Influencers Suck

This post is a cautionary tale for marketers thinking about running influencer campaigns.  It’s harder than it looks.

Virgin America and Klout did an influencer campaign in Toronto to promote Virgin’s new Toronto to San Francisco route.  Klout is a tool that measures how “influential” a person is on Twitter.  Influential Twitter users were offered a free flight to California and invited to a party to be attended by Sir Richard Branson himself.  I was selected as one of those lucky folks.  At first I thought the campaign was a stroke of marketing genius.  Do something really remarkable for a bunch of noisy people and you can pretty much guarantee that we will tell everybody we know about it.  Oh, if only life were so simple.  That’s the dirty secret of marketing – ideas are easy, it’s the execution that’s tricky.

As you might expect, folks not offered free flights complained about the selection criteria, the tool, and that Klout was “buying Tweets”.  More invitations were issued and word spread that complaining about not getting invited might actually get you invited, spawning an additional wave of complaining.  Influencers who did not register for the party within a 1.5 hour window were un-invited.  More complaining. At the pre-party meetup, Klout employees didn’t seem to know any of the chosen influencers and a distracted Klout employee walked away from guests mid-conversation.  Complaining.  The launch party invite email had errors.  Complaining.  Influencers were not VIP enough to enter the VIP area at the party.  Complaining.  Each misstep was very minor but taken together, a campaign that had started out with great buzz devolved into a Twittter complain-a-palooza.  I last saw the Klout folks huddled together at the launch party and none of them made a move to talk to the group of influencers a few steps away.  Given we were likely to complain about that as well, I couldn’t blame them.

It Sucks Dealing with Cranky-Pants Influencers (but you still have to do it)

In fact, I felt badly for them.  They DID do a lot of things right.  They were open about how they selected people and published a blog post on it.  They directly communicated that accepting the gift did not mean you were obliged to talk about it and they advised people to disclose that they had received the gift if they wrote about it.  Their tool in my opinion, is by far the best way of measuring true reach and interaction on Twitter and they are pretty explicit on their site about what they are measuring and why.  It might not be perfect but this is a startup we’re talking about here, not IBM research labs and in this case I don’t think perfection is possible.  The tool is blazing a trail in uncharted territory which, for those of you that have never done that, is really, really hard.  The tool is also improving at a remarkably rapid rate from what I’ve seen.

But as my father would say “you can’t sell if you can’t deal with the public” and this particular brand of public is famous for being critical of companies that do not appear to understand or value their community.  Trying to influence any group of people is hard work.  If that group happens to be heavy social media users, I would argue it’s harder still.  But it isn’t impossible.  Here are a few examples (featuring folks that would make my Toronto “influential” list):

1/  Working with a Community

I witnessed Erin Bury, community manager for Sprouter, work her magic at the blogger lounge at SxSW this year.  Within an hour she had met everyone in the room and when I say “met”, I don’t mean forking over a business card.   She asked smart questions,  listened, and probed for ways she or her company could help people. She Tweeted thank-you’s to folks for taking the time to talk and later Sprouter featured some of those people in their newsletter and blog.  Erin doesn’t have free flights to give away but she wins people over by giving her time, her help and her respect.

2/  Running an Influencer Event

I attended a Rogers blogger event organized by Dave Fleet and the folks at Thornley Fallis (disclosure: I don’t work for TF but I have freeloaded office space from them).  I was greeted when I arrived and people I hadn’t met yet knew who I was. Everyone working the event spoke to me and asked questions.  The event was well-staffed and we all got a chance to spend as much time as we wanted with Rogers people. We were given a Twitter hashtag and Tweeted like mad.  Loads of time was set aside to let us ask questions and the Rogers folks seemed open to feedback.  On the way out everyone thanked me for coming.  Nobody complained and they made it look easy.  You try running a blogger event for a phone company and not have anyone complain.  It’s not easy.

3/  Dealing with Criticism

If you’re on Twitter you likely follow @unmarketingScott Stratten is a speaker and consultant with a book on the way.  He’s a one-man Twitter university for folks trying to figure it out and he teaches with wit and humility.  He’s famous and like all famous people, he’s got detractors. People have gone so far as to create anonymous Twitter accounts for the sole purpose of picking on him.  So what does Scott do? He tries to understand and where there is nothing he can do, he sucks it up.  He’s nice to everyone and engages with everyone, even people who don’t return the favor, but if folks cross the line or are immovably anti-@unmarketing, he’ll directly and openly tell them to scram and ignore them.  He maintains the difficult balance between being open to feedback and “feeding the trolls.”   He does remarkably little complaining about @unmarketing haters while he continues to do his (clearly working) thing.

So for you marketers thinking about running influencer campaigns, consider yourselves warned.  It’s harder than it looks.  As for Klout I’m sure they will iron out the kinks and learn from the experience like all good startups.  I’m a big fan of the tool and I’d like them to be successful. And maybe the next time they visit Toronto we will be less cranky.  Maybe. Yeah, probably not.  Influencers suck.

Oh and if any of you readers are in San Francisco July 25th to 28th, let me know, I’d love to have coffee 🙂

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185 thoughts on “Influencers Suck”

  1. Jonathan Beech

    LOL! OK, this post got me laughing. Live by the internet, die by the internet. If you can use Twitter to praise a brand you can just as easily use it to tear one down. Some people have to learn the hard way.

    1. Hi Jonathan,
      Thanks for the comment. Like I said in the post, their missteps were pretty minor but strung together they did take on a life of their own. It isn’t the end of the world though. We’re a cranky bunch us influencers but we also have short attention spans and quickly move on to the next thing. Klout will improve and we’ll forget about it.
      April

  2. April, this was brilliant and oh so true. We are a cranky bunch who expects perfection and look for weaknesses to expose. Tough crowd. Thanks for telling it like it is and showing some positive alternatives to dealing with the crowd, rather than hiding from it.

  3. I’ve always been a little leery of “influencer marketing” as a discipline. Not that it doesn’t make sense conceptually, but as you point out, it’s a bit of voodoo in execution.

    Choosing favorites — and let’s face it, that’s what this really is — is dicey business. If you give VIP treatment to individual influencers, you run the risk of making so-called “non-influencers” influential.

    It’s basic physics: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

    1. HI Scott,
      Thanks for the comment. What you are saying is very true – it’s predictable and it happens. That said, folks that really get this stuff recognize the risks and get around them. It’s hard to do though and should be attempted without serious preparation in my opinion.
      April

  4. Oddly enough I’m writing this comment while on a free flight to San Francisco, as apparently I am one of the chosen “influencers”.

    I’ve heard a bunch of the criticism, hell I’ve had people ask outright, why me and not them and frankly I’m not surprised.

    Twitter i find has been especially bad about creating a sense of entitlement within it’s dedicated users and because the word can be so read so easily on there their voice is heard.

    Look klout and virgin weren’t forced to give away seats, this is an awareness marketing campaign and nothing more and while they certainly did make some mistakes t they’ve clearly been successful in their efforts as “chatter” has been happening.

    Twitter has allowed for an unprecedented level of interaction and access and for the most part it’s fantastic and absolutely worthwhile. But let’s not assume for a second there isn’t a flip side as well, a side you’re right @unmarketing knows very well.

  5. We spoke about this campaign earlier and being the first of its kind its really interesting. Moving further on your points I think the campaign had 3 sticking areas:

    – First the way that such a large prize was given out was not done in a way that was perceived as equitable.While they did create a post people could still not clearly see why others got such an expensive prize while they didn’t. With these perceived inequities of course people are going to get a little frustrated with the company.

    – Moving further on the idea of inequities they essentially made a group that felt better than their peers. You place two people that are seen as essentially equal together and give one of them say a lollypop or w/e he’s going to feel higher and above the other person because he was rewarded for something and they weren’t. This gives the opportunity for bragging and also within this group a reason to expect more (think “My Sweet 16 “blowouts) you make someone feel special of course they are going to expect that they are going to be treated special.

    -My last point about the campaign is people like to complain and twitter offers a really easy way to do that! So instead of complaining to yourself or letting something slide people are going to complain to an open forum and it then turns into a bigger deal than it once was as a result of word of mouth.

    So what could Klout have done? Perhaps downgraded the prize, making it seem less exclusive. Rather than give a whole flight away giving just a voucher or a trip 1 way. Or rather than giving the trip for no effort create an event out of it and have people win this flight for doing something/creating something. Lastly I think they could have been more vocal about the whole campaign. Rather than let the discussion go entirely to winners and detractors they could have managed the conversation themselves by addressing criticisms and contributing to the story around the campaign through the creation of content and describing the back-story of the campaign.

    1. Hi Kevin,
      Thanks so much for the comment. I totally agree that part of what made this campaign risky was the size of the prize (and on the flip side, it was also part of what got the buzz going). I also agree with you that any campaign that tells people they are special and then doesn’t treat them as special is headed for trouble.
      Like I said, this stuff is really hard to get right.
      April

    2. When did we get to be a society where people can’t win things, where exclusivity and in this instance high value prizes are a negative?

      The take away from this that i would tell anyone who feels left out, is to work harder, contribute more, engage and become someone who is offered the exclusive deals.

      This whole trip I’m on is a privilege, not a right and i’m thankful for it. But let’s make one thing clear, i bust my ass on twitter every single day and it’s paid of immeasurably, a free flight frankly is one of the least valuable things to come my way from that effort.

      1. Hi Kerry,
        I’m with you on that one. I “deserve” a free flight as much as I deserve to win the lottery and I’m not Tweeting/blogging for the freebee’s, nor do I know anyone that is.
        April

  6. Hi April, this is a great post. I’ve been waiting for people to catch up and understand that the politics of community development and governance are huge when it comes to the new frontiers of marketing/advertising/PR.

    However where I disagree with your analysis is your endorsement of Klout’s efforts. I recognize that we should cut them some slack cause they’re testing new ground and failure is a natural part of the process. However I think their metrics, their methods, are still fundamentally flawed. I think you like the tool both because you have the need for it, and because it flatters you by reinforcing that what you’re doing is the right thing to be doing. While I agree that the need exists, and that maybe I have it too, I don’t feel Klout is or will successfully satisfy that need. Further I suspect many will not see this as they will first be flattered by their faulty methodology and thus not see how it is flawed.

    I tried to sum it up in a tweet:

    Klout: the standard for cliques to reinforce their insularity and rigidity. The self-fulfilling algorithm that fosters your social graft.

    http://twitter.com/jessehirsh/status/17492161092

    Am curious if Klout has any emerging competitors that perhaps take into consideration factors that Klout is oblivious to that would make for better methods and results.

    -j

    1. Hi Jesse,
      Thanks for the comment. I don’t know of any serious challenger to Klout at this stage but they are bound to pop up. I fully admit that the tool has limitations and there are some factors they count that I wouldn’t. That said, I think they are the best tool out there by far right now and I’m glad there’s something marketers can use to measure “influence” that is at least more sophisticated than simply counting the number of followers.
      April

  7. Free prizes work. They’ve worked ever since incentives were tied to call for action. This is a matter of a new delivery mechanism with misunderstood etiquette.
    Reading your article and watching the twitter stream, this seems more an issue of personality conflicts than misplaced execution.

    Anxiously awaiting the next Virgin ticket giveaway.

  8. April,
    Was writing a similar post but you beat me to it. The reality is that the event was good, we got free alcohol and I got around 10 minutes of Branson face-time.

    The issue is the minor mistakes leading up to the event put us on tilt. Hell I’m not even sure my name was on that guest list (even though I was invited). The campaign, the requirements were not promoted well and more importantly, what we thought (and were told) was a small get together certainly was not.

    Going friendless really broke it for me. It’s fine to say no guests but there is a way.

    1. Yay, I beat Alex too!
      I wanted to talk about Branson but I ran out of space. How he handled himself at the party was amazing.
      Thanks for the comment.
      April

  9. April,

    Great post and some great advice. Do you think people would be acting differently if they just got free flights and no party? It seems like most of the problems arose from the human interactions and not the “product sample” that was offered to the influencers.

    Saul

    1. Hi Saul,
      I the “human interactions” as you put it were a big part of it. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had they just done the free flight and left it at that.

  10. This was a great post (and actually sounds quite similar to the follow up piece I have drafted on my blog to my initial “complaining” post).

    Agreed, people will complain and complain about things they aren’t given, but if the transparency was there (honestly, I read the blog post when it was first released and it still didn’t satisfy my questions and I am TEAM Klout), there might have been less complaining and more “Cool! If I keep up with my tweeting then maybe I will get the prize next time”.

    It needed to be pushed and marketed in a way where if you weren’t selected, fear not, think of it as something to aim and strive for. The reason why it wasn’t, was because there was no clear divide and cut off point.

    When Scott, Casie, myself, Anita and a few others first tweeted about it, ALL comments I received were like “Ohh cool program! That’s awesome!”. However, when a few people with less followers, less ‘Klout’ if you will, started winning it brought out all the middle men, the sort of known sort of not known, and then it opened the floodgates.

    My only complaint about this post is it makes me seem like one of the complain-ers. I am leaving for one of my free flights today, and am completely grateful for it. I want Klout to succeed, but they won’t succeed without constructive feedback.

    If everyone is too afraid to piss them off, in fear of not winning any future prizes, we aren’t doing them, or anyone else entering this market, a favour.

    Hindsight is one of life’s most valuable lessons.

    1. Hi Breanna,
      Thanks for the comment. I think your complaints and the things you mentioned were perfectly valid and I complained as loudly as anyone else. It’s to be expected with these types of promotions. The magic in doing one of these things really well is in how you prepare for and react to the inevitable complaining.
      April

  11. Dammit, April, you beat me to the punch! Although there’s still a blog post in draft mode about ignoring the influencers and going after the influence *behind* the influencer 😉

    Klout puzzles me. I can see where it could become a really great platform (especially on PR and outreach programs) but its information often seems haphazard.

    On Hootsuite, for example, I’m sitting with a Klout of 62. On the main website, though, I’m 42.

    Additionally, I’ve dropped 50% in Klout since last September, going by their algorithm. Does this mean I’m half as effective on Twitter as I used to be? I’m not really sure – don’t think I’ve used the platform any differently.

    Perhaps as numbers grow, Klout decreases because you’re not conversing as much as you were before (on a one-to-follower ratio)?

    Who knows?

    Anyhoo… yes, an interesting approach for this launch, yet understandable why so many people got pissed off. Influence is contextual – it shouldn’t really be based on numbers reach mainly.

    1. Yay, I beat Danny!
      My score has also decreased over time so you are right in that there is probably something funky that happens as you gain more followers.
      I think you make a great point about influence being contextual. I think that’s something that marketers are going ton struggle with more and more as they try to do promotions like these.
      April

  12. The disconnect for Klout is they underestimated people’s natural feeling of entitlement when they’ve been identified as different/special/influential. And for the excluded to want to be part of the included – justified or not. Thinking it through a little further would have helped their cause.

    Couple recommendations for them going forward: If it’s exclusive, limit the attendance and stick with it. Publicize it as “some of the most influential” and not “THE most influential.” That gives you an excuse for not inviting everyone who thinks they’re influential. And a reason to hold a second event if enough people were interested. At the end of the day, if something is to exclusive, you have to suck up and exclude people.

    I took a look at their site and I think I have an issue with their definition of influence. By my reading, a large group of people who are simply really active on Twitter would score as highly influential. That may well be but it could also mean you’re just part of a network of people who have nothing better to do than spend their time on Twitter. Social networks are, after all, a naturally self-selected group of like-minded people who do similar things.

    That’s a long-winded way of saying I don’t see any metrics for the actual influence. Can these influencers change elections? Get more people to buy products? Enact fundamental change in some way? If Klout could measure THAT part, then they would have something there.

    1. Hi Tim,
      Thanks for the comment. I actually think the Klout tool does a good job of measuring true reach and interaction. Rather than just measuring number of followers, they look at how many of your followers you are actively engaging with, how many pass along info you have tweeted, how big your follower’s networks are, etc. It’s hard to answer the question ” is anyone listening?” and their approach seems well thought out. I also like that they are ranking influence by keyword. For example Brittney Spears can probably promote records on Twitter but I’m not sure she could sell mainframe computers for example (that said, never underestimate the power of The Britney).
      Again, perfection may not be possible but I like what they are doing so far and it’s getting steadily better.
      April

      1. Reach and interaction are not influence. Dictionary.com defines influence as “the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others.” You have less influence without reach and interaction but the one does not guarantee the other.

        Klout is doing themselves and their users a disservice by calling it influence. If they can crack the nuts for measuring ‘compelling force’ and ‘effects produced’ that would be something indeed.

        1. Hi Tim,
          Interesting point. Klout measures RT’s and how often people respond to a tweet. What other sorts of action do you think they could measure?
          April

          1. Dunno. But there has to be a way to connect “received information from x” with “took some action” to get a real measure of influence. The car companies learned in the 60’s “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” and used that to justify sponsoring racing. That’s why also-rans say things like “The Coors Light Melling Fuel Pumps Ford Thunderbird ran real good until we blowed it up.” People change the beer they drink when a driver changes sponsors. That’s influence.

            Maybe if the UI side (Tweetdeck, et al) included a feedback mechanism that had buttons for ‘useful, ‘took an action’ or ‘used suggestion elsewhere’ you could connect the two.

  13. Hi April, thanks for writing the article, really enjoyed reading it. I’m in the nonprofit industry and I’m doing my marketing certificate at YorkU (I initially started taking courses for fun I found marketing allows me to be creative/innovative). Now I think I may somehow incorporate my non-profit skills and evolve.

    I have learned a lot more thru twitter than in my classes. Anyway, your article reminded me of an email that I got yesterday from a party promoter whose party I went to few times but rarely spoke.

    He is on my facebook and one day he was posting links to Toots & the Maytals youtube videos. So I mentioned I’ll be going to NY to see them (at that time he didn’t engage in a conversation with me). Anyway 2 months later, yesterday I got an email from him promoting his party but what was nice is that he remembered what I had said so he personalized the email asking me how was the concert and it didn’t not just another “party” email I get every day. The second paragraph was verbatim a typical party info.

    I’m not saying party organizers should do this for everyone but for whatever reason he did, it made me feel “special” and ofcourse I told bunch of my friends (not that he asked).

    I guess your article just summed up my experience and also for me as well who wants to organize events. If you are going to invite ‘influencers’, its good to know about them, just giving away flights isn’t the only way to make them feel special.

    Will be following you on twitter & reading up on your past articles, them seem very interesting. I may pass some of them to the profs!

    1. Hi Shariya,
      Thanks for the comment. That’s a great example of what this post is all about. I think the first wave of folks that were offered the flight did feel special but everything about the process after that point seemed to say that we weren’t at all.
      As a marketer it’s often hard to put yourself in the shoes of your customers but you have to. Customers notice when it’s all about you and not about them.
      April

  14. Brilliant post April. One very important thing that I would like to add is the following: I am a video blogger and I’m usually invited to events “to spread the word”. Because I use video I guess I’m more attractive since organisers assume that I’ll also take cool pics and shoot video. They’re right. I love what I do and deliver. This doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll blog great thins about the event…
    But, what’s next??? After attending the event, taking pics/shooting and editing video and publishing a post.. I have rarely received a “thank you Fred” or “your video was cool, thanks”, etc.
    Of course, organisers are too busy trying to research the “right” influencers but then forget that they are real people and should be treated as such. What makes them think that free food, beer and then forgetting about you will build a good relationship?

    1. Hi Fred,
      That’s a GREAT point. Nothing about this campaign seems long-term and I believe that both Klout and Virgin could really benefit from trying to sustain relationships with this group of folks.
      April

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  16. Why is it that, given the option, most people would rather tear someone down than help build them up?

    It sounds like the people behind the event had the best intentions, but just didn’t execute as well as they would have liked. Sure, it’s an unfortunate turn of events that may have bent a few noses out of shape; but it’s too bad it had to turn into a public stoning.

    If I were going to launch this kind of event, I’d try to get the Influencers to collaborate with me on both the planning and execution … bring them into the process so that they share responsibility. I’m all about collaboration & this seems like the perfect opportunity to work together towards a common goal. Maybe next time.
    🙂

    1. Hi Jamie,
      I think you are getting at exactly the problem. If the campaign had been more about the influencers and less about about Klout, I think it would have been a really different outcome.
      Thanks for the comment!
      April

    1. Reading this takes the sting out of being deemed not influential enough to participate. I’m in SF and would love to meet up for coffee during your visit. Lemme know.

      1. You could always complain a bit on Twitter – I heard that worked in Toronto 😉
        I’d love to catch a coffee with you! I will drop you a note.
        Thanks for the comment!
        April

  17. April,

    I get the gist of what you’re saying and the counsel you offer is spot-on.

    I don’t think the concept behind Virgin and Klout’s idea was flawed. There’s nothing wrong with working with influencers. It’s a sound strategy. But as a third-party looking in, my first instinct is telling me that it looks like the companies involved just tried to buy a whole lot of love without trying to nurture it first.

    Bottom line — Just like in real-world relationships, you can’t just buy love and expect bliss to ensue. You have to earn it first. If I popped a ring on the first date, the woman who eventually became my wife would’ve slapped me upside the head.

    — Michael E. Rubin | http://flavors.me/merubin75
    Disclosure: I work for Fifth Third Bank, and this is my own opinion.

    1. Hi Michael,
      Thanks for your comment. That’s exactly it.
      I focused on Klout in the article and not Virgin but I should mention that I thought Virgin did an amazing job on the event. Richard Branson spent hours working the room and he took his time and spoke personally to everyone that wanted to speak with him. He was a total star at the event. Had Klout folks worked with the influencers like that, everything would have been fine I think.
      April

  18. Hi April,

    good article on influencers. even though it didn’t go as planned, at least they’re trying. In my eyes given all the clients that I work with is more than what most traditional businesses are doing.

    Thanks for the links to the other SM experts!

    Marc

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  20. Just couldn’t help myself from responding even though April’s original post is over 5 months old. Sometimes influencers do indeed suck. But sometimes the co performing the influencer campaign sucks. The trick is to be credible, engage rather than pitch, be open (yes to criticism), not expect miracles, and be willing to adapt. One campaign seldom cuts it, working with influencers has to be thought as long-term relationship building. Finally, one can recruit and create influencers, you don’t have to totally live with hand you have been dealt (e.g. “branded journalism.”). After a few tries, it isn’t that hard either.

    1. Hey Evan,
      Thanks for the comment. I totally agree with you (the title of the post is a bit of a joke) and that’s the point of this post. There are right ways and wrong ways to work with influencers – this one is a bit of a cautionary tale.
      April

  21. Great article! Influencers can be even more valuable than a good review in the major tech press, but i think its not as simple as just targeting the top dogs. There seems to be different types of influencers that you can engage in different ways. I guess an important question to ask, is why are they influencers? If you know that you can probably figure out how they might help you out, whether it be shameless promotion for freebies, casual advice, or something more official.

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