By Julie Geller, @JulieGeller

“Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear.”

Edgar Allan Poe didn’t have the benefit of digital tools and social media when he penned these famous words. “Sharing” is now a fact of daily life, and it’s blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, opinion and reporting, ranting and editorializing. But credibility still counts, especially for PR professionals who are shifting their focus and budgets in search of grassroots opinion leaders to represent their brands.

With the social landscape changing daily, how do you qualify influencers?

Here are some guiding principles that will help you find those bright, talented individuals who will engage your audience and elevate the conversation about your brand.

Content Quality and Relevance
Choose quality. An influencer is an independent PR agent for your brand and your industry, and so their integrity is important. Make sure that their body of work demonstrates focus and expertise in your vertical. Conduct your due diligence to ensure that the content is accurate. A history of being fast and loose with facts is a telling indicator of how they’ll handle sensitive information you leak about upcoming products, services, news and events. Also, look for an influencer who has relevant things to say about your sector and who demonstrates creative and critical thinking in engaging an audience. If someone claims to be an authority on everything, they’re likely not an expert on anything.
Ask: Are their posts and stories interesting? Do they responsibly advance the conversation about your vertical?

Evaluate Reach
Basic web metrics tell you what you need to know about an influencer’s reach. Pay attention to the platforms they use and to their performance on them, including the web, Twitter and Facebook. If you want a second opinion, check out the influencer’s Klout Score to see how they stack up against their peers. For an objective professional analysis, consult a media intelligence firm that specializes in assembling influencer databases. These firms pre-screen influencers according to their own exhaustive criteria and measurements.
Ask: Is the influencer measuring traffic? How big is the audience? Is the audience engaged and participating? Does the audience represent your demographic or one you’d like to reach? When you examine the influencer’s social media streams, are they talking to themselves or is it a conversation with other people?

Publishing Frequency
Publishing frequency will separate the professionals from the dilettantes. Influencers with large, devoted audiences will be reliable and somewhat prolific, consistently publishing blogs, news and opinion, plus Twitter and Facebook, to the social sphere two or three times each day. A good blog or website is a kind of online magazine that takes the audience on a subject-matter journey. Proof of the influencer’s expertise is evident in how he or she structures or “mixes” content over a variety of subject areas, departments or categories relevant to your vertical. Evaluate their responsiveness to issues and stories that spontaneously arise. Also, note the feedback that your favourite influencers receive and how they interact with their own community.
Ask: Does the content seem planned and thoughtful or random and reactive? Are they posting consistently? Are they responding to the community in a timely, thoughtful manner that stimulates conversation?

What Company Do They Keep?
You can learn a lot about a potential influencer by the company they keep. Check out the links they share and what kinds of brands they promote. Be sure these are relevant to your vertical or to like verticals. Often one good influencer will point you in the direction of another valuable opinion leader.
Ask: How big is their blogroll? Are they well respected by their peers? Is there evidence of previous experience with high-profile consumer brands?

Once you’ve identified and qualified influencers, you’ll want to build a strategy about how to integrate them into your marketing plan. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at best practices in influencer strategies.

About Julie Geller

Julie Geller has more than 12 years of experience in digital marketing, and her specialties include strategic planning, online communities, content marketing , social media governance models, reporting and stakeholder management. She recently joined Cision Canada as VP, Marketing to pilot the company’s social and digital initiatives and establish its online voice. Julie is also a lover of highly caffeinated coffee, quirky Yelp reviews and a self-confessed content gold digger with a passion for the online social space.

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