long-term results.
Designing a program
Using micro-influencers effectively will take time and planning, and identifying the right micro-influencers for the program will take research. Ensuring that the connection is a genuine one is the number one quality you should look for in a micro-influencer. A micro-influencer who comes across as inauthentic could do more damage than not having one at all—audiences can sniff out a fake quicker than you think would be possible.
Micro-influencer programs can be highly effective in meeting business goals. Incorporating them into a PR program in combination with clear measurement goals is a great addition to any practitioner’s toolbox of strategies and tactics in modern PR.