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Marketers and agencies love writing about influencer marketing these days. A simple Google news search for the term produces nearly 200,000 results. However, the majority of these thousands of articles are surface level, with clickbait headlines about “How Many Thousands of Dollars Brand X Paid Influencer Y for a Post” or “The Top 10 Steps to Getting Instagrammers to Promote Your Brand.” The reality is influencer marketing is much more than brands paying outrageous sums to lifestyle bloggers to promote products — and the truth behind the headlines is forward-thinking global brands already know this.

Influencer Marketing (Re)Defined

Companies across industries including L’Oréal, Coty, Sephora, Microsoft and IBM are developing global “Influencer Relations” practices to approach influencers around the world much more holistically. They start with a common definition of “Who is an influencer?” Influencers have two defining characteristics. First, they are known for something within a target community. Second, they can influence the actions of target community members. By this definition, just because an individual may have hundreds of thousands or even millions of online followers, they’re not really an influencer unless their followers view them as having some realm of subject matter expertise, and as a result, listen to their advice on that subject.

Best-in-class influencer relations teams don’t blindly chase after the latest Internet sensation. Instead, they conduct careful research to align their brand with the right types of influencers — individuals known for topics that relate to their brand, products and company values. Even more importantly, these influencer relations executives partner with influencers based on the specific brand goals their teams are set up to achieve. They recognize influencer marketing can be much more strategic than what often gets overly simplified as a one-off, transactional “pay to post” collaboration.

A Role for Influencers in Global Strategy

One of the most strategic paths brands can take when developing their influencer relations goals is to incorporate influencers into global expansion initiatives. The rise of new technologies and the borderless nature of social media platforms has fueled the emergence of influencers around the world. Think about it this way: The right local influencer has already spent years earning the trust of a brand’s target audience. The influencer’s audience turns to them for industry insights, new product information and recommendations. Wouldn’t it make more sense for a brand to build off of an influencer’s trusted reputation, rather than establish their own trust from scratch?

Bruna Scognamiglio, the vice president global influencer of marketing for Gucci Beauty, explains why influencers are such a critical aspect of global marketing strategy today: “The voice from the local level can be even more important than the global players — people connect more to their local influencers — as the Millennial generation is extremely interested in authentic messages. That’s why the voice of people who are authoritative and have their own point of view on a special topic is where Millennials will go to listen who are interested in that topic — they won’t necessarily only turn to a mainstream global influencer.”

Developing Differently Around the World

Despite the global emergence of influencers, the local influencer marketing industry can vary substantially from country to country. The U.S. and Western Europe are often characterized as the most “advanced” markets; however, brand executives in these countries commonly express frustration about not being able to attribute influencer marketing investments to return on investment. Meanwhile, in China, a market dominated by local social media platforms, brands are able to easily take advantage of native functionality within mainstream local apps like WeChat to tie influencer promotion activities to product sales. On the other side of the world in Latin America, high-profile influencers may sign restrictive agency partnerships with large media organizations who can control everything from the influencer’s social media accounts to determining which brands they are allowed to work with.

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Mae Karwowski, chief executive officer of Obviously, an influencer marketing technology company, knows first-hand how challenging it can be to navigate foreign influencer markets. She recounts her experience in Thailand, where influencers do not publicly reveal their e-mail addresses. “We had to direct-message the Thai influencers and come up with totally new ways of reaching out to people who we wanted to work with.” And it is not just Asian influencers, as “a lot of influencers in Europe will find my personal Instagram account and inquire if we are a legitimate firm. I even once had a father in Saudi Arabia call me to see if our outreach to his two daughters who were both beauty influencers was for real.”

An International Phenomenon That’s Not Going Away Anytime Soon

Influencer marketing is a trendy term that many people have heard of, yet very few truly understand. Misrepresenting the practice as simply overpaying the “Instafamous” as a short-term product promotion tactic doesn’t capture its full potential.

The truth is, influencers can have a much more significant impact on business strategy at home and in foreign markets — the onus is on companies to structure their influencer relations teams appropriately, align on realistic goals from the outset, and invest time in influencers who are trusted for their expertise related to the company’s product categories and industry.

While initial efforts to build a global influencer relations program may not be easy given the varying rates of development around the world, the experience teams gain through early stage efforts will help brands develop the right global framework with local implementation to effectively scale programs over time.

Ultimately, this is a global story about a phenomenon that has existed since the dawn of time that has gained new relevance in the digital age — the effectiveness of word of mouth. While social media platforms will change, and influencers will rise while others will lose relevance over time, the one constant is people will always listen to people they trust. That is a trend that’s not going away anytime soon. The time is now for marketers to escape the influencer “tactic trap” and shift to a more strategic approach — one that maximizes the potential of influencer marketing to accelerate their global business.

Joel Backaler is the author of Digital Influence: Unleash the Power of Influencer Marketing to Accelerate Your Global Business (Palgrave Macmillan, September 2018). He is a global marketing strategist, international keynote speaker and the managing director at Frontier Strategy Group. Find him on LinkedIn here, and on Twitter at: @JoelBackaler.

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