Remember back when you were a kid and your mom would ask, “If John jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” For many kids, the truth was, it kind of depended on how cool John was and his status in the school pecking order.

Things haven’t changed all that much. There are still people out there who have earned the credibility, authority and platform to influence others. On the simplest of scales, we call it word of mouth marketing. We all know the power of a referral, the power of getting your current customers to speak well of you, write a glowing review or advocate that their friends try your product or service.  

Word of mouth is incredibly effective, but it’s difficult to initiate or channel. Basically, you’re counting on people who like what you do to go out of their way to tell others about how much they love you. Odds are your regular customers have a small sphere of influence. While some might find a public platform like a review site, in most cases, their voice is going to have a limited reach.

Influencer marketing takes word of mouth to a whole different level. Rather than just reaching out to your existing customers, influencer marketing is when you identify leaders, experts or thought leaders with a large audience to drive your brand’s message to the larger market. Rather than marketing directly to a large group of consumers, you instead create a connection (paid or unpaid) with the influencers to get out the word for you.

Be careful not to confuse influencer marketing with celebrity endorsements. While there’s occasionally some overlap, usually influencers are experts in a specific category or area. They’ve established a high level of trust and ongoing communication with their audience, and the campaigns are designed to connect with their community.

Many influencers have developed a channel (or more than one) where they interact with their audience. For example, when Hallmark wanted to put the spotlight on their keepsake ornaments, they created campaigns with several family-friendly Instagram influencers and asked them to share family moments. They used the hashtag #KeepsakeIt and shared their family holiday traditions, along with a link for users to purchase one of their own keepsake ornaments.

Their community trusts that any endorsement the influencer offers is authentic because they’ve already built a relationship and the influencer isn’t going to risk that trust for a one-time payout. There is almost always some form of compensation in either the form of free products and services or an actual fee, but that doesn’t seem to bother the influencer’s audience.

To protect the relationship and to honor the FCC’s rules, the influencer must clearly state that they’re being compensated in some way but that doesn’t usually impact the audience’s perception of the endorsement.

When done well, influencer marketing allows a brand to partner with people who already have a long-established relationship with their ideal target customers. It’s about leveraging the connections, credibility and trust that the influencer has, which can jump-start the brand’s relationship with the audience. It’s like meeting one of your best friend’s friends. You assume that because your best friend likes them, you will too.

On the flip side, just like you wouldn’t knowingly bring a jerk to a party where all of your friends will be, in most cases influencers won’t agree to do anything with a product or service that they don’t genuinely believe in. That’s what protects the trust between the influencer and their audience. And that’s what makes influencer marketing so powerful.

In next week’s column we’ll explore how to create an authentic and successful influencer campaign and, even more important, how to find the perfect influencer partner.