Testimonials and endorsements have been a mainstay in marketing for many years. In the online environment, these concepts have been combined, embraced, and refined to drive a hot trend: influencer marketing. It works. If you think about your own purchase behaviors, you can probably trace many of those purchases–whether for some electronic device, a hairstyle, a meal, or a car–to a recommendation or referral that came from a friend or relative or that was prompted through some online endorsement from an individual you admire.

The “Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Survey” from 2012 indicated that 92% of global consumers said they trusted earned media-e.g., word-of-mouth and recommendations-more than any other form of advertising. That tendency bears fruit online. According to a McKinsey study, social recommendations influenced about 26% of online purchases across all product categories. About two-thirds of that impact, the study indicates, was direct–meaning that the recommendation had an impact at the point of purchase. Additionally, not all product categories are equally impacted. Selection of utility services was at the low end (15%), while categories such as travel and over-the-counter drugs impacted 40% to 50% of online actions.

While there’s definitely some marketing power and potential behind influencer marketers, it’s important for marketers to understand that influencer marketing–or influence marketing–while it may have some unique nuances due to the online environment it exists in, isn’t fundamentally different from the general marketing approaches and decisions they’ve been undertaking for years.

A Long Tradition of Influence

As Danica Kombol, founder and president of Everywhere Agency, says, “Influencer marketing is really no different than word-of-mouth marketing. It just so happens to be taking place in a digital space.” Kombol launched her firm in 2009 and says, “We began working with influencers almost from the day we started. Back then, of course, they were called bloggers.” As someone with a background in PR and marketing, says Kombol, “I realized there was great potential for influencers to tell the story of a brand.” She adds, “The trick has always been to find the right influencer–to find the influencer who is already naturally passionate about a brand.”

Lynn Suderman, a marketing communications and content strategist based in Toronto, agrees and points out that influencer marketing “is part of the greater umbrella of marketing, which also includes advertising, digital advertising, and content marketing.”

Corey Martin is managing director of the consumer practice group for Allison+Partners, a PR firm with offices around the world. Martin has worked directly with well-known brands such as Driscoll’s and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment to develop influencer campaigns and has experience working with leading consumer brands such as Dove and Axe. He’s the author of Allison+Partners’ “Navigating the Flow of Influence 2016 Report,” conducted in partnership with Northstar and based on a survey of 2,000 U.S. respondents ages 18-74.

“The fact is that influence has always been around,” says Martin. He points to the earned channel-or PR-as a prime example. “We’ve been engaging with media reporters-people who can tell our brand stories in an authentic way-for years. Crafting those stories has been incredibly important in securing and ensuring that influence turns into real advocacy.”

Paid vs. Earned

There are (at least) two ways to generate impact from influencers-paying them to talk about or link to your brand or gaining their support organically. Paying influencers can be a slippery slope, and there are regulations that marketers must follow if they decide to go this route. In addition, says Kombol, marketers need to think beyond the exchange of money for services concept to ensure that they’re “hiring” influencers who truly have a passion for what they have to offer. “Even though you compensate an influencer, it’s really important to find one who already loves that product-otherwise the content doesn’t feel natural.”

“All of this is governed by FTC guidelines and WOMMA [Word of Mouth Marketing Association],” says Kombol. “Influencers are compensated to talk about a brand, and then they disclose that either they were compensated or they received products.”

But, stresses Martin, influencers aren’t always paid–and they often shouldn’t be and don’t need to be. “Sometimes, I cringe a little bit when I see people talk about influencers just with respect to paid influencers and bloggers, or just celebrities and bloggers. It’s really a bigger world. Truly, it’s anyone who can tell a brand story–anyone who can tell stories is an influencer. That really just opens it up to the university of people.” That, he acknowledges, can be both exciting and daunting.

“Oftentimes, what we see today are brands trying to purchase influencers or throwing money at influencer strategies and ignoring the simple fact that the end product is not influence itself-but influence as a means to an end,” says Martin. “Advocacy is what we ultimately want–advocacy that can be meaningful to consumers, that can have impact and move them toward consideration, toward a purchase, toward brand affinity.”

Another possible problem with paid influencers is the potential for negative brand impact when consumers realize that the glowing endorsements they’ve been relying on have been paid for. Suderman doesn’t think this is such a big concern–at least not yet. “Most consumers don’t notice or don’t care,” she says. “It doesn’t matter to them. If they follow an influencer that they love, and that influencer jumps up and down and says this is fantastic, they trust the influencer.”

Others have a stronger view. Andy Abramson, CEO of Comunicano, Inc., in Del Mar, Calif., says, “This ‘pay for play’ model has virtually ruined journalism at all levels.” Abramson adds, “It’s not just bloggers who are paid, but more and more, the so-called experts have been paid to appear to be neutral. Being able to discern a legitimate commentary versus  a paid shill piece is getting harder and harder.” There’s certainly some risk involved, and marketers are wise to carefully consider potential brand impacts-positive and negative–when engaging in any paid influencer strategies.

Whether paid or organic, one key question for marketers is, “Where do I find influencers?” In truth, influencers are everywhere. The real question should be, “How do I find the right influencers?”

Agencies such as hers, says Kombol, build lists of influencers that they make available to marketers. It can be a time-consuming process. “There are plenty of databases like Cision that exist to give lists of influencers,” she says. “But you still have to do the research to say, ‘Does this influencer write about things that are similar to my brand?’ That’s what we do as an agency.” Most influencer networks, she says, are independent. She points to a few such as Mom It Forward, Latina Bloggers Connect, and Clever Girls. LinkedIn, she adds, is a great source of influencers in the B2B space. 

Tools can help lighten the load when it comes to finding and engaging with influencers. Traackr is one that Suderman points to: “They’ll help you find an influencer in whatever space you need to be in, whether it’s based on biography, a business silo, or a certain persona.” There are, she says, “more and more companies that are doing that.”

While tools can help from an administrative standpoint, what really drives efficiency in influencer marketing–as with any other form of marketing–is strategy.

Influence Backed by Strategy

Influencer marketing can take a lot of time. Often, much of that time may be misplaced if there isn’t sound strategy and strong alignment with other marketing activities. It’s critical to ensure that your influencer marketing activities aren’t something separate from your overall marketing communication activities. As Suderman notes, influencer marketing is simply one element of a much larger process. Martin uses the PESO (paid, earned, social, and owned) method as a way to help understand how this all fits together. “Communication strategies have to live across those channels, and true influencers tell stories across all of those channels,” he says.

Martin points to the results of Allison+Partners’ research, which really drove home the importance of a pull versus push strategy in influencer marketing. “The biggest finding we found from the study, when we looked at consumers, is that influence is pull as opposed to push.” Right now, he says, many influencer marketers aren’t getting that quite right. “A lot of influencer relations programs are really using a push strategy. They purchase the right influencers that have reach and push out content to consumers. But what we understand is that consumers are in charge of the influence action. A consumer within the purchase journey has to be active. They make a decision to be influenced because they voluntarily go into the purchase journey after they’re made aware of a particular product.”

This recognition, Martin says, really supports a strategy that ensures “we are engaging some influencers through earned tactics in their channels so that engagement is authentic and is something that consumers can believe in and can trust.”

Abramson has been engaged in influencer marketing for quite some time, with some big players. “My agency and I developed what has been described as the seminal influencer marketing program for Fortune 100 companies back in 2005 when we designed and implemented the Nokia Blogger Relations Program, and then ran it through 2010, creating the social media platform and guiding its execution.” Other influencer programs created by his agency have been for AT&T, AOL, GrandCentral (now Google Voice)-and a number of other clients.

He adds, “We define influencer marketing as reaching the right audience in a choreographed manner so the story, positioning, and messaging of the client-company, product, service, personality, property, etc.-is able to be told, quickly understood, and retold to others as if you told it yourself. This retelling is also described as amplification by some and results in more of the right people understanding the story correctly.”

These stories, he says, are built on what he calls the “4 C’s”–each story needs to be concise, credible, compelling, and contagious. The fourth C, he states, is most the important. “The contagious nature of a story is directly related to how far and wide the facts can be retold by the right person to others who need to know.” Effective influencer marketing, Abramson says, isn’t about the masses, and he advises against attempting to be “all things to all people.” Instead, he says, influencer marketers should concentrate more on the “who” than the “how many.” “It works by not focusing on the mass market media, but really applying approaches that are best suited for niche-direct-marketing.”

“It all goes back to the ABCs of marketing–audience, behavior, and content,” says Ken Wincko, SVP of marketing at PR Newswire. “Determine who you are trying to reach, what they care about, and how you can provide interesting content for them. Think about the overall vision you are trying to create, and present a clear story that captures that vision.” Focus driven by solid strategy is key.

Will the influencer marketing trend continue? Of course. As indicated at the outset, influencer marketing is nothing new-it’s only the methods being used to connect influencers to an audience, an exponential audience, that are new and different from the recommendations and referrals that have been taking place for millennia. The balance between paid and earned will likely be played out for some time-but, ultimately, influence is evergreen.