Embedded Influencers Redefine How Brands Connect With Consumers

In the mid-2000s, public relations agencies began teaching their legions of account executives about the new rules of engagement for bloggers. You didn’t pitch them like a journalist or editor. Rather, you had to develop a relationship on a more personal level. It also became customary to offer them items like giveaways or products for their readers, provided you disclosed the nature of your relationship. Many of these practices still hold true. But now a new model of giving online influencers access to your brand has emerged that combines the old school method of embedding journalists with an army platoon, and the vast network of social media platforms that are readily at our fingertips. The Embedded Influencer Model has arrived, and it’s changing the way we connect brands with target audiences online.

The Model

Here’s how the Embedded Influencer Model works. First, identify and partner with an influencer that has more to offer than simply a blog with a large readership base. They need to have a strong personal brand with an online infrastructure such as a professional Web site and a presence on Facebook and Twitter. Also, today’s more sophisticated online influencers have Web sites that offer more opportunities to include relevant information about your brand like videos or podcasts than the one-off blog posts of yesteryear.

Next, relinquish some level of control. You need to provide influencers with access beyond press releases and formal dog-and-pony shows. Show them what’s behind the curtain. Also limit your oversight of the influencer’s work. Provide him or her with a general editorial calendar, cut them loose to find the meaningful stories and let the influencer’s tone trump the standard marketing sheen. Doing so allows for genuine perspectives from the influencer, providing an unscripted and authentic feel for your audience. Of course, always retain the right to refuse content that would damage your brand, but be open enough to allow for the perspective that earned the influencer his or her credibility in the first place. In every case, don’t forget to be fully transparent about the nature of your relationship with the influencer.

Finally, leverage your visual assets everywhere you possibly can. This means that in addition to asking influencers to write content for you, also share your video footage, photos and written materials outside of your campaign Web site and Facebook fan page. Establish a dedicated channel on your influencer’s Web site that has the potential to draw a completely new group of readers to your program. Allow your influencer to cross-post content on their Facebook fan page and Twitter profile. Provide all the tools and access to your information, and make it easy for the influencer to put it all together. Done right, you will steal your audience’s attention with a set of coordinated messages from a credible source that ring true and tell your story in a unique way.

Influencing in Practice

An example of the Embedded Influencer Model in action is the recent relationship between Hanesbrands Inc.—parent company of the Champion and Duofold brands—and outdoor adventure influencer Stephen Regenold, better known as The Gear Junkie. Regenold, who is an established journalist and adventurer, and now manages GearJunkie.com, was hired to be part of the communications team for the company’s expedition to Mount Everest in April 2010. But before the relationship was formalized, one critical ground rule was established: Regenold was hired to write honestly from the field and not hired to provide the company with positive product reviews. It was incredibly important to both parties that Regenold remain an independent voice.

Starting in summer 2009, Hanesbrands began to embed Regenold in every aspect of the preparation for the climb. He visited the corporate headquarters in Winston-Salem, N.C., to see how its research and development teams were creating never-before-seen apparel. Regenold also visited the company’s design office in New York City. Finally, he would join expedition leader Jamie Clarke on the trek through the Himalayas to Mount Everest base camp in Nepal. During the entire engagement, Regenold had full access to speak with and interview anyone involved in the project. His primary job was to report from the field about the daily details of a complicated, multifaceted program that happened to culminate on Mount Everest.

Regenold reported everything from the development of the company’s “Supersuit” and what he packed for the expedition, to an essay about climbing to 17,000 feet and an interview with the team’s lead Sherpa—all from his adventurer-journalist perspective. He posted his articles on www.ClimbWithUs.com, the site Hanesbrands created for the climb, as well as on a special channel on www.GearJunkie.com made specifically for his adventure to Mount Everest. His voice joined several others including Jamie Clarke, Stephanie Pearson (another influencer and independent travel writer who is Outside Magazine’s online “Gear Girl”), a student from a local high school that Hanesbrands partners with and Hanesbrands employees.

Twenty-six of the 165 articles and videos on the site were authored by Regenold for the project. All “Gear Junkie” content was shared with Hanesbrands, including text, photos, videos and maps, and vice-versa. Hanesbrands and Regenold both used Twitter accounts to share new stories that were posted to ClimbWithUs.com, and the content was integrated into the regular news e-mails that Regenold sent to subscribers of his site. Of course, Hanesbrands employed standard PR and marketing tactics to publicize the campaign as well, including press conferences, news releases, media outreaches, Web banners and more.

Get Results

The result of the collaboration was a welcome addition for consumers—and for Hanesbrands. Gear Junkie regulars could follow Regenold on a huge gear-testing adventure and learn about all the gear he would use, and audiences following the Hanesbrands climb were treated to the perspective of an industry insider with enough credibility to earn their respect. Because the story of the climb was told side-by-side by several voices, audiences enjoyed a more textured view of the tale. The model also boosted impressions—multiple storytellers increased the number of media channels used, and therefore multiplied the number of chances for consumers to see the messaging.

In the end, the Embedded Influencer Model helped get real business results. The mix of mainstream athleticwear brands with big outdoor credibility played very well with audiences and helped increase the performance credibility of the Champion brand with consumers, a major goal for the 30-month project.

Why did it work? Reducing control of content and letting the influencer choose his or her stories went a long way with audience perceptions of authenticity. It also significantly increased the life of the campaign. Hanesbrands stated from the beginning that it had hired Regenold for journalistic purposes, and Regenold was able to make his opinions and perspectives known, on his schedule. Regenold was lauded as an intelligent insider who focused on interesting people and stories, not just products.

Today, brands can use the Embedded Influencer Model to augment their traditional campaigns and tell a larger story on a larger scale. Single-sided one-off events can be forgettable to the savvy consumer, especially in the age of social media. When a brand avoids this message isolation by including the community—and embedding influencers when possible—they give a different impression. Brands can use this model to show that they are good community citizens open to the ideas of others, as well as provide a broader—and longer-lasting—story that interests more readers and consumers.

Elizabeth C. Castro is a vice president at O’Malley Hansen Communications in Chicago. Matthew Young is the Communications Manager at Hanesbrands Inc., a leading marketer of apparel under strong consumer brands, including Hanes, Champion, Playtex, Bali, Just My Size, barely there and Wonderbra.