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Working with influencers is a tried and tested way to get a boost for your brand, whether that’s in terms of image, sales, reach, social media engagement or other marketing KPIs. But if you want to have a successful go at an influencer marketing campaign, it’s important to remember that influencers are real, living people (most of the time, at least).

This is true at all ends of the spectrum. Popular influencers may be shielded by a phalanx of business managers, but at the end of the day, you’re still reaching out to work with a person who has opinions, emotions, priorities and their own business to look out for. Why should they work with you in particular?

That’s why it’s so essential to have a smart influencer engagement strategy in place well before you even think about reaching out to someone who seems like a good fit for your brand. Think of it like dating — chances are that if you go up to a random person on the street and ask them out, they’ll be creeped out and say no. You’re much more likely to have good luck if you actually get to know a person first, and allow them to get to know you.

When you add influencer marketing to your mix, the aim is to find the right person and form a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. You can’t do that if you don’t take your time and conduct yourself well.

Step 1: Seek Authenticity

First and foremost, it’s important to seek authenticity on both ends of an influencer marketing partnership. The right influencer for your brand will be someone who can authentically say that they like your product, and someone you can authentically say represents your brand at its best. This right match isn’t necessarily the most popular person on social media.

Going for popularity alone will mean that first and foremost, the influencer may not be interested in working with you because they’re simply too busy with bigger brands. If they are, they might only be interested for the sake of making some money. That lack of authentic enthusiasm will probably read for their audience, thereby making the campaign less effective.

It’s like that 80s movie trope of the nerd asking the most popular girl in school to prom and getting shot down, ignoring the nerdy girl who would be a much better match for him. Don’t seek out popular influencers just because they’re popular. Everyone wants to get popular influencers to work with them. If you don’t have an authentic connection to the influencer you choose, you won’t stand out and they probably won’t really care about your product.

Step 2: Seek Connection

Once you’ve decided to look for people who have a demonstrated interest in your niche, it will be a lot easier to form an informal, casual friendship first. It isn’t always the best idea to just start with a business offer right off the bat without even being on the influencer’s radar. Again, this is like asking out a total stranger. It’s probably going to be a waste of your time.

Instead, try to build up a rapport with this influencer. If it’s someone local, invite them to an event for your business, or show up to one of their (public) events. It’s fine to show an active interest, but know when to quit. If you aren’t getting anything back, move on to someone else.

Step 3: Seek to Personalize

The way you finally make contact to inquire about forming a business relationship matters too. Influencer engagement strategy doesn’t end when you’ve built up a relationship. After all, influencers won’t be impressed by a bland template email that seems like it could be for anyone.

Instead of sending out a form email, write up something personal. Start fresh every time. Express the reasons why this influencer in particular seems like a good fit for your brand. Mention any times you’ve met in person or interacted online, or any times you’ve seen the influencer mention your brand or use your products in their content. Double and triple check that you’ve spelled their name and any of their social handles correctly.

The Benefits of an Engagement Strategy

Proper influencer engagement strategy takes time, but it pays off in the long run. There are plenty of examples of influencers posting about random, weird or impersonal brand sponsorship offers. That’s not the kind of exposure you want.

YouTuber Safiya Nygaard, for example, made a video entitled “Trying Products That Asked to Sponsor Me (Not Sponsored)” in which she tested a bunch of products from brands that reached out to her. These products didn’t seem to make sense for her, a 20-something woman who focuses on fashion and beauty. More than 7 million people have watched this video, in which Nygaard was fair and honest, but mostly aiming for comedy at the sake of some seemingly clueless brands. While the featured brands may have seen a slight, temporary bump in sales, they didn’t benefit from influencer marketing the way they could have if they’d played their cards right.

Avoiding this fate is easy. Take time to engage before shooting your shot with an influencer. It’s worth it in the long run.