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For many years, celebrities have been endorsing products and influencing consumer purchasing decisions. However, over the past decade many brands have recognised the value and opportunity that lies in influencer marketing. In fact, influencer marketing has become so popular that 93% of marketers were using it in 2019, according to a study by SocialPubli.

When brands first started collaborating with social media users to raise awareness of products and services, it was small-fry in comparison to other marketing techniques. But today influencer marketing has grown into an industry worth billions, and due to the shift to ecommerce and digital media because of COVID-19, influencer marketing in particular has become a critical channel for brands looking drive awareness and increase sales in a time of crisis.

A consumer trust panel by ExpertVoice in 2018 showed that only 4% of people trust celebrity endorsements. Instead, they seek recommendations from people who are like them; who have credible experience and knowledge; and who genuinely believe in the brands they’re promoting.

It’s all about social proof. We want to know that something is worth investing our money and time in — and if we see someone we respect and relate to using that thing, we believe it’d probably work for us, too. Credible expertise certainly works in the influencer industry, but so does simply being a real human being. Sharing honest and informative content, and being transparent about who you are and what you believe in, are the building blocks of influencing.

In 2019, a survey by influencer marketing agency Mediakix found that 80% of marketing professionals find influencer marketing effective, and almost two thirds have increased their influencer budgets this year.

The survey also found that as the social media marketing landscape evolves, with changes in influencer tiers, nano-influencers or micro-influencers are becoming more popular among brands of all sizes. Generally agreed to be influencers with between 1 and 10k followers, nano-influencers offer a highly focused and engaged audience within their niche. This is more valuable than ever for brands that increasingly favor organic and relevant connections over high-volume reach. In the State of Influencer Marketing 2020 Report, Linqia found that 77% of the marketers surveyed expressed interest in working with micro-influencers.

What this means for you is that you don’t have to build a huge following before you can begin shaping your influencer career. With a strong niche and clear strategy, you could start collaborating with brands with as little as a thousand followers. Then you’ll be perfectly placed to build your personal brand and progress up the tiers to micro influencer, mid-tier influencer, and beyond!

Here, we share 10 key steps to become a thriving social media influencer. Before we get into it, let’s take a quick look at two influencers who are currently at the top of their industries. Their success could help to inspire your own!

What Makes a Successful Influencer: Two Case Studies

Name: Rachel Brathen, aka Yoga_Girl

Main social media platforms: Instagram, Facebook, YouTube

Industry: Wellness

Niche: Yoga, self love and philanthropy

Key to Success: Rachel Brathen’s Instagram following began to grow exponentially when she changed her posting style and began to share honest, heartfelt and vulnerable captions with her photographs. This was inspired by a truly profound experience in her life — the death of a close friend.

She shared her journey through grief in a raw and uncensored way with her followers, and in doing so made herself relatable, authentic, and loved. Brathen is an important example of the way that transparency and real human experience can transcend the impersonality of an online experience; and her honest inspires genuine trust from her 2 million strong audience.

Name: Huda Kattan

Main social media platforms: Instagram, YouTube, TikTok

Industry: Beauty

Niche: Middle Eastern Beauty

Key to Success: US born with Iraqi parents, Huda Kattan attended one of the world’s leading makeup schools, and launched the beauty brand Huda Beauty with her sisters. She used her industry expertise and credibility to build a huge social media following, starting with a simple blog — and now has 1.5 million followers on Instagram and 1.8 million on YouTube.

Kattan noticed a gap in the market for Middle Eastern beauty bloggers, and moved to Dubai to build a more targeted audience. Her success is linked to her insight into beauty in the Middle East, but she is popular worldwide for her honest and unashamed approach, with one of her most popular videos titled Why Shaving Your Face is Awesome!

What Do These Case Studies Tell Us?

Both Brathen and Kattan tapped into their own personalities to connect with their ideal followers. They stepped away from social media norms and actively share who they are, what they believe in, and give a behind-the-scenes look at their own lives. They prove that you don’t have to be a perfect person to be a successful influencer — but you need to know who you are and what you have to say.

Read on to find out how to become an influencer yourself. You don’t have to be famous, and you don’t have to sell your soul, either. Social media influencing can be a fulfilling and financially rewarding career and it’s possible for anyone who puts in the work.

1. What’s Your Niche?

When you’re beginning your journey as a social media influencer, it’s crucial to identify your niche and understand the conversations you’re entering into. Your niche will set you apart from other influencers, and place you firmly within your chosen industry.

Your niche is closely related to your target audience. Who is your content for? What value do they get from it? What are their personal desires, challenges, goals, fears and hopes?

For example, you could be an influencer within the beauty industry, with a cruelty-free makeup niche and a target audience of socially conscious and/or vegan Millennial and Gen Z women.

Dig deep, and get specific! Instead of going for the most obvious niche and audience for you right away, take the time to figure out where you as an individual can have the biggest impact.

2. How Can You Approach It Differently?

Now that you’ve clarified your influencer niche, you can think about how to stand out from the crowd. Start with value: what benefits can you provide to your audience?

Some of the most innovative people on the planet, including Elon Musk, take an unusual approach to decision making. Instead of doing things because other people do them or say they’re a good idea, these innovators look directly at the different elements available to them, and play with different ways of putting those elements together to achieve a result. In other words, they don’t follow the status quo.

You, too, can dedicate yourself to exploring your niche with a curious and creative mind. It’s important to know what other influencers in your field are doing, of course — but then think about how you could have a greater impact by doing things differently.

Look at the fundamental elements available to you. They might include:

  • the content formats you have (i.e. photography, video, audio)
  • the platforms available for you to publish content on
  • your existing knowledge, experience and credentials
  • learning opportunities to expand your knowledge
  • your unique insight into your niche
  • your passion — the thing you really believe in, and want to share with others
  • what your audience needs or wants

Make a comprehensive list of elements and then start playing. Experiment with different ways of approaching your niche and find an angle.

3. Which Social Media Platform Is Right For You?

There are a growing number of social media channels available to new influencers. To become a successful influencer, you’ll need to choose the right one for your niche and your audience.

The first question is where does your target audience hang out online right now? Head there!

In 2019, Instagram and LinkedIn both have a growing number of users every month. Facebook and Twitter are still popular; and up-and-coming new platforms include TikTok and Twitch.

For influencers, Instagram is currently king. A staggering 93% of social media influencers used Instagram as their primary platform in 2018. Instagram is particularly suited to beauty, fashion and lifestyle influencers.

Until recently, LinkedIn wasn’t often included in influencer focused content. But LinkedIn influencers, more frequently called Thought Leaders, do very well on the platform. They tend to have credible expertise and offline professional experience in their industries. Influencers with a niche in technology, careers, B2B, coaching or professional development are most likely to click with LinkedIn’s professional vibe.

TikTok is a short-form video platform which has grown rapidly since 2018, with 60% of its users under 30 years old. Researchers expect a growing number of brands to focus their Gen Z marketing efforts on TikTok in the coming months, so it could be the perfect platform for a new influencer to make a splash.

And Twitch is a social media platform popular with gamers — but non-gaming brands are just beginning to test out influencer marketing on Twitch as well, with significant success.

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A post shared by HUDA KATTAN (@hudabeauty)

4. Research Your Niche

Do your research. Find out where other influencers in your niche are publishing their content, and make sure that your target demographic is present on your chosen platform. BuzzSumo allows you to search for targeted keywords, and comes up with results including what topics other influencers have covered, and where they shared that content.

The type of content you want to make also plays a part in your choice of platform. You can post almost anything on Facebook; LinkedIn is well suited to long-form blog posts and info pieces; Twitter gives you 140 precious characters per post; and Instagram supports images, captions, and videos.

5. Design Your Content Strategy

As an influencer, your content is your product. It’s what draws people in, adds something to their lives, and creates a space in which brands can confidently invest — safe in the knowledge that your audience is engaged with you, and interested in what you have to say.

So developing an effective content strategy is vital to your influencing role. Posting unrelated content at random won’t cut it; you need to know what your message is, who you’re trying to reach, and how you’re going to do it. By putting a strategy in place you’ll build trust with your followers; they’ll know that what you post is interesting to them, and they’ll make an effort to keep up with your posts.

In general, a balance of informative and personal content allows you to communicate your broader message — and communicate information about the brands you’re collaborating with — while keeping you relatable to your audience. They need to know you as a human, not just as a salesperson.

As we saw in the Rachel Brathen case study, honesty is a powerful way to connect with an audience and establish a loyal base of followers. Sharing personal stories, emotions and insights makes you real, and speaks to followers who may relate to your experience and feel validated.

Rather than placing yourself in competition with other influencers in your niche, aim to build collaborative relationships with them. You can start by sharing content they’ve published, when it’s relevant to your audience. They’ll notice — and then you can get in touch and ask them to support you in the same way later on.

Tools like Google related keywords (the search suggestions that appear at the bottom of the page when you Google anything); Answer the Public; and Quora are great places to start if you’re searching for content inspiration. You can find common questions related to your niche and keywords, and then figure out how to creatively answer those questions for your followers.

Video tutorials are an excellent inclusion in content strategy development. They give your followers content that enriches their lives, especially if you’re in a niche that lends itself well to how-to style offerings. They also allow you to show your audience how to use products that brands want to promote and so convert to sales.

6. It’s Time! Put Yourself Out There

With a solid content strategy in place, you can begin working to ensure that as many of your target audience as possible see your posts. Ideally, they not only view your content, but also engage with it; with ‘likes’, comments and shares.

This handy article lays out a breakdown of the best days and times to post on different social media platforms, for maximum reach and engagement. But over time you’ll be able to gather more specific data related to your own audience — see point 9 for more on this.

When you’re posting across different social media channels (we recommend using no more than three, to avoid overwhelm), make sure you customize every post for those different platforms. Your posts on Instagram will be slightly different from your posts on Facebook, for example; and this makes your content feel more authentic.

No matter what type of content you’re creating, consistency is essential. Some experts argue that consistency is even more important than quality when it comes to social media success — your followers rely on you to deliver regular content that appeals to them, otherwise they’re likely to unfollow you or ignore your posts. Imagine uploading a new video and knowing that hundreds of followers were checking their phones, just waiting to enjoy your fresh content. The only way to achieve that is to stick to a regular posting schedule.

If other commitments get in the way of consistent posting, don’t worry; you can use tools such as HubSpot or eClincher to schedule and manage your content.

7. How Do You Expand Your Reach?

Maintain a steady dedication to expanding your follower base and building your credibility. Start this right at the beginning of your social media journey, and keep going — there are always new opportunities to connect with people who’ll become loyal followers, and brands that will become frequent collaborators.

A vast number of influencers use blogging to share deep dives into the topics they focus on in their social media content. A personal blog gives you a wonderful space to use however you wish; to share detailed articles and opinion pieces, and establish yourself as an authority in your field. Building your own blog also means you have an independently hosted body of content which would not be affected by any changes or restrictions that a social media platform might apply to your account.

But you can also guest post on other peoples’ blogs; this is an effective way to create a web of links back to your own content all over the internet. Try contacting brands you’d like to work with and pitching a guest post idea for their blogs, and get in touch with other relevant who run their own popular blogs.

Medium is a respected online publishing platform that welcomes contributions from thought leaders, experts and writers. When you publish blog posts on this platform you’ll immediately tap into their large readership, and your articles will appear in the feeds of Medium users who share interests with you.

Don’t disregard the potential of in-person events to grow your following. Attend social media networking events and press meetings in your area to meet people who might be interested in what you’re doing. And consider running events for your followers yourself — popular YouTubers often user Meetup to connect face-to-face with their subscribers.

8. Engage!

Never ignore your followers. The more followers you have, the harder this becomes; but as much as you can, take the time to acknowledge comments, reply to questions, and respond to direct messages. Think of it as part of your job and schedule in regular time to interact with your crowd.

In the early stages of building your follower base it’s great to like and comment on your followers’ own social media posts, too. Support them and they will support you.

When it comes to negative comments, take the high road. It’s good to engage, but remain professional and keep your responses aligned with your wider message and personal brand image. Be a human, stand up for what you believe in, and don’t rise to the bait of trolls.

9. Learn How To Evaluate Your Progress

Lots of new influencers are daunted by terms like ‘insights and analytics’ — and so they choose to ignore them. But learning how to evaluate your progress and identify what is and isn’t working for you is really important if you want to successful build your personal brand.

All professional brand marketers will want to see your analytics to find out whether you’re a good fit for them. Numbers matter, and brands won’t invest their money in you without evidence that you can provide a good return on investment (ROI).

The social media platforms you use will give you a few useful tools to understand your audience and progress; such as demographics, reach, and engagement percentages that lay out the growth of your follower base. You’ll also be able to see which of your posts receive the most engagement.

Over time, you’ll be able to collect stats which show when your followers are most engaged. This will enable you to target your posts on specific days and times for maximum impact.

Some social media management tools such as Hootsuite include detailed analytics reports which give you a more professional edge when it comes to getting your head around your stats. Don’t be scared! These tools are straightforward when you take the time to get your head around them, and the benefits far outweigh the effort.

With reliable insights into your audience, the impact of each of your posts or content categories, and the growth of your following over time, you’ll be able to effectively tailor your content strategy for continued growth.

10. Stay Ahead Of The Curve

All social media platforms are constantly evolving and updating their user tools, terms and conditions, and algorithms. Part of your job when you become a social media influencer is to stay ahead of the curve; keep up to date with changes on the platforms you use, and learn about how those changes might affect your content and followers.

Algorithm changes can drastically affect how likely it is that followers will actually see your posts. So knowing how to adapt to those changes and ensure your content is viewed is crucial.

As an influencer, you also collaborate with brands on a professional basis. This means that you’ll need to be registered to receive income and pay tax — the requirements and process are different depending on your country, and it’s always a good idea to check in with an account to make sure you’re following correct procedure.

Depending on where you live, your work as a marketing professional will be regulated by a trade commission. In America, for example, you’ll be governed by the guidelines and policies of the FTC. You have a responsibility to uphold national, and sometimes international policy on marketing practices, and to communicate clearly with the brands you work with if you have any concerns about what they’re asking you to do.

Use your intuition. It takes time to develop your senses when it comes to knowing whether a collaboration is right for you or not. But trust your instincts, and if a brand makes you feel uncomfortable, has one-sided contractual terms, or doesn’t offer payment for your work? Walk away.

Good luck, future influencer!