Are professional influencers impactful?

Olivier Blanchard started a conversation yesterday on Facebook by positing that professional influencers may not move the needle for the brands that hire them, if we vet influencers only on audience reach/follower counts. He asked what the performance differences might be if we judged influencers on things like engagements or down funnel metrics like link clicks. Is there a difference? Is paying a ‘professional’ influencer worthwhile?

Using the advanced research facilities at SHIFT Communications, I took him up on the challenge. We pulled a list of 16 influencers on Twitter in the business and technology sector. 8 of them are brand-side influencers who generally do not accept money to promote content, other than from their employer. 8 of them are professional influencers who accept significant sponsorships above and beyond their employers, celebrities of sorts. Olivier provided the lists and classifications.

Let’s first look at the distribution of audience reach:


Our influence pool has an average following of 140,000 and a median following of 98,000. We see a reasonable distribution of unpaid (organic, in blue) and paid (in orange) influencers in our pool.

Let’s move beyond raw audience numbers to engagement. How much engagement do organic and paid influencers generate? We define engagement as the sum total of actions a person can take on an influencer’s status; on Twitter, that’s replies, likes (formerly Favorites), and retweets. We looked at the last year of data for these influencers and charted it out:

Average Engagements Per Post.png

What we see is a sizable difference in overall engagement levels; organic influencers generate up to 6x the engagement of paid influencers. Why? Part of the reason is volume of content. More content isn’t necessarily better; paid influencers generate significantly more content:

volume of content.png

Above, paid influencers generated a median of 10,050 posts per quarter; unpaid influencers generated an average of 1,770.

How impactful are influencers at engaging their audiences? We measured engagements divided by total audience size:

Engagements  Impressions.png

What we see above is neither organic nor paid influencers are especially good at engaging a significant portion of their audience. Organic influencers engage 0.015% – that’s 1.5 out of every 10,000 people – while paid influencers engage 1 out of every 10,000 people who follow them. Organic influencers do slightly better, but not by a significant margin.

Let’s talk about where the rubber meets the road: clicks and audience shares. For the links influencers share, how many shares do those links get from the overall audience? How many clicks do influencers generate? Here’s where the stark difference lies:

Link Performance.png

We see that links shared by organic influencers garner significantly more shares and clicks than links shared by paid influencers. Why such a difference? Most of what organic influencers share is news, content audiences are likely to share anyway. Because paid influencers generate so much more volume (due to promotion of sponsorships, etc.) we would expect their performance to be significantly lower. I invite you to download the anonymized raw data here.

What does all this data tell us? Be very careful how you vet influencers. The biggest megaphone in the room doesn’t necessarily mean spurring action we want as marketers. Take into account reach, of course. Take into account other factors, such as engagement, topical alignment, what else the influencer shares, and whether they generate any real action down the marketing funnel.

I encourage you to download a free eBook I wrote for SHIFT on cultivating influence for even more insight.

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Measure share of engagement instead of share of voice

One of my least liked measures and metrics in marketing, and especially in marketing communications, is share of voice. Share of voice is theoretically what part of the conversation your brand owned during the reporting period. However, share of voice is incredibly easy to fake. Want to own share of voice? Print a press release every hour, and set up a thousand spam Twitter bots to just @ reply your Twitter account 180 times every 15 minutes (the Twitter API limit). On paper, you will be the dominant winner.

We know these are faked measures. They appear great but have no bottom line impact. Yet we may find ourselves called on the carpet by our CMO, CEO, or board of directors because we aren’t winning share of voice, especially if a competitor is engaging in useless tactics like hourly press releases.

What’s a better option than easily faked numbers? Engagement. When people engage with our brands, with our companies, they’re indicating more than casual interest. A single Like tells us more about consumer engagement with our brand than a million press releases. Active engagement, such as comments, conversations, and re-sharing indicate our audience cares about what we have to say.

Let’s look at an example, using two very well-known brands, in aggregate share of voice for the last year:


The analysis above indicates across major publishing channels – news, blogs, forums, and Twitter – that Coke and Pepsi have equal share of voice. Does this help us understand the perspective of the customer?

Are these two brands truly equal in the eyes of the customer? If we rely solely on share of voice, it would appear so. However, if we examine the actual conversations they’re having, we might see a different picture.

Let’s look at the same timeframe – one year – and consumer engagement on their respective Facebook Pages. Each has millions of Fans. Each posts regularly, creating opportunities for consumers to engage.

Here’s how consumers comment to these brands:

Share of Comments.png

This is a very different story. Coke has the lion’s share of comments some months. On average, consumers have 70% of the conversations in a given month with Coke. Of course, we could state that perhaps those comments are negative. Perhaps they’re more complaints. If that were the case, we would expect to see Pepsi shared more; generally speaking, people do not share things they hate.

Here’s how consumers re-share content from these brands:

Share of Shares.png

Most months, consumers are overwhelmingly sharing Coke’s content more; on average, they share Coke’s content 79% of the time.

If I were Pepsi’s brand manager, I’d be concerned about the enormous gulf between traditional share of voice measures and how consumers are behaving. Choose your metrics carefully! Consider using a measure like share of engagement as a supplement to or replacement for share of voice.

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My small business marketing technology stack

Nicholas asked,

“What does your “marketing stack” consist of at the moment?
Which specific tools, products, services are you using and how do you get them all talking to each other?”

My marketing technology stack changes frequently. Why? I use myself as the guinea pig for new tools and methods. One of my rules in my work at SHIFT Communications is that I won’t recommend anything to a client I haven’t tried myself. We’ll test tools out as an agency, but even that can entail some risk. So I’ll deploy something new for myself first, and if it doesn’t crash my personal website or systems, then I can safely deploy it for the agency, then clients.

My personal MarTech stack today is divided into three layers: audience, lead generation, and sales. Here’s a snapshot:


To give you an idea of the frequency of change, the DFP advertising technology wasn’t on this chart yesterday. I signed up for it overnight and am starting to test it out. Tomorrow, the chart will likely look different again.

I’ll point out this mix of marketing technology is appropriate for a sole proprietor of a small business. I sell books and speaking gigs as my “second job”. Thus, many channels and tools you might expect to see on the list, such as more aggressive PPC and native advertising, aren’t on it. There’s no marketing automation software because my small business doesn’t justify the expense. The most advanced stuff happens in my work with SHIFT and its clients, which is confidential.

Any small business/sole proprietorship could use a similar mix of tools to achieve solid digital marketing results at relatively low cost. Feel free to use this list as a template for your work.

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