How to Make Influencer Marketing Work for You

Today, approximately 92 percent percent of consumers say that they trust word-of-mouth marketing and recommendations from friends and family above all other forms of marketing. Relying on peers for insights is a recognized behavior, which has led to a shift in power from brands to influencers.

At the core, influencer marketing is about building relationships and cultivating feedback, not just driving transactions. If you treat influencers like a sales tool, you're not only going to be unsuccessful, but you will also run the risk of damaging important relationships with the people who have influence within your industry and surrounding your brand.

Think of influencer marketing as relationship building -- like a cocktail party where you don't know anyone. You're not going to barge into the room and start handing out business cards to everyone in the room. You're going to get a drink, listen to the conversation and eventually jump in when you feel you can add some value. Using social media for influencer marketing needs to be treated with the same level of social sensitivity and mindset. Implementing an influencer marketing campaign can be broken down into three key stages: finding influencers, listening and engaging, and tracking.

One of the most obvious ways to identify influencers is by turning to your own "social backyard." If your brand has an established community, take a look at your most active participants and existing super fans. How can you leverage their passion? It's important not to stop there, however. Expand your search to look beyond the obvious. Think outside the box.

For example, there are only so many people blogging about jeans, but Levi's could easily transition into the music space, a niche many of their consumers live and breathe. For brands, these types of related conversations provide valuable opportunities. The challenge becomes finding ways to meaningfully participate in the online communities and conversations while remaining authentic. Regardless of industry, there are complimentary spaces and conversations that will allow your brand to connect with existing fans on a new level, while simultaneously exposing it to new audiences.

A word of caution: Keep in mind that network size doesn't necessarily correlate with extent of influence. Popularity is a numbers game; influence is a reflection of expertise. If properly tapped, social media offers a wealth of data about demographics, behavior, interests and audience profiles -- allowing marketers to mine conversations and identify influencers in specific categories. Instead of going straight to Justin Bieber, brands can find the Justin Bieber of craft beer... or the Lady Gaga of camping supplies. Data makes it possible to find and target people who have influence where it matters.

Engaging with influencers should follow the natural flow of conversation; it should never feel like a hard sell. The first few interactions can be as simple as leaving a comment on a blog post or retweeting an influencer on Twitter. Marketers should always strive to build a rapport before moving into a proposition.

When it comes time to make the pitch, it imperative that there is an exchange of value. This does not need to come in the form of financial compensation however. Value comes in many forms, and could mean simply featuring a blogger on your corporate blog in order to drive traffic back to their site. Offline experiences are also very effective and impactful way to make an impact with influencers.

Hotels are starting to do a fantastic job integrating and leveraging social media within their marketing efforts. Their physical sites provide a great opportunity to delight guests with truly unique experiences. For example, when a guest filled out the special request section of an online reservation form for the Fairmont Hotel, he asked that a premade pillow fort and a vanilla Coke be waiting in his room upon arrival. Much to his surprise the hotel obliged and the story went viral. The photos the guest shared generated more than five million views, and the story was picked up by the NY Times, Huffington Post and Yahoo! A pillow fort may not work for everyone; however, every brand should realize that even small gestures that demonstrate listening and responsiveness can have a massive, powerful impact.

At the onset of an influencer campaign it is critical to establish what your goals will be. From SEO to sales and mentions, there can be many goals, but you need a clear understanding of what they are, how they will be measured and what success will look like for the brand before you embark and begin engaging with influencers. Nike has used social and their Nike+ program to grow their community. In doing so, they have fostered a passionate network of fans that come to the brand's defense when they are criticized for manufacturing and labor practices.

Getting the right people excited and talking about your brand has always been one of the best tools in a marketer's toolbox. While influencer marketing is not a particularly new concept, social media has made word-of-mouth digital, far-reaching, immediate and powerful. How are you leveraging influencer relationships for your brand?