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As online attention becomes scarce, marketers are now looking to influencers to create thought-provoking, resonant content for their content marketing and native advertising efforts.

So just how does one pick an influencer?

We’ve been working on this challenge for over three years. From early on we were convinced that creators with pre-existing audiences could create content with deeper credibility, resonance and authority.

And this, in turn, would lead to a better return on investment.

When we get it right…we really get it right.


But we didn’t find success the way most people assume we did: by recruiting authors with the largest social followings or influencer metrics.

Many platforms and tools (Buzzsumo, Traackr, LittleBird, Tracx, Klout, etc.) try to identify and quantify influencer metrics such as:

  • Relevance
  • Reach/Audience
  • Quality
  • Engagement
  • Activity

These metrics are typically derived by tracking the social web, and thus describe the relationship the influencer has with their own audience or following.

But they often turn out to be misleading:  as our data reveals, when a brand is working with an influencer the perceived potential (“I have 18 million followers!!!”, etc…) of the influencer to create great content and move an audience has surprisingly little to do with how well they perform at attracting an audience to their branded content.

How alignment matters

Imagine a triangle of relationships between Brands, Audiences, and Authors.

Most marketers will pay close attention to the relationship between the Brand and their target Audience, and the metrics that track this (quality,  voice, distribution).  The relationship between the Author and the Audience also gets some attention – marketers will typically choose among prospective authors based on these kinds of metrics, available in many of the influencer databases (reach, relevance, engagement, activity).

But neither of these relationships tend to drive predictable, superlative results.  We have found the most under-appreciated relationship is the third leg of the triangle: the relationship between the author and the brand, which are driven by both tangible rewards (fairness, upside) and intangible motivations (autonomy, reputation, and mastery).



Lets call this relationship “author alignment”.  When you get it right, you will occasionally get unicorns.

1. Searching for Unicorns

William Goldman once famously pointed out about the film industry that when it comes to picking hits or hit-makers in a creative business: “Nobody knows anything.” The corollary to this rule is that everyone in Hollywood believes they can create a hit.

And as with Hollywood so it goes with influencers. So what makes a particular Influencer a hit when they create content for brands?

Over the past three years we identified and recruited hundreds of influencers in both B2B and B2C verticals that we thought had the best chance of building an audience for our brands.

Each of these authors was a subject matter expert, with a minimum social media following of 5,000+, and a proven ability to craft compelling content.

In order to stimulate influencer motivation, in addition to paying them for their content, we provided our creators with the opportunity to earn royalties of $0.10 to $0.50 for unique visitors they moved to our branded sites over a three month window, with a cap on total performance.

The good news: while the traffic created often did not match the authors’ own expectations (they often believed they would move a bigger audience) it almost always significantly outperformed the brand’s non-influencer-sourced content in both quality and performance — often triple the traffic per post.  Given incentives, the average influencer moved an average of ~500 additional monthly visitors to their content.

But surprisingly, we found that our influencer-based traffic did not correlate well with what the databases said was the expected overall reach of these authors. Our “high reach” authors (with 50,000 to 100,000 followers) often performed similarly to authors at the 10,000 level, although they often sought higher compensation.

But we also noticed that a few authors within the “medium reach” spectrum regularly moved audiences nearly eight to ten times larger than the group, often earning the maximum payout per article.  These were apparently our Influencer Unicorns.

Graph: Distribution of Traffic/Article of Top Performing Influencers Correlated by Audience Size



Key Takeaway: High reach authors may not have the ability to move their own audiences, so brands should consider paying for the content separately from the audience, and compensating for audiences variably.

2. The Unicorn’s Secret: Permanence

Across a sample size of over 5000 articles by 500+ Movable Media authors with significantly varying levels of reach, most authors seem to find themselves stuck in a range of 300-1000 audience members that they attract through social channels and their own promotion.

Graph: Unique Visitors Moved by Authors Per Article


Most Movable Media influencers clustered around 500 paid uniques/article, earning ~$100 in additional royalties.

Unicorns moved about 10x that number to each article ($1000/article).  So we wondered: Why?

We analyzed the source of the audience that these unicorns were able to move. It became clear that one secret of the unicorns, the most effective and consistent influencers, was creating a kind of promotional permanence.


Widgets like this create promotional permanence on authors’ own sites


The secret to effectively moving an audience lay in home-grown content recommendations below their own content, and in the sidebars.  A few influencers, like Pitney Bowes’ Ajeet Khurana, supplemented their own already strong social media presence with permanent links and RSS feeds on their own pages that regularly drive audiences from their own blogs or sites.

Here is a breakdown of the top audience sources for 3 of our highest-performing influencer unicorns.  This link permanence (and presumably click-through) also drove significant search traffic.

Audience Sources for Top Influencer Content



While e-mail newsletters and social may have been effective at creating awareness, they were relatively ineffective at driving traffic to a branded content destination above and beyond a base level of around 500 uniques/month.

Key Takeaway: No surprise, but it is clear that “being huge on Twitter” doesn’t truly equate to influence. The ephemeral nature of social media, and the incentives of the social media platform owners, means that even the biggest social media audience doesn’t  translate into an audience for the content an influencer creates. Promotional permanence is what drives outsized results, which means alignment is critical.

3. How to Create a Unicorn: Combine Tangible and Intangible Incentives

Because performance is so hard to predict, creating alignment between the marketer and the influencer is critical.  Alignment is what gets the author excited enough about their work to put their name on it, claim authorship in Google, promote it to their own audience, and establish permanent links from their own owned media.

Alignment can be accomplished in a number of ways, but in general, the approaches fall into one of two buckets: Tangible financial rewards, or intangible incentives.

Influencer Incentives are usually treated as an “either/or” proposition.
Tangible Motivations Intangible Motivations
Are they paying me a fair rate for my content and my audience?

  • Relevance:  Does what I am creating matter to me and my audience?
  • Self Expression:  Am I expressing my own opinions or shaping them to fit the brands agenda?
  • Fun: Am I enjoying the creation process?


Potential Upside: (Key to Unicorns)
Do I care how my content performs over time, and am I rewarded for it financially?

  • Affinity: Do I want to be associated with this brand?
  • Relationship: Is this a one-off post or a long-term thing?
  • Promotion: Is the brand promoting my personal brand and reputation among my peers?

  • Feedback: Do I receive feedback on my content from my editor and peers?
  • Goals/Gamification: Do I feel like I am improving and/or meeting goals?
  • Shared Purpose: Do I feel like I am part of a team?

While occasionally these are combined, most marketers tend to focus exclusively on either one approach, or the other.

Intangible Only: The Price of Free

We have found that intangible incentives such as Autonomy, Reputation, and Mastery are fundamental to creating content that rises above the merely “good enough” for influencers.  First, these considerations affect the creator’s passion for the work. Secondly, they drive the recruiting relationship: whether the influencer wants work with a brand in the first place and at what price.  And finally, intangibles impact promotion: how well an influencer is willing to align themselves with the marketer’s goal of building an audience.

Thanks to the success of crowd-sourced sites like the Huffington Post, some marketers expect that they can persuade influencers to create great content with intangible incentives alone. (“What do they get? They get to be associated with our brand.”)

And many marketers who would be willing to provide tangible incentives have been convinced by Daniel Pink that the combination of financial and non-financial incentives is incompatible, or even works at cross purposes.

In practice, we have found that using influencers with built-in audiences to create content is a fundamentally different proposition than either work-for-hire freelancers/journalists (in which pay-only works) or the aspirational authorial model that drives sites like the Bleacher Report or the Huffington Post (in which unpaid works).

For influencer-based campaigns, we have found that “unpaid influencer” costs often outpace the costs of the compensated approach due to missed deadlines, recruiting challenges, concessions to author autonomy, and mismatched expectations about the value exchange..

Tangible Only: Money isn’t everything

On the other end of the spectrum, once tangible incentives are involved,  intangible incentives tend to be quickly forgotten.  Once a price is established, many marketers ignore intangibles completely, assuming the relationship more closely resembles the paid freelancer.

And brands will frequently presume that their sub $10,000 investment in an influencer buys an astonishing amount of loyalty.  A senior marketer at one of our clients memorably complained to us:  “We are paying these authors; so why aren’t they talking more about our products?”

Influencer-based content creation (as opposed to “brand journalism”) is also persistently challenged by its close association with the practice of “blogger outreach”, where some degree of “shilling” by bloggers was expected.

The Hybrid Model, plus upside

Ultimately we have found that combining tangible and intangible incentives leads to a result that delivers substantial incremental value (an audience worth $200-$400 per article) over 90% of the time.  Compensatory fairness is probably the most important tangible incentive for influencers: the base rate that is paid to the creator for their time and effort.   Just as first-time published book authors will focus on the size of their advance, most digital authors are focused on their fixed compensation for their time.

But Unicorns seem uniquely motivated by potential upside.  Moreover, once that upside has been established, Unicorns tend to promote their content even more effectively, creating escalating growth until they start to reach their performance caps of thousands of dollars in upside. Every one of our unicorns doubled their per article traffic after three months, and after three more months, doubled it again.

Finally, while variable compensation enables Unicorns, it also solves another problem: it allows marketers to mitigate the risks of *not* finding a unicorn.   Try as we might to find them, Unicorns will always be rare.

Key Takeaway: Crafting an influencer program that fails to account for intangible incentives is likely doomed to failure – or low ROI. A Maximize your chances of success by building a program that properly leverages both tangible and intangible incentives to align influencers with your brand. Upside isn’t necessary for many influencers, but it appears critical for Unicorns.

PS. We hope that was helpful.   If you haven’t figured it out, this is our version of a Content Gateway for Movable Media. If you are wondering what that is, read this piece.   We hope we earned the right to sell to you a little.

Want to discuss how to apply these takeaways to your marketing efforts to recruit influencers with audiences to create content?
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  • http://www.optimizesbiz.com Andrew McIntosh CPA

    A real interesting read: thanks for sharing some great insights and the numbers behind them.

  • CredSpark

    Great post, guys – there’s nothing more persuasive than supporting your insights with your own data.

  • http://www.CarriBugbee.com/ Carri Bugbee

    Excellent post. It’s always great to see results based on data instead of adecdotes.

  • Autumn

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read on the influencer economy. Excellent job. Yes, you earned the right to sell me.

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