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Content Marketing Strategy: How to Engage Influencers in Your Industry

Spheres on scalesAs of February 2013, the Content Marketing Institute site was seeing an average of 130,000 unique visitors per month, almost 300,000 page views, and over 40,000 email newsletter subscribers (both daily and weekly). In each category, this is pretty much double our performance from 2012, and almost all of our revenue at CMI, in one way or another, can be traced initially to a CMI blog post.

Our daily blog content deserves the lion’s share of credit for our results. For the past year, we have published one blog post per day, seven days a week, every day of the year. That’s 365 total pieces of content — and 300 of those pieces of content have come from our community.

Going back in time

In May of 2010, we had the crazy idea of launching CMI. With minimal resources and budget, we looked at all our available options to create content. After examining the competitive landscape and audience need (our audience is marketing managers and directors in mostly enterprise organizations), we believed there was an opportunity for daily, instructional posts about the practice of content marketing.

We started with a budget of $6,000 per month to cover five posts per week (we didn’t start weekend posting until 2012). Those funds needed to cover raw content costs, editing costs, proofreading, uploading into our WordPress content management system, and any images for individual posts. It goes without saying, but it wasn’t much to work with.

The only feasible way we (Michele Linn — our Content Director — and I) thought we could make this work was to reach out to external experts for contributions (without paying them) in exchange for promoting them on our site.

The influencer list

Luckily, we had a head start with a strategic influencer list. We defined influencers as bloggers, competitors, or media organizations that were creating content of interest to our target audience. We actually rated our influencer list quarterly in something called the Top 42 Content Marketing Blogs.

Initially, this list was made up of influencers we found by tracking keywords (like “content marketing”) in Google Alerts, authors in industry trade publications, those who were talking about the topic on Twitter, and other bloggers that we just found interesting. Although the main list included 42 people, there was a secondary database of more than 300 people whom we tracked in one way or another.

Getting the attention of influencers

As influencers, these people are fairly important to our industry. They generally have “real” jobs, and are also extremely active on social networks, spending their time sharing content and blogging. Getting on their radar is not easy, so to get their attention, we gave away “content gifts.” We did this in a few different ways:

Social Media 4-1-1: Originally coined by Andrew Davis, author of Brandscaping, Social Media 4-1-1 is a sharing system that enables a company to get greater visibility with social influencers. Here’s how it works:

For every six pieces of content shared via social media (think Twitter for example):

  • Four should be pieces of content from your influencer target that are also relevant to your audience. This means that 67 percent of the time you are sharing content that is not yours, and calling attention to content from your influencer group.
  • One piece should be original, educational content that you have created.
  • One piece should be sales-related — like a coupon, product notice, press release, or some other piece of content that no one will likely pay attention to.

While the numbers don’t have to be exact, it’s the philosophy that makes this work. When you share influencer content, they notice. And you share this content without asking for anything in return (so that when you do need something someday, those influencers are more likely to say yes).

Big content gifts: As we were tracking our “top content marketing bloggers” list, we decided that we could get better visibility with influencers by actually ranking the influencers and sharing it out to the masses. This was an incredible success.

We hired an outside research expert to put together a methodology of how to rank the top bloggers, looking at areas like consistency, style, helpfulness, originality, and Google Pagerank. Then, each quarter, we would publicize this list, showcase the top 10, send out a press release, and try to blow it out across the industry. Needless to say, the top 10 (as well as the honored top 42) loved the list. Not only did most of this influencer group share the list with their audiences, approximately half of the top 42 influencers placed our widget (with their personal rank) on their home pages, linking back to our site. So not only did we earn a chance to build long-term relationships with these influencers, we received credible links and traffic, as well.

In addition to the top bloggers list, we started to put together large educational eBooks showcasing the influencers’ work. For example, in 2009, and again in 2011, we launched the Content Marketing Playbook. The Playbook included over 50 case studies about content marketing, with many coming directly from our influencers — incidentally, we made sure to note in the Playbook which examples came from which influencers.

When we released the Playbook and let the influencers know about it, those we highlighted eagerly shared the content with their audiences.

Back to the blog

As we didn’t have the resources to pay for raw, educational content about content marketing, we knew exactly where we needed to turn: our influencers. When we announced the original CMI blog, the first group we reached out to was our database of social influencers. Dozens of these influencers were more than happy to help us out, as we had been promoting them for years without ever asking for anything in return.

Michele Linn served as our Content Editor, organizing the editorial calendar and discussing potential topics with each of the influencers. It was Michele’s job to heavily edit the influencer content we received. Yes, most of them were already pretty decent writers, but we wanted their content to really shine. Why? We believed that if we presented them as true rock stars on our site, with amazingly helpful content, the influencers would be more likely to share the content with their audiences. This was critical because, at the time, we had very little reach and following online… we needed to leverage their networks in order for us to build our network. (For more on how this works, see this post on Scott Stratten’s Third Circle of Sharing.)

From the amount of social sharing done by our network of influencers, we started to see positive traffic patterns almost immediately. That, in turn, led to more social sharing… and some amazing SEO results. The CMI blog platform has enabled us to launch multiple events, a magazine, two webinars per month, and every other revenue-generating activity we have.

My hope is that you can steal this idea for your business and make it work for you. Good luck!

Looking for more guidance on influencer marketing? Download our complete toolkit, Influencer Marketing: The Latest Strategies, Templates, and Tools, for a simple 8-step process – including templates.

Cover image via Bigstock.