Word of mouth has always been the best way to boost business, but are the right words coming out of the right mouths when people talk?

As one of the most buzzworthy marketing methods of late, influencer marketing is outpacing more traditional online marketing channels when it comes to online customer acquisition. Paid search, email marketing, and organic search have taken a backseat to a new breed of promotional techniques that takes activities outside of the marketing department and puts them in the hands of internal and external resources to promote a product or service.

According to a recent research report by Gartner, there are five different types of influencers:

  • Media
  • Celebrities
  • Industry leaders
  • Employees
  • Customers

The challenge is determining which influencer is best suited to reach the goals of your company’s marketing strategy. Here, I’ll go through the advantages and disadvantages of five different types of influencer marketing and help you decide which one can best achieve the results you’re looking for.

Influencer marketing: Who should you be talking to?

Media: get the word out

Media influencers include traditional journalists, media outlets, and high profile blogs. If you’re hoping to reach new audiences en masse, targeting media sources with huge followings or a big readership is the best way to get exposure. Whether you’re trying to get a new product launched, get buzz about your brand, or contribute your own piece of content to a popular publishing outlet, targeting the media can be a good way of getting free exposure.

Advantages

Free exposure. Using the media can be one of the cheapest ways to get your company’s brand immediate recognition. The traditional route for product launches or releases includes sending out PRs to media contacts or using aggregators to deliver your message on a large scale to hundreds of potential news outlets. If a publication picks it up, you can nurture this relationship and continue using it to your advantage in future releases.

The same can be said of pitching guest posts to popular sites. Contacting the editorial team directly and sending a successful pitch can get your company’s name out there and, again, help you build a relationship with a credible news source that you could benefit from in the future.

Disadvantages

No matter how hard you try peddling your pitch, getting top tier media to write about you isn’t easy. Many success stories have come from organic growth or word of mouth marketing that got the attention of big publications thanks to a unique product or service.

Slack is a prime example. It grew quickly enough after its release to get the attention of big tech outlets like VentureBeat, engadget, TechCrunch, and later on, even Fortune and The Guardian. It’s true that the founder of Slack already had some presence in the media as co-founder of Flickr, but with other failed ventures under his belt, Slack’s quality and usefulness ultimately led to the media’s uptake about his product, not him.

The same goes for pitching guest posts on sites like the Huffington Post, The Guardian, or Entrepreneur.com. No matter how good a pitch may be, competition these days is high, and a lot of it will come down to who you know.

Tool to try: Cision is a PR and marketing tool that allows for distribution of press releases, influencer identification, as well as media monitoring and analysis to identify key targets.

Celebrities: reach large, highly targeted audiences

You likely won’t be able to afford someone from the Kardashian clan or an NBA star (or maybe you will) to endorse your product, but I use the term ‘celebrity’ loosely here to include social media stars that have huge followings on networks such as Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Vine (sometimes these folk are even more popular than “real” celebrities).

Like the old days of commercial advertising, social media celebrities can promote your brand by sharing a photo or video of themselves using your product or service to a very loyal legion of followers who, obsessed with their every move, will theoretically go out and purchase said product or service.

Advantages

As mentioned above, social media celebrities have the benefit of huge, loyal followings. If you target and engage with the right person to promote your product, you can get great exposure for your brand, an increase in social media followers, or in really successful cases, a huge influx in sales. The key is to find someone that makes sense for your brand, not necessarily anyone with a huge following, so that your product can resonate with that audience.

Best case scenario: you have celebrities, real or otherwise, seen naturally using your product or service without any monetary exchange taking place.

Disadvantages

The disadvantages outweigh the advantages on this one. Although lots of people are talking about the benefits of social media celebrities as influencers, the biggest concern is any direct ROI. Despite plenty of examples of successful campaigns, ROI rarely gets mentioned.

As one social media exec wrote on Digiday, the high, often outlandish cost of hiring a social media influencer to promote your product (a price which has skyrocketed in recent years) rarely results in direct revenue for your company. On top of that, if you’re collaborating to use images for promotion, the influencer typically hold the rights to those images, which means you wouldn’t be able to reuse them.

Another downside is that because these type of influencer partnerships involve some monetary exchange, you’re typically not building relationships with these influencers which you can then leverage in the future, and you risk audiences seeing right through it.

As Gartner points out:

“The temptation to simply pay influencers to broadcast a message on your behalf can be strong. YouTubers, Vine stars and popular Instagrammers command heavy fees for content creation and access to their audiences. Public relations firms may even encourage you to compensate influencers as a way to guarantee their commitment and cooperation. These purely monetary relationships are tempting because they appear easy, but they will lead marketers down a path of quickly diminishing returns as consumers, informed by stricter disclosure mandates, begin to recognize this type of content as pure advertising.”

Tool to try: TapInfluence is a software that gives you access to some of the biggest influencers in the social media sphere.

*Note: A lot of influencer marketing software that promises access to influencers doesn’t always have a relationship with these influencers but only identifies them for you, meaning that you have to do all the legwork yourself.

Industry leaders: build brand awareness and relationships

If celebs are good for endorsing products, then industry leaders are the champs at promoting content. Industry leaders include experts in the field like CEOs, thought leaders, researchers, speakers, and prominent bloggers.

Anyone known within your industry that has in-depth knowledge of and can speak well about a topic can be considered an expert. The final ingredient in the equation is that they also have to have a large social media following, especially on Twitter and Linkedin.

Advantages

Building a relationship with industry leaders can have huge returns for your content promotion strategy. When you properly engage with these types of influencers, they can add weight to your content with their respected opinions, share that content in their social circles, and bring attention to your blog or brand.

For the influencers, it’s the added exposure that can entice them to participate. When nurtured properly, these relationships can last far longer than one or two blog posts.

Disadvantages

The term ‘expert’ is thrown around far too loosely in the content marketing world. Many people claim to be experts when, in reality, they’re just trying to get their name out there. It’s important to do research to figure out which experts actually have weight in the industry by looking at their background, where they’be been featured, and the extent of their social media reach.

Once you’ve reached the point of identification, however, it might still be an uphill battle. One of the biggest challenges here is the idea of mutual benefit, which isn’t always an easy sell.

As Gartner points out:

“Just because you choose an influencer, doesn’t mean they choose you. As you identify and engage influencers, use social listening tools to monitor how and why potential influencers engage their audiences. Use that insight to tailor influencer outreach with a focus on engagement that drives mutual benefit for your brand and the influencer’s audience.”

Tool to try: Buzzsumo is a popular choice for identifying top social media influencers talking about topics related to your industry.

Employees: amplify reach from trusted sources

Employee advocacy is a growing trend among employers because of the benefits that it offers to both the business and its employees. Leveraging the social following of your employees, you can extend the reach of your content by huge margins on social media, while also giving employees the chance to build up their professional brand online.

Advantages

Employee advocacy offers tons of benefits to employers. On top of extended reach on social media (think of the potential reach that 30 employees x 300 connections have), employees are known to be a more trusted source than a company when it comes to online content sharing. According to a Gartner report, “83% of consumers trust product or service recommendations from people they know, while only 43% trust ads on social networks.” Having this extended network from credible sources is a huge benefit when it comes to social reach.

But employees can benefit too. On top of creating a more engaged and loyal workforce, it gives staff the opportunity to grow their professional networks on social sites. Says Gartner, “the primary benefit to participation should be the employee’s own development — whether it’s access to exclusive company information, the ability to grow their own social networks, or to develop their personal brand and, perhaps, become a thought leader in your industry.”

Disadvantages

Convincing employees to participate is the most difficult part of implementing an employee advocacy program. Despite the benefits listed above, not all employees will feel comfortable sharing their company’s content on their personal social networks, and forcing your employees to peddle your message isn’t really an option. If you do, your employees won’t feel engaged but instead feel like they’ve added another item to their to-do list.

If they do agree to participate, make sure that they have enough content to share that resonates with their network–it has to be relevant to them or it won’t work. This can be tough. The point behind having employees share content is because their network trusts them, and if you’re giving them content that they wouldn’t normally share on the networks, their social media connections won’t buy it.

Tool to try: Amplify is a new tool from HootSuite built especially for employee advocacy that makes the sharing process easier and more interactive.

Customers: generate new leads and referrals

Much like the trust associated with employee advocacy, happy customers provide a great source of marketing material from third-party sources. Customer testimonials, product recommendations, and positive user reviews are a great way to generate referrals and get new leads. Think of harnessing the power of customer reviews to get the word out about your product.

Advantages

A lot of customers are already writing about your product or service online on review portals or social media sites. The content is generally there– it’s just a matter of making use of it.

Getting in touch with customers that have written about or publicized a positive experience with your company and leveraging their experiences in your own content, as well as in their trusted networks, can bring in great referral traffic and generate huge returns for your company.

Disadvantages

If there are incentives involved in trying to get your customers to participate in becoming influencers, you run the risk of alienating customers who may have doubts about authenticity.

As Gartner points out, when it comes to influencer marketing, “…as the FTC and other governments’ regulators increase focus on disclosure in influencer marketing, informed consumers are likely to become increasingly skeptical of such content.”

Another battle is figuring out the logistics of how to gather these customers and their opinions, which are normally scattered across the internet.

Tool to try: Influitive is a popular tool for leveraging customer feedback from across multiple platforms.

Not all publicity is good publicity

The buzz around influencer marketing isn’t superficial – there are real returns in getting outside contributors to help your marketing efforts and build brand awareness, engagement, and sales. The key is determining exactly which type of influencer marketing will be the most beneficial to your company.

Gartner puts it best when it talks about deciding on which type of influencer marketing is best:

“Choose the type of influencer based on what you want to achieve, the audience you want to reach and who your audience turns to for trusted advice and recommendations, and available resources to support the influencer program. Are you trying to impact the top or bottom of the purchase funnel? Is your goal to build broad awareness or facilitate deeper engagement leading to conversion? Also consider program costs, including management and maintenance, and incentives and expenses for influencers, as well as time, talent (internal team or outside agency) and technology to engage influencers, manage program details and track results.”

Which type of influencer marketing have you had the most success with? What warnings would you give to small businesses looking to use influencers to promote their company?