Case Study: Using influencers to quickly build an audience for your content


By Mark Schaefer

Shawn Van Dyke was in a heap of trouble.

His wife had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. His job running a small construction company afforded a lot of flexibility, but didn’t provide the medical benefits he needed to cover his rising bills, or the salary level he needed to feed his five children. He had a stack of invoices he couldn’t pay.

“I was frustrated,” he said. “The more broke I became the harder I worked. The harder I worked, the more irritable I became. I was digging myself into a deeper and deeper hole financially, mentally, and even physically.

“I didn’t like the person I was at home or at work and I knew something had to change. I had a few job offers but none of them worked out. In most cases I was trading one kind of insanity for another. I was at a loss about what to do with my life.

Talking with friends and a career coach helped Shawn get clear about his strengths. He loved the construction industry and sharing his business expertise with others. He sensed there was a huge need around teaching construction professionals how to run their businesses more efficiently. He needed something to work and didn’t have a lot of room for error, so he decided to test the water before committing his precious time to a new venture.

Free content opens the door

“I conducted a study to confirm that indeed, paperwork was the biggest problem … and I also identified a host of other needs like HR management and job planning. I had enough ideas to develop a year’s worth of content.

“To stand out, I did something crazy. I decided to write an eBook and give it away. It was a risk, but I thought this was a way to become known — by giving away extraordinary value.

“Things started to happen. My free book helped me land a spot as a guest on a podcast. People were paying attention to me! Now my audience could hear my voice for the first time and my traction continued to grow.

But things were still moving too slowly for Shawn. He didn’t have the luxury of building an audience patiently over time. He had medical bills to pay. He had mouths to feed. He needed to put a rocket behind his efforts and that’s the perfect time to engage with influencers as part of a personal branding strategy. When you don’t have time to build your own audience, borrow someone else’s!

Enter the influencers

We live in an amazing time when power and authority have been flipped. The seats of influence no longer reside behind a news desk, on Wall Street, or in the corner office. Today, anybody with an Internet connection can create content and have the opportunity to have a voice, create power, and find an audience.

Trusted influencers with enormous power to “move the needle” are emerging in every market vertical. And by paying attention to the people in his market, Shawn found a key influencer in the construction space.

“I had been following a well-known builder in Boston who had established a huge online audience,” Van Dyke said. “He was doing great work and was obviously spending a lot of time connecting to people on Instagram and Snapchat. I looked for opportunities to engage with him by commenting on his posts for a few months. I felt sure he knew who I was so I took the next step and asked him a few questions over email. That went well, and it led to a follow-up phone call. So I was building on this weak social relationship from the Internet and I was becoming a real human being to him.

Moving the needle

“As popular as he was, I could tell that he had opportunities to improve his business. In the spirit of creating amazing value, I offered my consulting services to him for free, with no expectation of getting anything in return.

“I was providing so much great value to him that he started talking about me on his social media accounts. He re-posted pictures of my advice and labeled me as ‘his coach.’ That was the validation I needed! My social media audience exploded all at once.

“This worked so well I identified a few more influencers in the construction space and invited them to a private Facebook group. My connections in this group led to my first invitation to speak at a national building supply show. All of this opportunity came about because I was genuinely helping people. My content isn’t about selling me. It’s about serving others.”

Van Dyke probably didn’t know it, but a large part of his success was due to a psychological principle called “reciprocity.”

Humans have a deep psychological need to re-pay a debt or kindness. If somebody gives you a gift, you probably look for an opportunity to return the favor. If a couple invites you to a party, you probably feel a little guilt until you can invite them to something in return.

This deep-seated need for reciprocity is so powerful, that after intensive study, sociologists such as Alvin Gouldner report that there’s no human society that does not subscribe to this rule.

So when Van Dyke provided his consulting services for free … well, something HAD to happen. In return, the famous builder promoted Shawn and his work, an event that led to more exposure and his first speaking invitation. He scaled this by offering free services to the influencers in his Facebook group.

This first success began a cycle of generosity and reciprocity that rapidly made him well-known in his industry. Van Dyke began turning up on lists of the most influential people in the U.S. construction industry. He probably could have earned this himself with many years of work, but the golden touch of his influencer connections helped him advance his timeline.

The results

This story has a happy ending.

Focusing on becoming known for his construction business expertise freed up time for Van Dyke to spend with his family. His priority is creating family experiences and the memorable events they need to enjoy before his wife’s terrible disease takes this chance away. The momentum of his brand is building, the money is starting to come, and the stack of bills is getting smaller.

“The most encouraging part of this for me has been receiving messages from people who tell me my advice has changed their businesses, and their lives. My fuel is knowing that I am making a difference.”

Free tools for finding influencers

How do you find influencers that can make a difference to you? Here are five tips to find the people who are having the biggest impact in your field:

  1. Use BuzzSumo’s (free) influencer search tool. You can use keywords and find Twitter handles of accounts sharing similar keyword-related content. Filters will let you sort them by reach, authority, influence, and engagement.
  2. Try Followerwonk, a free app on the Moz site. This tool will let you search Twitter users based on keywords in their bio and sort results based on their number of followers and social authority. You can also compare influencers, which will allow you to decide which influencers you want to align yourself with.
  3. Twellow is a very useful site that can help you build your audience in several ways. It allows you to search influencers by industry and further breaks it down based on location, subject matter, and profession.
  4. Perhaps you want to find people in a specific social network? Go onto each platform and perform searches based on keywords that would suggest a common interest. You’ll need to dig a little bit. Look at their profiles — see how they are engaging with people, who they are engaging with, who is following them, and who they are following. Pay attention to the types of conversations they are having and what they are saying. That will say a lot about who they are and if they are someone you want to align yourself with.
  5. Check out industry-related conferences and scan the speaker list. These are probably well-known and influential leaders.

Making the connection

Once you’ve created a list of influencers, it’s time to start finding ways to connect with them.

  • Don’t “pitch” influencers. Befriend them.
  • Help influencers before you have any expectation of them helping you. Subscribe to their blog or video channel, follow them on Twitter, like them on Facebook. Look for opportunities to engage through a blog comment, a congratulatory message on LinkedIn, or a tweet. Nothing says “I love you” more than a re-tweet now and then.
  • Mention them in your own blogs and content. Highlight great work they’ve done. When you link to their work in your own content, there’s a good chance they’ll get a notification of that (called a “ping”) and probably notice that you did it.

All of these little touchpoints add up. Every little favor, tweet, and mention adds to your bank of social capital. Don’t try to make a withdrawal from that bank (like asking for a favor) until you’ve made some contributions of your own.

How have you established connections with people who have helped you build your audience?

sxsw-2016-3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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