Brandon AndersenBrandon Andersen

The proliferation of social media, the continued democratization of voice and new technologies, make it easy for brands to find less expensive and perhaps even more effective influencers to engage with and nurture audiences.

A March 2015 survey showed three in five communicators planned to increase influencer marketing spending over the next 12 months, most likely because it’s the most cost-effective online customer acquisition method and generates $6.50 for every dollar invested.

O'Dwyer's Dec. '15 Entertainment & Sports PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Dec. '15 Entertainment & Sports PR Magazine

In a world where only precise communication drives results, this pledge should sound alarms to any brand that hasn’t fully bought in to influencer marketing. Perhaps because partnering with superstars requires a big check, brands directly related to athletics have led the way in turning non-household names into money-making advocates.

Check out a few brands that have perfected modern-day influencer marketing:

Paid, earned and loved?

In less than 20 years, Under Armour has gone from basement startup to a $3 billion corporation with locations across the United States, Europe and Asia Pacific.

Undoubtedly, its innovative product line has fueled its growth, but the brand has relied heavily on a three-pronged influencer marketing strategy to accelerate the spread of its brand message and product line.

In the e-book “Listen: 5 Social Audiences Brands Can’t Afford to Ignore,” marketing expert Mark Schaefer describes the different types of influencer: the celebrity, the niche influencer, and the organic advocate.

Under Armour has relied on all three, but which it uses depends on its goals. The apparel company, which has large screen-printed images of Michael Phelps and Ray Lewis next to its Baltimore headquarters, often uses celebrity to break into markets.

For example, in 2011, Under Armour signed an agreement to become the official uniform provider of the English Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, gaining entry to the European soccer market for the first time.

At the time, Kevin Plank, Under Armour’s founder and CEO, said the $80 million deal “demonstrates our commitment to growing the Under Armour brand in the U.K.”

In early 2014, Under Armour took a different tact, forging a relationship with Misty Copeland. A little over a year later she became the American Ballet Theater’s first African-American woman to be named principal dancer.

Before Copeland became a household name, she was well known within the ballet community but didn’t necessarily have a large reach. The reach she did have, though, was valuable.

As Daniel Newman writes for Forbes, influencer marketing “is the concept that the most powerful way to place a brand’s message before an interested audience is through a voice they trust.”

Copeland often references Under Armour on Twitter, generating likes and retweets each time. Soft metrics? Sure, but word-of-mouth generates two times more sales than paid advertising. Those social shares are money in the bank.

Yes, even a niche influencer has a price and perhaps only a money-driven motivation to collaborate with your brand. That’s why organic advocates often make the best influencers.

Aiming to grab a larger piece of the women’s athletic apparel market, Under Armour has done two types of events-based marketing, one geared to everyday athletes and the other to performance athletes. A collaboration with retailers like Lady Foot Locker aims to promote the idea to casual fitness enthusiasts that the best part of the day is spent working out. Working in conjunction with spinning studios, Under Armour engages with more serious athletes.

By supporting these two groups, Under Armour has engendered trust. With continued support, these athletes will become advocates who tell friends and family about the brand that supports their endeavors, and, oh by the way, makes great workout gear.

Celebrity not necessary

In 2013, Reebok dropped brand ambassadors like F1 driver Lewis Hamilton, cricketeer MS Dhoni and media star Jack Osbourne, to focus on “celebrating individuals who find purpose by pursuing their passions,” according to its VP of brand marketing.

Recently, Reebok launched ReebokONE, a contest where fitness professionals compete to become the face of the brand’s fitness community by showing how they challenge themselves and inspire others physically, mentally and socially.

This move away from typical endorsers is not unprecedented. Pabst Blue Ribbon had a renaissance when it built a legion of loyal drinkers by sponsoring skateboard movie screenings, bike messenger rodeos and bike polo events.

Once PBR started finding success, it may have seemed logical to double down with a celebrity endorsement, but that may have killed the momentum it built. PBR’s loyal legions, 20-somethings who strive to live outside the mainstream, would have felt betrayed by the brand whose logo they tattooed on their bodies.

The correct influencers for your brand need more than celebrity. It requires a precise knowledge of your audience: what motivates them, who they listen to and how they live their lives.

Thriving in the new influencer world

Recently, Cision CEO Peter Granat called social media listening a “moneyball marketing tactic” largely because it is an emerging practice that allows brands to identify influencers, see what they talk about and understand their relationship with their audience.

As digital media has allowed influencers to come in all shapes and sizes and across all types of media, influencer marketing is more complex than ever. Without software that will sift through the millions of conversations taking place every hour, your brand will be left in the dark ages.

The days of signing the biggest celebrity your budget will allow and simply hoping results will follow are over. Influencer marketing, like so many things, has become dependent on data. Brands that act now will position themselves as leaders within their industry, whether they sell to athletes, accountants or anyone else.

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Brandon Andersen is Director of Marketing at Cision.