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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