What Influencer Marketing Looks Like in Local Communities

When I first discovered oat milk, it was like the world opened up to me.

And then when I had oat milk with espresso… warmed up… my life changed. Ok, I’m obviously being dramatic, but I was 100% hooked. I talked about it a few times on my Instagram Stories, but mostly I would run into friends at the grocery store or on a walk (with my latte obviously) which would lead to me asking “omg have you tried it yet? You must!!” My enthusiasm won the hearts of anyone I would talk to.

I kid you not, over the next six months, people would report back that they tried the latte, and I had made the right choice to sing its praises to them.

These people would go try this local brand and then they would go back… and tell their friends about the amazingness of Oatly and espresso together in a cup, warmed up with sugary maple goodness.

Those friends would tell their neighbors, their coworkers, their out-of-town visitors and the trickle effect goes from there.

Me talking about it on Instagram a few times wasn’t the thing that drove hundreds of new people to this coffee shop.

It was the day-to-day conversations IRL with people in my own city. It was a friend posting an Instagram question sticker on their Stories asking where to get coffee with a friend visiting from Europe. It was a Facebook post from an old colleague asking “best coffee in Des Moines?” and me saying OAT MILK LATTES AT HORIZON LINE OR ELSE (borderline threatening them).

If you know me, you know I love oat milk lattes. It’s just a quirky Emily thing.

FOLLOWER COUNTS ALONE ARE SHORT-SIDED

We’re living in a day and age where follower counts, likes, and engagements are STILL one of the most common questions asked before someone is willing to partner with a person or brand, even in local markets.

If this coffee shop had a budget to work with influencers, they sure as hell would not have immediately chosen me. At the time I fell in love with this coffee beverage, I had about 1500 Instagram followers, which barely puts me in the “nano influencer” category. I’m a nobody if we’re using those metrics.

Nevermind my 2500+ Facebook friends, two other companies I could talk about this brand inside of, the 2000+ Facebook group of other local business owners I created, my email list, and my amazing circle of real friends I see in real life that trust me inherently.

The way influencer marketing is set up now essentially says this without saying it directly: “You only have 1500 followers, so you have no influence anywhere else. You promoting our brand anywhere but Instagram means nothing. No thank you, bye.”

And what I’m seeing are smaller brands or corporations hoping to find local influencers in their own communities and aren’t settling for anything short of 10,000 (gimme that swipe up baby!!). It’s completely unrealistic. And yet it’s totally conditioned into brands of all shapes and sizes that it’s the thing to look for.

The reality is, many people aren’t seeking to be an influencer in one specific city, they are seeking a national or global audience because that’s where the money currently is. So even if brands are finding a “local” person with 20,000 followers, most of those followers aren’t based in the city that influencer lives.

So that post you’re excited that “local photographer” with 20,000 followers is going to make about your wine festival in St. Paul is only going to hit 2% of locals. Sure they’re bio says “St. Paul” with the little location pin, but that doesn’t mean their audience is there.

Where someone like me has 2300 followers but 75% or more are in the greater Des Moines area. They have met me in real life or have had a conversation with me in DMs. I’m real, I’m accessible, and I respond to messages.

When I’m posting about a local brand or experience, people are following up with more questions or wanting to learn more or telling me they’re going to try it this weekend with their family. And let me re-emphasize this one: I respond to them.

Local influencers are bloggers with a few hundreds viewers a month, local business owners, passionate nonprofit fundraisers, people who review pizza joints regularly or people like my husband who created an account called “run drink Iowa” where he drank a beer and ran a mile in every Iowa county (there are 99 of ‘em).

They have an audience of people who love to consume their content and follow along their journey, but most of these locals aren’t grinding to grow their follower count using tacky methods like follow/unfollow or even worse, hiring people to send messages like “In these unprecedented times, would you consider following @whateverbrandhiredthem? They are amazing!” I am getting those nonstop and I’m horrified local brands are resorting to this.

Local social media users are living their life and documenting it on the ‘Gram, plain and simple. They’re not influencers, but they have influence within their micro community online and in real life.

MEET THE HUMMINGBIRDS

A couple years ago, I co-built a brand called the hummingbirds, where everyday local champions, content creators, and the Des Moines-obsessed have come together to experience a brand and talk about it on social media.

The model we created is pretty much like influencer marketing except these humans aren’t influencers, nor do they have interest in being one. It’s simply the closest comparison I have because it’s unlike anything that currently exists.

These hummingbirds love Des Moines, they talk about their day-to-day life experiences, and they show up to support all things local. They’re typically early adopters, highly creative, and all about connecting their audience to new, cool things. They might care a little bit about their follower count or if people are liking and paying attention to their content, but they don’t have the end goal of “making it” on social media as an influencer.

We created the hummingbirds because we saw two beautiful opportunities:

  1. Local people wanted to meet other local people who love where they live. These enthusiastic people were starting blogs, doing local series on makers, or documenting their favorite coffee in the metro. Bringing them together had endless possibilities for future collaborations, partnerships, and new friendship.
  2. We saw local business owners looking for ways to boost sales, grow their audience, and get new people in the door. Why not match them with these wonderfully talented people who are basically on the edge of their seats waiting to hear how they can get more involved in the community and tell their own micro community about it?

Since 2018, the hummingbirds have worked with large corporate brands who understand the grassroots, word of mouth marketing strategy we’ve built, and we’ve also locked arms with brand new, small mom and pop retail businesses looking for a lift similar to that of being covered by a local TV station.

It’s the cycling studio that just opened whose owner told us this was the best investment she has ever made in her business. Thirty people showed up at the same time, shared tons of Instagram Stories that night and created buzz to tens of thousands of people. The ripple effect of that partnership can still be felt by this business today.

It’s the local nonprofit that created a new event called Pizza on the Prairie that finally attracted a younger demographic, something they have been trying to do for years.

The hummingbirds came out for a really unique experience, pulled out their phones to capture it and low and behold… other families pulled out their phones to do the same. They were leading by example and others followed suit, posting on their own profiles and sharing their own outings.

When brands come to us to partner, we come up with an amazing offer to present to our hummingbirds and that offer is a perk, not cold, hard cash. In the instance of Pizza on the Prairie, hummingbirds got two free pizzas and two free drinks and could bring up to six guests. Free pizza with a value of $30? Yep. Nearly 75 hummingbirds put their name in the hat, hoping to be selected. The ones who didn’t get selected went anyway.

If you’re curious how it works…

We put these offers from our clients into our portal and allow birds to express interest. Once they have, we select hummingbirds to participate! They show up and have the experience and post on Instagram and Facebook, tagging the brand and creating their own authentic content. And if the experience wasn’t great, we tell them to give us feedback to share directly with the client instead of writing an awful review about the experience.

Some brands want 100 birds at a launch event. Some brands are looking for 10 people a month to come experience their offer over and over, dripping out a consistent message over time compared to a big splash. When the birds are in flight, we capture the posts in our portal and watch them populate different types of content, all pointing back to the brand.

We don’t provide any fancy reports or metrics on likes or comments (I mean, considering likes are going away… let’s move on from this being a measure of success).

We don’t track conversions or ask the hummingbirds to create coupon codes. We’ve intentionally done this to make elevating a local brand experience simple for EVERYONE to do. No swapping out the link in bio or custom codes per hummingbird.

WHY HUMMINGBIRDS?

Imagine the impact of 200 thought leaders, bloggers, content creators, and early adopters in one physical community getting their hands on a remarkable product and posting about it at the same time. All the sudden your old coworker, who happens to be my neighbor, who also knows a hummingbird from college, is seeing this brand multiple times on his feed. He’s curious. What’s the hype all about?

When a lot of people are talking about a brand experience within specific geographic parameters, momentum can build very quickly. But it takes a different approach to marketing that isn’t ONLY about reach and impressions.

It takes a marketing team understanding that building a meaningful brand is 10 people in a cul de sac obsessing over your product at the last barbeque outing versus one influencer with 350,000 followers posting about you and literally never thinking about you again because there are 300 brands waiting for her future posts.

It’s the agency that heard about the HR department at the insurance company talking about their experience with your service over lunch break and sent free product over to them with a thank you card versus waiting eagerly at their computer monitors to see when the famous YouTuber dropped their latest review of their product.

Can you have both strategies and be effective in your goals? Certainly. I just envision two very different marketing departments in this scenario, don’t you?

YOU GAVE US A HUMMINGBIRD WITH 150 FOLLOWERS?

We got an email from one of our clients recently criticizing us for sending a hummingbird with only 150 followers to their brand. I personally selected the hummingbirds for this, so I went to my fancy spreadsheet and figured out who it was.

This specific hummingbird is a beautiful soul. She uses her Instagram to elevate a lot of local experiences. I noticed one just last week promoting her hair stylist and lash person. She has 1000 Facebook friends and owns a design company that works with high-end, wealthy clients. And she happens to be really involved in the community as well.

Will her post reach hundreds of people? Of course not.

But if she had a truly meaningful experience with this client and loved the product, couldn’t she come back and spend more money there? Couldn’t she be a client for life? Couldn’t she leave a review that her friend Susan happens to see on Google that helps Susan say yes quicker? Couldn’t she tag the brand when someone was looking for a recommendation on Facebook? Couldn’t she refer lots of people outside of Instagram to this business?

When you give local people a positive brand experience, you can count on them to talk about it when people ask… “what are you up to this weekend?” “What’s new?” You know, those common questions we ask when we haven’t seen someone in a while.

TAKE YOUR BRAND TO A LOCAL MARKET, LIKE DES MOINES, IOWA

So, I’m totally biased but I think I live in one of the best cities in the country. Over the last two years, over 250 residents in my community have signed up to be a hummingbird and have chosen to use their social media platforms to elevate brand experiences.

As we continue to expand to other cities and grow the local charm (yes a group of hummingbirds is called a charm and I’m obsessed), we’re starting to get interest from national brands that are curious about tapping into local markets.

Instead of reaching all millennials in North America, why not focus on one specific cohort of Millennials in one location? More specifically, Millennials who are early adopters and constantly using social media to elevate their day-to-day life journey and everyday brand experiences. From peanut butter they love to the shoes they can’t live without, they’re humans who are trusted by their kids’ parents, next door neighbors, coworkers, and board members from the nonprofit they volunteer with.

The truth is… everyone has influence. We help unleash it locally.

If you’re ready to see if the hummingbirds is right for your brand expansion, DM us at @dsmhummingbirds or learn more at www.thehummingbirds.co.

Entrepreneur, CEO, local business enthusiast. I write about topics that impact local businesses, leaders, and communities.

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