(Originally posted in The Business Journals)

Did you know that chocolate milk is a better post-workout drink than a protein drink?

Did you know that chocolate milk is a better post-workout drink than a protein drink?

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A brand belief like this doesn’t exist in direct-to-consumer advertising — have you ever seen a commercial featuring an athlete furiously chugging chocolate milk? Yet it still exists (See Weber Shandwick’s influencer campaign for “Got Chocolate Milk?”). So where does it come from?

The answer is social influence. In an increasingly advertising-saturated environment, brands are shifting from direct advertising to social influence-based tactics to reach their target audiences.

This practice isn’t new. It’s been around since the 1960s, when Daniel Edelman had a simple idea: Use celebrities to endorse products. You can imagine (and maybe even remember!) how effective those sponsorships were.

But today, consumers are born with devices in their hands. They no longer naïvely believe that Jean-Claude Van Damme actually uses the Total Flex home gym or that Bill Cosby‘s favorite food is Jell-O. Pile on the avalanche of content consumers encounter daily, and it’s clear why the old way of doing things is losing steam.

To the rescue come the influencers — those real people who give your branded content authenticity.

Enter the early adopters

Many large-scale consumer brands already leverage this approach through bloggers and thought leaders. It’s a commitment — recruiting, managing, nurturing and sometimes paying influencers — but in terms of engagement and sales, the ROI can be exponential.

Walmart froze its paid promotions in favor of organic, owned content in an ambitious effort to bolster its brand reputation through influencers. As a result, it garnered an engagement rate of more than 4.5 percent — well above the average.

So, how can you use influencers to boost your brand’s reputation? Start with these steps:

1. Segment your audience

Thanks to social listening and customer insight tools, it’s easy to acquire consumer data. Telling a story with that data is the hard part. Identify your audience’s social media profiles then curate them down to your target markets.

2. Find people who can influence your target segments

This is not as hard as you’d think. If you monitor your audience’s social activity, you can see whom each segment interacts with. Monitoring those social streams will net you their upstream influence path.

3. Tailor your content

A celebrity tweet about your brand may garner thousands of likes, but will it really close a sale? A brand advocate, on the other hand, might talk to 10 friends and convert eight into customers.

Segment your influencers by where they are in the buying cycle — awareness, consideration or open to conversion — then channel the right content to them at the right time, through the person your target market trusts.

With a constant flow of branded content bombarding consumers from every direction, it’s difficult to cut through the noise and highlight your brand. But with the help of influencer marketing, you can build positive brand awareness, connect with customers on an authentic level and strengthen your content overall.