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The Ledger’s 40 Over 40 needed some publicity. Would paying an influencer help?
If you follow marketing trends, or even just have an Instagram account, you’ve probably heard about influencers — the people who advertise for companies in exchange for free meals, swag and occasionally lots of money.
Tapping into the growing popularity of social media, companies from huge multinational corporations to the corner pizza joint use them to create positive perceptions and increase sales.
But how, exactly, does one hire an influencer?
I can tell you how. Because I hired one.
To shed light on this emerging form of advertising — sometimes marked by hazy financial links between social media personalities and the businesses they are promoting — The Ledger set out last month to hire an influencer to drum up publicity for our 40 Over 40 contest.
That’s the contest we started to honor people ages 40 and up who are making Charlotte a better place. (Incidentally, our wise millennial judges are wrapping up their judging, and we should have results soon. We’re working on a low-key event to celebrate.)
On one level, it’s easy to hire an influencer: Just find somebody with a bunch of social media followers and offer that person money or free stuff. That’s the approach many small businesses take.
If you want something done right, though, you consult an expert. I’m no expert. I’m 48, and like many people my age, I don’t use Instagram regularly. My own children mock me for having only 89 followers.
So I turned to somebody who knows what she is talking about: April Smith. She started a social media marketing agency in 2012 called Social Ape Marketing. Her agency is on the first page of results when you Google “how to find Charlotte influencers,” and she runs her own foodie Instagram account, @clteats, with 17,500 followers. She’s qualified, and she agreed to provide me with some free pointers.
The mission: I explained to her my goal — promote 40 Over 40 but not spend a lot of money — and Smith explained the influencer mentality: “They just want to feel appreciated and special.” You can pay them cash, but many also respond to event invitations and free food. “We have done influencer marketing for a lot of local clients, and we are able to spend no cash.” The price sounded right. As an upstart e-newsletter, though, The Ledger has little to offer most Instagrammers.
Smith explained that with a bare-bones budget, I’d probably stand little chance with Charlotte’s best-known influencers. They have a few hundred thousand followers, specialize in fashion or food, cater to a younger audience and would probably have little interest in promoting a digital media company running a contest for people born in the 1970s and earlier. “Their reaction would be, ‘I appreciate you reaching out, but it doesn’t align with what I’m doing,’” she predicted.
But Smith estimated that for around $250, maybe less, I could probably find a smaller-time influencer willing to do the job. But how to find that right person?
Developing the target list
Smith said she and her staff would pull together a list of local influencers who might make sense. A few days later, she sent a list of 15 “potential Charlotte influencers ages 35+.” Upon closer inspection, several appeared not to be a good match.
One, who had purple hair and a nose ring, described herself as a 38-year-old “crazy cat lady” who is a “Charlotte lifestyle blogger — Busy sitting in carpool confessing on my insta story!” A few others work for local TV stations and didn’t seem to post promotional content. Others seemed to specialize in fashion.
But one seemed promising: Jan Correll, a Fort Mill grandma with 62,000 Instagram followers who goes under the handle @silver_isthenewblonde. Her Instagram photos showed her modeling sweatshirts and leopard-patterned backpacks and skincare products, but apparent clients also included a Hilton in Greenville, S.C. She had range, which is what I needed. Additional research revealed she had been profiled in CharlotteFive and the New York Times. Was she too big-time for The Ledger?
I sent her a note about 40 Over 40. Her reply: “Hi Tony, as an age positive activist I love what you are doing! So are you looking for me to promote this on all my socials including LinkedIn?”
My first thought was, “This is great!” And my second thought was, “Wait — there are influencers on LinkedIn???”
Though encouraged with the rapport I was building with Correll, I wanted to test the waters elsewhere, too. I shot some Instagram direct messages to two others on Smith’s list of potential Charlotte influencers aged 35+.
One didn’t reply. I explained the idea for 40 Over 40 to a second one, Lindsey Regan Thorne, and offered $200. She replied, tartly it seemed: “Hi Tony. Thank you so much, but I’m 37”:
Then I figured, let’s swing for the fences. I messaged McKenna Bleu, one of the most popular Charlotte influencers, who has 255,000 followers. I didn’t dangle any particular amount of money. I just asked her for prices. She was gracious and replied almost exactly the way Smith had said most influencers would respond:
Sounds awesome! It’s not something that I would typically post unfortunately, I try to keep my content on brand for my readers but wish you all the best.
I thought I’d check out some different sources, too. Smith had sent a list of websites that help you find influencers — mostly paid sites such as Upfluence (“the smartest influencer marketing platform”), Klear (“the new standard in influencer marketing”), Socialbakers (“one solution to all your social media marketing”) and Izea (“the enterprise influencer marketing platform”). There was also a free option mentioned in a blog post she sent: Influence.co (“be better at influencer marketing”). The Ledger is a frugal operation, so I went with the free option.
Search tools: After creating an account on Influence.co, you can use its search tool to narrow down your list of influencers. It said there were 160 Charlotte influencers in its database who had fewer than 100,000 Instagram followers. I added parameters: ages 35-70 with 7,500+ followers that had a starting rate of $50-$200. It returned no results. I dropped the age to 25, and it spit out 15 possible influencers, in a handy list like this:
By this point, it was the last week of January, and nominations for 40 Over 40 were closing Jan. 31. My negotiations with @silver_isthenewblonde were breaking down, because Correll needed more time to plan out her posts. And I needed some influencing done ASAP.
I zeroed in on an influencer from Influence.co named @mckenzigraham, who had about 9,000 followers. From her posts, it looked as though she did some influencing, and her starting rate — $85 — seemed reasonable. I figured I might be able to get her, and quickly.
Making an offer: I offered $100 for whatever she thought was the best way to encourage people to check out 40 Over 40. She proposed putting it on her Instagram story for a day and placing the link in her bio. Sounded good to me. Here is some of our exchange:
I quickly took some photos in my backyard of the 40 Over 40 koozies I had just received, which are the prizes for the winners. I also sent a photo I acquired the rights to from Shutterstock during a free trial, plus the 40 Over 40 logo:
And for $100, here’s what @mckenzigraham came up with for The Ledger on Jan. 29 — an Instagram story on three screens:
And note the link in her bio:
Following the law: One thing you’ll notice that’s missing is ad disclosure. In an article in the fall, I pointed out that the Federal Trade Commission released new guidelines on influencer marketing — and that some influencers didn’t always disclose that their posts were paid ads, as they are supposed to do. Despite my familiarity with the subject, I totally forgot to request that my influencer follow those guidelines, and she didn’t ask about it, either. I’m not sure that any of the 1,200 people who saw @mckenziegraham’s 40 Over 40 post believed she had a natural passion for awards contests run by a new Charlotte e-newsletter business, but please don’t tell the FTC.
I thanked @mckenzigraham and acknowledged the obvious: “I’m sure this is one of the more random ones you’ve done.”
Her reply: “Ah, yes it is a little different.”
Did my influencer advertising work? I can’t say that it did. But I can’t say that it didn’t. Like a lot of advertising, measuring results can be hard. I spend $100 for about 1,200 views, she told me. By comparison, I bought an events listing in Charlotte Agenda for $300 that resulted in 237 clicks and up to 9,300 or so views, according to the stats Agenda shared with me. I can’t tell if that ad resulted in any nominations, either:
What did I learn? A few takeaways:
Influencing has become a big business. There are ad agencies and paid websites that have popped up to tap into this growing form of advertising.
It can be complicated. You might think all you need to do is pay somebody with a lot of Instagram followers to post something nice. It’s not always so simple to find those people — especially if you’re not in the fashion or food business.
It takes time. People can post anything on Instagram in mere minutes. But many influencers like to plan weeks ahead of time. Be sure to build that in.
Measuring results can be tough. There’s plenty of data available on the internet, but it doesn’t always tell you what you want to know.
I ran my conclusions by Smith. She agreed with many of those assessments. She advises building in two or three months to organize and execute a successful campaign. I tried to do it in two weeks. She gave me some pointers on measuring results. I don’t know if my efforts helped at all.
In an email to me, she wrote:
In order to orchestrate a successful influencer marketing campaign, you'll need to have a solid strategy and ample time to execute it. Otherwise, you may spend a bunch of money and see very little results.
Well, I learned a lot. And 40 Over 40 will be back next year. With more time to plan and a better understanding of how this growing piece of the ad world works, The Ledger will have the ability to unleash the full talents of some of Charlotte’s most influential Instagrammers.
Or maybe we’ll just save our money and stick to email.
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The Charlotte Ledger is published by Tony Mecia, an award-winning former Charlotte Observer business reporter and editor. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and three children.