Influencers: Are They Worth it for Ecommerce Marketing?

In our analysis of the interviewees, as well as our conversations with other entrepreneurs, we've seen a lot of love and hate for influencer marketing. On the one hand, influencers are seen as the golden ticket to increased sales and as a massive stamp of approval for your potential customers. On the other hand, influencer marketing can feel like a total crapshoot.

With that in mind, can one really know whether or not influencer marketing will work? Well, we did some digging, and it turns out that yes, you can. Here's how: 

The Rules of Influencer Marketing

It turns out there are some rules when it comes to effective influencer marketing. They are, in fact, similar to other rules of marketing you've probably heard. While they might sound obvious at first glance, please read on unless you want to waste tens of thousands of dollars with ineffective influencer marketing.

Here’s a short rundown of the rules:

  • Have a ****ing goal in mind & match the audience's intent.
  • Bigger isn’t always better.
  • Trade is greater than paid.

If you're interested in influencer marketing, but concerned as to whether or not it will work for you, these rules will put you on the right track.

Have a ****ing Goal in Mind & Match it to The Audience’s Intent

After eight years in marketing, I still can’t believe these things need to be said, hence the expletive. So many marketers do stuff without thinking about it. Sadly, I’m no different sometimes.

And I get it. It's hard to know precisely what you want out of any given marketing activity because we may not understand how that marketing activity works yet.

So, when it comes to influencer marketing, especially for ecommerce, there are two goals to keep in mind.

  1. Sales
  2. Brand

In most cases, Shopify entrepreneurs engage influencers because they want the former. That's fine, but it is crucial to understand how that decision affects which influencers you work with.

For example, a previous interview subject who wishes to remain anonymous on this topic has worked with many influencers. One particularly good collaboration was with a tech influencer on Instagram and Youtube. Even though the interviewee's product was on giveaway, the partnership resulted in a massive spike in sales during that week. 

On the contrary, multiple collaborations with much larger influencers and using much larger giveaway prizes (costing in the thousands of dollars), had barely any effect on sales.

The most likely reason: misaligned goals.

The latter collaborations for this brand were not with tech/gadget influencers, but with inspirational/aspirational influencers. The second group's audiences look up to them as creative leaders, but not as sources of information about exciting things to buy. And even though there was a significant overlap between the brand and the influencers' audiences in these cases, sales remained flat.

That’s because the audiences of these various influencers have different goals for following that influencer than the brand selling the product. In any given influencer marketing transaction, if your goal is sales, and the audience’s goal is inspiration, your efforts will fall short of their mark.

However, if your goal is brand-building, working with inspirational/aspirational influencers is completely fine. Just don’t expect an uptick in sales.

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

When it comes to influencer marketing, it feels obvious that the bigger the audience an influencer has, the more impact any given collaboration will have on your brand or sales. However, in the experience of our entrepreneurs, this isn't true. Some of the best collaborations we've seen and heard about have been with small to medium-sized influencers.

It turns out that working with lots of small influencers is a better strategy than with one or a few big ones. Here are some reasons why:

  • Small influencers don’t think of themselves as influencers
  • They are still excited about growing their audience, so they care more
  • Which means that smaller influencers often have higher engagement
  • Smaller influencers are cheaper

“I’m not an influencer!”

Contrary to how it may seem, smaller influencers often don't realize they are influencers. In their heads, they're just people with an above-average Instagram or Youtube audience. They're just doing what they love and getting some appreciation for it.

That means that they'll be more likely up for all kinds of collaborations. In fact, they'll be flattered that you came to them, instead of the other way around.

They still care

As with almost any famous person, more prominent influencers eventually see themselves as far too important for the rest of us. Sad, but true.

Small influencers don’t feel this way yet. They still feel privileged to create content for their audience and connect like-minded people. For these influencers, there's a mission to be completed, and they've only just begun.

Higher engagement

Because these small influencers still care, they tend to create a better connection with their audiences which results in higher engagement rates. Engagement rate is easy to measure (i.e.,  # likes on a post divided by follower count). 

I've looked at countless big influencer profiles, and the most common thing I notice is that their engagement rate stagnates. I guess that this has something to do with the Instagram algorithm. Instagram probably wants to cap the engagement rates of bigger profiles, which would incentivize them to invest in advertising for more reach.

That means that when you work with big influencers, you're losing money compared to working with smaller influencers. 

Think of this example:

Small Influencer Cost = $200

Audience = 20,000

Engagement Rate = 15%

Big Influencer Cost = $2000

Audience = 200,000

Engagement Rate = 5%

With some super simple math, you realize that the effectiveness of your influencer marketing dollars goes way further with smaller influencers. Sure, if you only fire one bullet at this influencer marketing thing, the big influencer gets you more results. However, when you factor in the cost of working with each size of influencer, it's easy to see the benefit from working with smaller influencers. If you do the math, using the same budget with multiple small influencers, instead of one big one, is 3X more effective!

What's more, those numbers aren't bullshit. I've seen the data, at least for Instagram. Do some number crunching yourself if you feel the need to verify.

Simply put, bigger isn’t always better. In fact, it rarely is.

Trade is Better Than Paid

Along with the world of influencer marketing comes the monetization of influencer marketing. You’re probably familiar with the idea of influencer marketing agencies, organizations that act as a broker between influencers the brands that want to utilize them, for a fee of course.

That means that influencers are seemingly easier to access and work with than ever before. You can head to ABC influencer marketing agency, drop a few thousand bucks, and suddenly you're the next Dollar Shave Club.

Unfortunately, just like working with big influencers or those with mismatched audiences, paying to win at influencer marketing is undermines the point of the whole strategy.

Tate Glasgow, from Killer Creamery, knows what I’m talking about.

“We started off really hot on the influencer side of things,” Tate said. “We were sending products doing the ambassador code thing.”

From there, the influencer would share the discount code and product with their audience. 

“But it was obvious that the consumer was starting to catch on,” Tate continued. “They rightly didn’t feel as much trust with somebody who's offering them a discount code for their own benefit. You know, they may not even enjoy the product, but they share the product because they’re getting paid. So there's a little disconnect, disconnect and trust there from the consumer to the ambassador.”

Killer Creamery ended up shifting its strategy with influencers to something that's way more authentic, and that drives sales.

"It's a bigger loss on the books, but if you look at it from a brand-building standpoint, it's important," Tate concluded. "Basically, we've just been hunting down smaller influencers in our store areas that are keto-lifestylers. We just offer them the product and some info on the product and ask them to DM us what they think. More often than not, they end up posting or sharing about the product and how they love it. It's a more down to earth way to go about it, and it's far less sales-y."

That shift, from paid to some form of trade, is a shift that many of the entrepreneurs have had in common when it comes to influencer marketing. 

Think about it like this: what are you more excited to do, your job or your hobbies? My guess is the latter. At least, that’s the case for me. Often, when we’re paid to do something, it taints the underlying motive. The same goes for influencers.

As soon as you pay an influencer for sharing your product, you've created a transaction. And in many cases, that transaction decimates the passion the influencer has for your product and brand.

When you offer free products to smaller influencers, and they share about it of their own accord, the result is 100% authentic. What's more, the influencers' audiences are quite savvy. They can tell whether a product plug is genuine or paid.


There's a lot more to write about when it comes to influencer marketing, but this concludes some of the primary thoughts I've had recently. 

Influencer marketing is a potent tool, but it's important to remember the rules outlined above. Working with influencers, as with all marketing, in my opinion, is about relationships. If you remember that, you'll follow the rules naturally.

Ryan Chatterton Editor, Content Strategist, Digital Nomad, Coworking Influencer, Lover of Wine & Tacos