Guest author Will Stevens is an off-site SEO specialist at 123-reg.co.uk, the UK's largest accredited domain name registrar.
Advertising used to be easy – some harassed salesman would ring you up, offer space and, if the potential demographic and price matched your needs, you'd say yes. You'd get a shiny full-page ad, and the guy who sold it to you would be a little closer to his sales target for the quarter, and a little less likely to be fired.
Then the internet arrived and everyone got fired anyway.
OK, so that's overly simplistic, but it broadly describes a period of time when advertising was a fairly straightforward business transaction based on cost and potential outcomes.
Social media has changed that forever.
As Brian Proffitt's coverage of the Technorati 2013 Digital Influence report indicates, part of this complexity manifests itself in the difficulty of tracking down those who can spread a brand's message effectively. But getting to grips with the social media landscape is a just tiny fraction of the problem.
Because even once you've identified the influencers, you still have to get them to play ball, and it's here the real disconnect between brands and influencers becomes apparent.
The First Big Problem: Getting Noticed
Even the most awkward teenager knows that the key to popularity lies with an endorsement from someone who has already achieved that status. It's the getting them to notice you part that's hard. (In fact, this problem is so well documented it forms the plot of an entire subgenre of movies set in American high schools during the 1980s, many of them starring Michael J Fox. Unfortunately, suddenly discovering you're a werewolf who happens to be really good at basketball isn't an option for most brands.)
The Second Big Problem: Influence Is A Closely Guarded Position
There are several reasons for that, not all of them as altruistic or selfless as those who enjoy a position of influence might have you believe.
Obviously, there are issues related to the quality and trustworthiness of the content influencers point people towards. More importantly, though, a position of influence can be diluted and hence must be protected
If you write a blog about Product *X* and then suddenly one of the leading manufacturers of Product X wants you to promote their efforts you're going to think twice before giving them access to your audience
Even passively encouraging people to seek out fresh sources of the information that interests them, you increase the chances they will become less reliant on you telling them what's going on - and that dilutes your influence
The key factors here are jealousy and fear: Major brands that neglected social networks in the early days now covet the power wielded by those who embraced them early on. And those "early embracers" now worry the brands will slowly erode their hard-won power
Clearly deals are done and influence garnered, but this is far more complicated than just buying an ad. In fact, bruised egos and sulking are far more common outcomes than win-win deals
The Third Big Problem: Brands Are Brands
Brands have to be tightly defined or else they are nothing. But influencers have similar issues of their own. Put simply, brands want advertising and influencers want content their audience will love. The medium has changed but one party wants the message to stay the same.
Part of the problem is demographics. Social networks such as Twitter continue to espouse the importance of "who" is paying attention, even as anecdotal evidence suggests the Web is makinge a mockery of the idea that only people of certain ages like certain things and behave in certain ways.
The rest of the problem is the belief - held by both brands and influencers - that people care about what they do.
Sure, a few brands do command a cult-like influence over a significant number of customers, but for most brand-customer relationships are entirely utilitarian – customers want a product or a service that works. Period.
The same goes for influencers – it's the quality of the content they provide that keeps people coming back for more, not some slavish devotion to that particular individual.
For example, I love Rand Fishkin's Whiteboard Fridays over at SEOMoz – they're incredibly useful and always engaging. In fact, they're so useful I wouldn't care if Nike slipped Rand $50,000 to wear a branded baseball cap during one of the videos, although I would certainly appreciate it if he was open about the relationship.
If, on the other hand, Rand suddenly decided to dedicate an entire Whiteboard Friday to the awesome new pair of sneakers he just got, not only would I be a little suspicious, I'd also be hugely bored.
A Question Of Balance
It's a question of balance – brands can't expect to have every little thing tweaked to their satisfaction in a non-traditional advertising environment. To build relationships with social influencers, brands need to stop being so precious about their corporate identities. Instead, they should think about what they can do for the audience they want to reach, because that's what the biggest influencers, the ones who have already engaged that particular niche, are focused on.
Influencers, on the other hand, need to take a more positive approach to things – a relationship with a brand doesn't *have* to erode their position among their community.
Journalists dream of having major brands approaching them because they know that relationship can be leveraged to generate amazing content. Influencers can do exactly the same.
It used to be that advertising was a binary relationship with one person selling and the other buying. Now, the waters are considerably muddier. But that's exciting. That means you can do more.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.