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The Top 3 Ways to Collaborate with Influencers




Andy Crestodina: We're live. I have the pleasure this morning to have this conversation with Steve Rayson. Steve, it's good to see you.

Steve Rayson: Good to see you.

Andy Crestodina: This is a universal topic today. I can't think of a brand that won't get something out of this. Collaboration, collaborative content, influence marketing.

Steve Rayson: Yeah. I hope we can share some good ideas and things,  and hopefully spark some ideas for other people.

Andy Crestodina: The idea of collaboration makes you more efficient and effective in your marketing. Speaking to you specifically, it's fun because we're going to multiply influencer marketing collaboration by this other amazing tactic; research.

Thanks everyone who's joined us so far. Most of you know Steve is a serial entrepreneur.

Steve Rayson: Yeah, I've done a few companies in the past. My immediate ones, prior to BuzzSumo, were e-learning companies, where we focused a lot on content because we were building really interactive content; on-screen experiences.

When you're building learning content it's really hard to keep the learners engaged. Our focus all the time was, how do we keep the learners engaged with this content?

Andy Crestodina: What you just mentioned is important too. The tactic we're discussing today, which is the collaborative content approach to influencer marketing is also important for engagement. If your content mix is just one blog post after another; it’s just blogging. There's a lot more to content marketing than just blogging, so we're going into the specifics about that.

Influencer Marketing: Different Levels

Steve Rayson: I think influencer marketing works at different levels as well. I mean people think BuzzSumo's been around a long time, but we actually didn't legally form the company until March 2014. We never paid an influencer for anything. I think it can work at lots of levels really. You don't have to go and buy big influencers. Ours was building relationships with influencers on literally zero budget.

Andy Crestodina: Another important point about this tactic.  We're going to be going into ways to find and collaborate with people who are thrilled to collaborate with anybody, not just the famous celebrities, but micro-influencers. This tactic can improve the engagement, quality, and reach of your content.

It's like every channel has the paid and the organic aspect. There's social organic reach, and social paid. Influencer marketing maybe is the same. There's a big paid category in influencer marketing where Instagram celebrities are cashing checks to put a product in a picture. What we're talking about today is through organic, the content piece that goes with influencer marketing.

Steve Rayson: It'd be good to talk it through.

Top 3 Ways to Collaborate with Influencers

Andy Crestodina: If I distilled everything that I know about content, 18 years of search, and 10 years of content marketing, I would include collaborative content marketing in it.

Here are my top three ways to collaborate using content with influencers. Number one, as you are creating a piece, don't just go it alone. Reach out to someone who is relevant on that topic, and ask them for a contributor quote. Journalists would never publish an article without including a source, why would the content marketer or blogger publish a blog post without including a contributor?

Second, the expert interview roundup. I'm going to ask Steve, and I'd like to hear from all of you, whether you think that this one has been overdone? Of course, overdone is relevant to the category.

Third, the interview; the research collaboration, when you go farther into a bigger relationship with an influencer, an influential brand.  This is where Steve's going to share some of his expertise and experience.

How to do a contributor quote

Here's how I do the contributor quote. I'm writing an article for example on conversion optimization. I know Jen is an expert at conversion optimization. So I reach out, and say, "Jen, would you like to contribute to this piece?"

Jen, even though I don't know her well, maybe interacted a little bit on social media, says, "Yes, sure, happy to contribute." And sends me a short quote. The quote was amazing, and I am thrilled to include it. So I thank her and I will inform her when the piece goes live.

Her (Jen’s) insight is brilliant. She says, "Don't just put a testimonial into your sales pages, your program pages, your services, your products, but put a headline above the testimonial." Now, whenever we make testimonials we include the five juiciest, most effective, most powerful words from that testimonial as a mini-headline. This became my framework for testimonials, which you can steal.

Steve Rayson: I'm going to steal this.

Andy Crestodina: Steal it. Jen learned this from experts as well. It's the reason why Amazon makes you write a headline for your reviews, it's to increase the visual prominence of the most telling piece of the evidence. It makes that thing more likely to be read. The power of sub-heads; it's universal in marketing.

Networking and Content Reach

Another benefit is that Jen has now invested in my piece. Blogger A goes it alone, they're just doing it solo. Blogger B is socializing the topic, including people in the article, putting in the contributor quotes. These two pieces go live, who do you think gets greater social shares? Who do you think gets a greater audience?

When you put people into something, they're very likely to feel invested and to share it. Not everyone seems to know that content optimized for social media includes people. Bottom line, there better be more than zero people waiting for your article to go live.

So an ally in creating content is an ally in promoting content. Build a mini army behind your content by including them in it. Check out your report in Google Analytics afterwards, you'll see that it will spike right during these collaborations.

If you're not making friends, you're doing it wrong. I think this is what digital's about. It's about friendship. We can call it influencer marketing, I'm going to call it friendship marketing, or just friendship in general. I hope that that kind of sets the tone here a little bit.

I'd like to start the conversation with you, Steve. First, did that resonate? Anything there that you connected with especially or felt strongly about?

Never Publish Content Alone

Steve Rayson: Yes, I think, never publish alone. When you publish a piece of content you need other people waiting to help share it and promote it. The median number of shares a post gets is four. It's really very low. So you've got to help promote your content, and influencers are key to helping that reach.

You've got to be lining up with people and getting them engaged with your content. You can do that in lots of ways, as you say. You can mention them in your content, you can ask for a contributor quote. I do think some of the expert roundups are being a bit overdone.

The more you talk with other people, the more you socialize, the more you understand and get different perspectives. I think that's another way that you can involve people. You don't just have to say, "Can you give me a quote?" It can be, "I've done this research, I'm finding this trend, what do you think about it? What's happening with you?"

Understanding Your Audience

To me, the most important thing about influencer marketing is understanding your audience. So before you can work out who the influencers are, you need to know who your audience is. Then you can work backwards, to who do they respect? Who do they like? What blogs do they read? What podcasts do they listen to? Once you understand all those things about your audience, I don't think it's so difficult to think about the influencers I can reach out to.

It would be fantastic to have Beyonce say, "BuzzSumo is a fantastic tool." But I don't think her audience is that interested in content marketing. So it's not going to be that helpful to me.

Andy Crestodina: I think so too. Because if you do even a little bit of thinking about audience research or personas, and you conclude my audience spends time in these places, they read these things, they listen to these people, they don't have to be celebrities, right?

Steve Rayson: No, absolutely not.


Andy Crestodina: I'd like to introduce this concept of the micro-influencer. If you go down into a niche, you're going to find people that are highly influential over your audience, potentially, that may have relatively small followings, or maybe just they have the very loyal blog readers; they have the high engagement. I'm really interested in the distinction between search and social, as visitors intent and sources of traffic, and what's the difference.

Tell me if you'd agree with this statement. If your goal is search, the ideal collaborator is someone who writes for a high authority blog, high demand score blog, or someone who is just a deep, deep expert in the topic. But if your goal is social, maybe someone who just does have a large social following might help you meet your goals.

Steve Rayson: I would agree with the general split. I think an influencer is not necessarily someone with lots of followers, I think we've got to try and get away from that. To me it's about, do they have an engaged audience that matters to you?

Amplifying Content by Building Backlinks

So even someone with a lot of followers, they've still got to have an audience that's relevant to you. What are you using an influencer for? I think about it in the context of amplifying my content.

Content gets amplified in only a limited number of ways. People share it, people recommend it, people link to it. Links are so important when it comes to SEO.

But getting links is really tough. So if you can build relationships with those people who are going to link to your content, that's incredibly powerful, it's worth a lot of shares.

Andy Crestodina: It's one of the best questions in marketing. Why do people link to things?

You need two things: one - you have to have something worth linking too. Publish original research; it's overwhelmingly powerful as a source and has the ability to attract links.

The second thing is, it has to be visible to people who create links. So if you try to answer the question, “how do I get influencers to know about my link-worthy content?”, you answer that question through collaboration. How do you get Anne Handley to know about your article? You put her in it.

Providing the Best Answer

Steve Rayson: We know a lot about the types of content that get links. It's normally because it's authoritative in some way, so you need to build an authoritative blog, an authoritative site. We know what posts get lots of links; the Wikipedia pages, the “what is bitcoin?” pages. But you also have to be one of the most comprehensive and authoritative answers, because there'll be lots of posts on “what is bitcoin?”

Statistical posts get a lot of links. You need to be the best answer. If you're writing a post on what is content marketing, I think you can forget it because the Content Marketing Institute one is so strong at the top of Google, you're not going to dislodge that one. But you could then pick a sub-niche or something. Answer a question, but be the best answer to that question.

Andy Crestodina: People link to something that supports the claim that they're making or the piece that they're working on. So when you answer a question, if it's a question that is important in that field, you may find that you become the first slide in a bunch of people's presentations.

Getting Influencers to Link to You

Greg Mischio messaged a question. "How do you get links, not just quotes? How do you take this from just collaborating with an influencer to actually triggering the action that might make this influencer link back to you?”

First of course, if it's a piece that answers questions or supplies data, very helpful. If you truly become friends with someone who creates content, you can get links by simply asking for them.

Steve Rayson: Yeah, if you build friends and relationships, people want to help you. People are keen to help you, I think, and to reciprocate, so that is a way of getting links.

The other form of content I think gets links from my research is controversial content. You have to be careful with controversial content, but I know when Mark Schaefer wrote this thing about content shock, and that content marketing's not sustainable; because it was an interesting debate, lots of people linked to the article. So when people talk about content shock, they still link to Mark's article. That got a lot of links. I think controversial content can work well.

We did an analysis of newspaper content, and we looked at the opinion content and then the other content. The opinion content got far more links than the general news content, I mean far more links. So that was interesting. But links are just one element of the influencer marketing I think.

Andy Crestodina: If you're working with an influencer, or you're trying to make a piece that will elicit emotion, I think one of the triggers can be to talk about the thing that no one else is talking about. What question in your industry are people afraid to answer?

How to do Influencer Outreach

I want to touch on the friendship part. What do you think about offline networking?

Steve Rayson: Yeah, I personally think it's fairly close to essential. Once you've mapped your landscape, and you know the influencer podcasts your audience listen to, I think there is a question of how you outreach to them.

I think there are lots of ways to do that, I think you can mention them in your content, you can recommend them as services. You can share the content they publish. There are lots of things that you can do to support them. I think that's where you should start with an influencer. Not, how can they support me, how can I support them?

I try to do all of those things, and it takes time to build a relationship with influencers, just as it takes time to build a friendship. But for me, once I've sort of worked out people, I want to meet with them in person.

So I go to conferences to meet them. I think the human element really matters because once you've had the cup of coffee or a drink, it's a slightly different relationship. It can then go back online, but I think the human element's really important. You can use conferences as a way of doing that.

Andy Crestodina: I think it's hard because we have a global audience here in SEMrush, and there are people who don't have that opportunity to get on a plane and connect with the influencers over their audience sometimes. I think that you can make strong friendships online, but we want to max out the quality of the connection to at least Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, whatever your tool is.

Steve Rayson: Yeah, I think so. As I said, there are a lot of ways you can reach out. You can ask for a contribution, et cetera. You can ask them to be interviewed for a podcast.

Andy Crestodina: For influencer marketing, networking, collaboration, friendship,  if possible, go to events. If possible, create an event.

Basically make a list of the people that you really, really want to get to know better. If it's a few of them, form a mastermind group. If it's a dozen or more, form a Slack group.

Steve Rayson: Yeah, and I think it doesn't have to be the really big influencers to get them involved in those sorts of groups.

Provide Value to People

People say well it's okay for you Steve or Andy, someone might join your group on analytics, because you're known for analytics. But for me, when we started, I wasn't known in social media. So I had to make friends with people.

I just tried to just offer as much as I can. I offered data to loads of people. Research positions you as an authority. Maybe you have case studies, or data, or whatever it happens to be that you can share with an influencer, which is useful to them.

So it's not thinking about what can they do for you. If you start the other way round, it's a lot easier. How do I help them? What are they trying to do? I do think that's where we need to start.

Andy Crestodina: I'm going to recommend against the cold email. Which is so overdone, and just seems so like such a long-shot. I'm not sure what tools people are using to send these, but that cold email of, "Hey, will you link to my article?"

Steve Rayson: Yeah, well that must hardly ever work. I think there's a context in which you can do that. At BuzzSumo we have the little tool which we can tell when people mention you, but don't link to you.

So we have an alert system at BuzzSumo, so when people mention BuzzSumo but don't link to us, we look at the domain authority. The ones with the domain authority above 50 on Moz ranking, we will then write to those people and say, "Fantastic that you mentioned us, would you mind linking?" I think that can work. Linking is hard. You have to build a relationship before you ask for something, I think.

I'd start, by thinking about what can you do for the influencer?     I think webinars work well, I think podcasts can work well. There are so many ways you can do joint collaborations with people. It doesn't have to necessarily be just blog content. I think collaboration is so much more powerful than “will you link to my post?”

Andy Crestodina: Oh yeah, that's a waste of time.

Starting Out with Influencer Marketing

So Marcella asks this question. “This all works when you already have a name and an audience, what about when you're smaller and just starting out?”

Don't aim too high, at first anyway. Nobody knew me when I started reaching out to write guest posts for all these different blogs. I set a goal one year to be a guest blogger on all these different platforms, and I worked very hard to build relationships with editors, to be able to submit and get my content accepted.

So it was a slow process of networking, where you're going to give before you expect to get. If you want LinkedIn recommendations, you should be giving people LinkedIn recommendations. If you want to be endorsed, give people endorsements, etc.

Steve Rayson: Yeah, it's all kind of engaging them in conversation I think, promoting them. It is hard when you start out. The thing that I did, is I wrote a review of a tool.  I think it might have been SproutSocial. I wrote a long review of the tool. I sent it to Social Media Today, which is one of the big sites.

It's not as big as the Social Media Examiner is, but I wrote to them and said, "I really like tools, I'm a bit geeky. Here's a review, would you be interested in running reviews?" They said yeah, and I said, "Actually I could do reviews of tools."

So on Social Media Today, every week they let me write a review of a tool. Which gave me a good insight into the market, which is what I was trying to get, to understand how BuzzSumo would fit. I was doing a lot of work, unpaid of course, a lot of work, took me a day or two a week to do those reviews, to get inside the tools, to write a good review, et cetera.

They got good content out of it. So they got good content for nothing from a writer. That was just the way that I did it.  

Andy Crestodina: Yeah, I mean, you're solving a problem for them. They have an audience, they need content. That's actually what influencer marketing really is. One side provides the value in content, the other side provides the value in the audience. Any example of influencer marketing is a combination of quality content, with exposure. When these two meet, everyone gets value.

Reach out to Journalists

Steve Rayson: Exactly. I would think about who are influencers as well, there are some experts in your space, there may be analysts in your space. I would say there are obviously bloggers, but don't forget journalists.

They can sometimes get me a link, which is fantastic. But what I'm giving them is research and data. Saying if you're working on a story about X and you need data about this, use it.

We've built a great relationship with BuzzFeed where they're talking about fake news. We're saying we can give you all the data on how many shares. So they use us as a reference source. If you go to the BuzzFeed fake news articles, they say data from BuzzSumo and there's a link to us. A link from BuzzFeed, fantastic.

So we're providing data for nothing. So think about what they need. In the case of junior journalists they want stories, they want data, so you can find ways of helping those people. You don't need to go to the senior journalists, because you won't get through the inbox. But there are always people out there you can build relationships with.

Andy Crestodina: There's a format for influencer marketing that combines the influencer, the media, and you, where you are a nexus, and everyone's going to be excited about the opportunity because you were just thinking creatively.

Steve Rayson: When I started one of our e-learning companies, it was in the days when content marketing probably wasn't called content marketing, we were just sort of publishing content. We read a great book called Love is the Killer App, I don't know if you know this book.

Andy Crestodina: Yup.

Steve Rayson: It basically just says give away all your knowledge. So we were just trying to give away knowledge, but nowadays I think you'd call it content marketing, but we were just trying to give stuff away so that people came to our website to read about good stuff really, rather than just a brochure site.

We built our reputation, again, because we were building relationships with lots of the experts. But as I say, don't necessarily go for those big influencers, there are smaller people who are experts in their field.

On our website, our client stories do really well. People are interested in real case studies. I mean I think you have to write them not as sales pieces. I think people like authenticity and real stuff.

Andy Crestodina: Everybody has useful insights in their brains, and the job of a content marketer is to get those insights out of their brain and onto the internet. The job of the influencer marketer is to combine insights and audience in a way that, like you said, amplifies that message. Going back to your previous enterprises, you produced an interview series that you were later able to repurpose, I'd like to hear about how you repurpose collaborative content.

Repurposing Collaborative Content

Steve Rayson: It's such hard work to get collaborative content that you want to make sure that you really maximize it. We were doing audio interviews that we repurposed as blog posts, for example. When we do webinars, we make sure that we turn each one into a blog post. We also put the slides on SlideShare. So we tried to repurpose and reuse that content. Not just do one webinar and forget about it.

We interviewed some really big people on leadership. We asked some really good people who gave us their time, did audio interviews on Skype, et cetera. So we'd say okay, this is a leadership question, how do you motivate employees? Then you could actually click some of these top names and get their content. So it worked as a whole interview but was also re-cut up and used in other types of content.

Andy Crestodina: I think that idea of asking a bunch of people the same question is interesting, because it may then yield to a statistic. A good way to repurpose content and produce quantitative from qualitative. We're getting this question a lot, so let's ask. How do you find influencers in their own niches?

Finding Influencers

Steve Rayson: Firstly, I would say talk to your customers. You want to know who your customers admire. So firstly I'd ask them, or get your sales teams, or people that engage with your customers, to ask them to try to understand what they do.

Obviously, you can use different tools; BuzzSumo and other tools to try and find influencers in set spaces. But often I think it's more intuitive, it's more about say talking to people in that space.

You can use the tools as well, and the tools give you a good top-slicing. The problem at the moment is the world moves so fast, there are six, seven million blog posts published today. We cannot keep up with the amount of content, so the question I often ask people is how do you keep up? So how do you stay on top of your industry? Is it an industry journal? Do you follow certain people?

I would talk to people inside the niche. Including looking at the journalists and all those sorts of things. So there's no easy way, I think there's quite a lot of legwork.

I'd love to say you could just put it into BuzzSumo and find everyone. You'll find certain things, you'll find influencers on, experts on fly fishing, or whatever you're interested in. But actually, I think you need a wider piece of research. You use Google, and you use everything that you can really.

Finding Where your Audience Hangs Out

Sometimes people forget YouTube, but yeah, for teenagers it was the most used network. I find that research really interesting. Think about your audience, which networks do your audience hang out on? Are they on Snap Chat? Are they on YouTube? Are they on Reddit?

I think had a look at the statistics. Reddit is 65% men under 30, for example. Quite a young, male audience, typically, not exclusively. Pinterest, 93% of pins according to Pure Research, are made by women. So quite a different audience again.

 Again, where are the influencers active? Some influencers are across all networks, but some people have a YouTube channel that's really good. Some people are just really good on Instagram.

Build a List of Influencers

Andy Crestodina: Managing a list and having a spreadsheet of people that you believe to be influential over your audience, that list of potential collaborators should be one of those lists that you have.

Steve Rayson: We build a list of 20 people, and we tried to build relationships with those 20. I'd say 10 of those we've become friends with. But you can't build relationships with too many people at the same time. So I set up a BuzzSumo...Every time they publish content, I get an alert.

Andy Crestodina: There you go.

Steve Rayson: I share that with everyone. First thing I do every morning is I check my list of influencers, have they published new content? Then I'll share the content et cetera.

Andy Crestodina: Perfect.

Steve Rayson: That keeps me in their mind. Because I mention them, and they may not see me, but I'm just trying to be helpful. You can only build relationships with so many people in one go.

What we can prove almost conclusively at BuzzSumo, once people get to five influencers sharing a piece of content, the total shares went up like a little exponential curve. So we set ourselves a target of getting five of our key influencers to share each piece of content.

Obviously, you have to promote your own content.  I don't think people do enough on promoting content. Influencers are one way to help amplify your content, but you should spend as much time promoting your content as you do writing it. So don’t write it, hit publish, and forget.


Andy Crestodina: We're coming up at the top of the hour. I'm going to do my best to summarize. I'm here with Steve Rayson of BuzzSumo.

     What we've discussed is:

  • Not necessarily going for mega-celebrities, looking for micro-influencers who are relevant in your niche.

  • Building those relationships slowly over time, and focusing on a narrow number.

  • Build a small list. Then, start paying careful attention to those people. They publish something, we're going to share it. We gradually build up that reciprocity and gratitude and friendship with these people.

  • Then when the time is right, we're going to offer to include their voice on something we're creating. Collaborative content, contributor quote, collaboration on research, whatever it might be.

  • Use that as a way to increase the amount of social shares and visibility. Then, gradually develop and nurture that relationship over time.

  • Our goal is really to go beyond just a cut-throat business of increasing virality or shares or getting links. We are giving before we get, we're finding the value for everyone, exposure value, and quality content, and working together with other people in a way to give a benefit to them, a benefit to the audience.

Steve Rayson: That was a fantastic summary.

Andy Crestodina: Thank you, Steve, this was great for sharing all those insights. Your research, your experience.

Steve Rayson: Thank you very much for having me on. I really enjoyed it.


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