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This article was published on June 8, 2015

Why every startup needs a community

Why every startup needs a community
Matthew Claudel
Story by

Matthew Claudel

With a background in literature and writing, Matthew Claudel studied architecture at Yale University, where he was awarded the 2013 Sudler P With a background in literature and writing, Matthew Claudel studied architecture at Yale University, where he was awarded the 2013 Sudler Prize, Yale's highest award for the creative arts. He has continued to work in the areas of design, writing, education and curation – three fields that come together as both projects and research.

The Mad Men days are over, Don Draper has been dethroned. Today the most powerful force in advertising is not an executive: it’s you, your friends, your acquaintances, and all the people who populate your social media feeds. This is the basic idea behind influencer marketing—one of the biggest driving forces in advertising strategy today.

If customers really want good information, the best place for them to find it is customers themselves. People have become somewhat immune to high-budget, top-down advertising, and instead relate directly (through a multitude of network platforms) to style-savvy people, peers who have a knack for finding the next big thing.

This transformation is shaking companies around the world down to the core of their corporate identity. In the words of business mogul Scott Cook, “A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is—it is what consumers tell each other it is.”

group community

As a result, peer-to-peer reviews, social media placement, and word-of-mouth are becoming far more important than branding campaigns by marketing teams. Community is everything.

Hard numbers justify the buzz: A McKinsey study, quoted in Forbes, found that more than twice as many sales come from word-of-mouth marketing as from traditional paid advertising, and it builds a more loyal customer base.

A comprehensive study conducted by Burst Media found influencer strategy reaps $6.85 in “earned media value” for every dollar of paid media.

Many companies have leapt at this opportunity and begun relationships with so-called “influencers”—ordinary people who have strong social media followings (whether through blogs, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram) and are respected as curators within their communities.

So far, the strategy has proven to be most effective in industries such as consumer packaged goods, travel, and fashion. The latter is already familiar—brands will send samples to key bloggers or social(media)ites, in the hopes their product will appear online in a grassroots way.

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But a similar approach can be powerful across many areas of business. There is even a niche opening up for a new class of firms that broker relationships between bloggers and businesses. An entire industry in its own right is emerging around the social advertising phenomenon.

There is no doubt influencer marketing is becoming a huge part of business strategy, and a lot has been written about it: the numbers, the strategies, and how to optimize content and maximize profit, for example.

Over the past few years, the idea has made rounds through almost every outlet, from Forbes to Fast Company to the Wall Street Journal.

But what about the influencers themselves? We’ve been looking at the trend from every angle except head-on.

Woman on a smartphone.

Influencers Speak

To get the real story, I spoke to key influencers from several fields about their experiences with everything from small labels to big brands, and the ins and outs of social media.

Correspondents are writers, bloggers, product reviewers, TV/commercial producers, and across-the-board social media stars. These are the unexpected facets of influencer marketing, seen through the eyes of influencers (for anonymity and integrity, this is a compilation of several responses, and the identities of influencers and their specific endorsements are not disclosed).

Question 1: What industries target influencers?

Everything from shoes to child-care products to technology and fashion.

Q2: Why were you targeted?

My consumer-product-driven background, expertise in the field, niche visibility, and strong social media following.

Q3: How do companies communicate or engage with influencers?

Usually it’s an email about a new product, sometimes it’s just a package that says “try this out,” and other times it’s an explicit and ongoing relationship with a certain brand. I am also invited to many brand-sponsored events.


Q4: Is a single influencer aligned with several – even competing – brands?

In some cases no—an influencer will come to represent a certain brand and become a de facto spokesperson for it. That said, many influencers are not committed to any brand in particular. Competing brands can actually make for more objective reviews and posts, keeping viewers surprised and interested.

Q5: Do you feel pressured to write favorable reviews, even if you might not actually agree?

No matter what products you get, it’s nothing compared to the value of integrity. People follow you because they trust your vision and your opinions, both positive and negative. Once you become a “product whore” it’s over . . . for you, the brand, and your followers. You must respect the people who listen to your opinion.

Q6: Do you find certain social media platforms are more effective, or fun? 

Platforms are changing quickly. Much of the discussion around influencer marketing began with blogs, Pinterest, and other visual media. Instagram is still a favorite, because it combines visuals with unlimited characters.

Twitter, of course, is almost ubiquitous, maybe the broadest outlet for connecting with followers. But different brands will often find their niches in a particular platform. And new ones are coming out every day; for instance, Periscope and Meerkat (live video feeds) are currently on the rise. How they catch on remains to be seen…

Q7: Do you tend to separate personal posts from influencer posts? Do you think of them differently?

Followers come from every direction, from personal friends to family, and even random people who come across a feed that resonates with them. Often, influencers will include something in their contracts stating that they can use obvious hashtags such as #sponsoredcontent and/or #sponsoredpost to make sure followers understand.


But again, if you are not being genuine, anyone can see right through you. The reason you are an influencer in the first place is that people care about what you truly think. And often it can become fun—public banter between influencers representing the same company, for example.

Q8: As an avid social media user, do you find that brands abuse your social network?

There is more and more sponsored material across Twitter feeds and other platforms. This can be annoying, but if it’s done well, it doesn’t cheapen the brand; in the worst case, your eye just scans past it. Generally this has more of a gripe with the platform itself and its revenue-generating scheme than a specific brand’s social media strategy.

Q9: Is there anything you think brands are doing poorly – with your content in particular, or with their media strategies more generally? 

It’s a question of longevity, of investing in the future through building a strong platform today. Brands that aren’t using social media well are like people who don’t have savings accounts. The consumer community is the key to every brand’s success in the future, and engaging with them through social media will reap a tremendous ROI.

It may be long term, but it is there. What a brand posts, how they post it, what other consumers post, and how the community reacts all create the entity of a brand. Consumers no longer interact only with the product, they interact with the brand and they interact with each other.

The “contact cost” of creating and investing in a culture is getting lower and lower. Brands should invest more in niche-culture-communication, focusing more on the “cool one percent”—an effort that will ripple outwards.

Read Next: How to work with influencers to promote your product, campaign or startup

This post first appeared on Skyword.

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