Taking Influencer Marketing Global: An Interview with Joel Backaler

We at Obviously are thrilled to announce that our fearless leader Mae Karwowski is featured in the new book Digital Influence by Joel Backaler (@joelbackaler). Joel is an expert in global marketing and the award-winning author of China Goes West, which examines the dramatic rise of Chinese brands in the international market.  In his new book, he delves into influencer marketing, with a special focus on how brands can use influencers to expand their global strategy and break into international markets. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat about his book and tap into his vast wealth of influencer marketing knowledge.  Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, from best practices for running an influencer campaign in China, to identifying B2B influencers, to what to look for in a great agency.  

Check out our interview to learn how you can take your influencer marketing strategy to the next level. 

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Thank you so much for doing this call with me!

No problem.  I'm a big fan of your company and a big fan of Mae. 

How did you get connected with Mae?

It's pretty simple. I was in touch with an executive at Google, and she said "You need to speak to Mae at Obviously," and that's how we connected. I'm really supportive of what you're building. 

That's awesome. We think you're great too! I want to ask you a couple questions about your book. How did the idea for the book come about?

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Well there were a few things that led me to writing the book.  First, I moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles.  As you know, Los Angeles and New York are two of the biggest hubs for influencer marketing. I started meeting more and more people who were involved in the industry, either influencers, people focused on different technologies that support it, and even some companies that were involved. I came across one company in particular, it's an online education company based here in LA, and they were working with WeChat influencers in China to sell online licenses to their product, an English learning tool for children.   I just thought it was incredible, because what they were able to do, without having a physical office in China, was really get their company into the market. They did a great job with the identification process, finding out who the right influencers were and if they were producing content that related to the brand. They were able to structure these relationships as affiliate partnerships where they didn't even need to pay up front.

I'm so glad you brought up China, because one of the things I really wanted to ask you about was your expertise in global marketing, and China specifically.  Obviously China is unique because they have their own social media platforms and are very separate from the rest of the social media community. 

China is a relatively closed but very thriving social media ecosystem. Chinese consumers are very ready to act on recommendations from influencers, especially regarding international brands, as there is a mistrust of many local products.

Platforms such as WeChat are very popular.  My wife is Chinese and her parents, who are much older, are probably on WeChat more than I am on social media. From a company perspective, however, it’s challenging, unless you're already operating there, to even set up an account on any of these sites. Especially for a business account, you need to be a registered local entity. You'll need to have a local phone number for verification codes to be able to provide local subsidiary company information, because local social media firms need to be able to identify who are the companies that are producing that content to comply with local regulations. That's why collaborating with influencers can be opportunistic in China because you don't need to have all that set up. For example, if you're an e-commerce company and you want to test the waters to see if there's market demand for your products, then you can probably get around the hassle of setting up all your own social media accounts by finding the right influencer and tapping into their audience.

That's really interesting.  Would you say that other countries in Asia are operating more like the United States in terms of their social media?

Very much so. I'd say the big difference you'd see is that different platforms are just more popular in other markets. There are some local platforms that are additive, like you have Cyworld in Korea, or in Russia they have VK, but generally speaking across Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, and India, they're using the same types of global platforms. 

(In China) you’ll need to have a local phone number for verification codes to be able to provide local subsidiary company information... That’s why collaborating with influencers can be opportunistic in China because you don’t need to have all that set up.

What are some pitfalls that brands need to think about when they're starting to expand their influencer strategy overseas?

I think a lot ties back to influencer marketing in general. Often, there is a failure to set the goals up front. A lot of times- and you probably see this with your work at Obviously- a company finds an individual that maybe has 200,000 followers or a million followers and they get really excited to work with them, so they reverse-engineer a goal that can allow them to work with the influencer. It just might not make sense. The influencer's content, what their audience goes to them for, just doesn't fit with what the brand does.  Often times this can even lead to backlash, because their audience accuses them of not being authentic to what they are known for. I think that's the same just about anywhere in the world. 

Another major one is a failure to recognize the different ways that you can collaborate with influencers.  I think a lot of what's known, and a lot of why I wrote this book, are very baseline campaigns.  You give a product to somebody or pay somebody to promote X service.  But it’s not just about product sales.  It can be about product research and development, it can be about general brand awareness, or corporate reputation management.

Last November I went on a research trip for the book with a Chinese telecommunications company, they're a B2B type company and they had a big event in London where they invited about 12 of their global influencers, none of whom are Chinese. These individuals are B2B influencers, so generally they have a blog, they have an industry angle, and it’s related to the type of technologies that the company focuses on. So there's people writing about telecom, AI, internet things. And what they do is, they don't pay these people, they give them experiences. They send them to these conferences, they fly them out Business Class, put them in five-star hotels, give them access to executives.  What that does is helps the B2B influencers create a lot of content out there on the internet that's talking about the interesting things that the company is doing, helping to build it’s reputation in the space.  So companies need to realize that it’s not all about these transactional relationships.  You can build these enduring influencer relations function, where you're managing these groups hands-on and finding new ways to activate them and work with them.

A lot of times...a company finds an individual that maybe has 200,000 followers or a million followers and they get really excited to work with them, so they reverse-engineer a goal that can allow them to work with them. It just might not make sense

That's very interesting.  Obviously has also started to break into the B2B influencer marketing sphere. How would you say that identifying influencers for a B2B campaign is different than identifying influencers for a B2C campaign? What kind of person qualifies as a B2B influencer?

For me, B2B influencers in general fall into two buckets. On one hand, they might be an established employee in an existing company or on the other hand they are somebody who is s business owner, generally some kind of consultant, where a lot of their day is spent producing content. They're speaking to people in their area of focus, writing blog posts, writing articles, producing a ton of content on social media.  For example, one of the individuals that I met in London last year, Dez Blanchfield (@dez_blanchfield) personally goes to- I don't even know how many- events all over the world in the tech sector.  He uses those events to get tons of photos, video footage, podcasts, and the second you follow him, your feed is just consumed. It's really good content, but you have to be very interested in the types of things he's producing.

In general, the B2B influencers who work for companies are less independent. The ones who work for themselves have to be very objective, because the second they start working with a company where it seems like they're favoring that company over another, they lose their credibility as an objective source for that industry. So their number one concern is really that objectivity, and the ability to work across multiple companies and be able to still have that degree of authority, and they generally can't take money. 

How does payment work then, or how are these influencers rewarded?

Money in the B2B world is very much a gray area.  You could say that a technology company like SAP or Microsoft paying to fly out these B2B influencers and spending a lot of money for them to be involved in these different activities is kind of paying them in an indirect way.  It's a very delicate dance between the brand and the influencer. The influencer ultimately wants to get money, but the money is most likely not going to come directly from the influencer relations activities. But those activities give influencers exposure to a lot of executives in that company, so they will then get called on when, for example, they're having a leadership meeting, or they need a workshop to better understand a certain type of technology.  So it’s like paying to have someone come to speak, or paying for a workshop advisory session- that's when they get their payday. And that's legitimate.  So what it's really about is, getting them involved, educating, meeting a lot of different people in the company, to the point where they can get an actual project. 

At what point would you say a company ought to be running their own influencer campaign, versus going to an agency? And then, how do they choose the right agency?

That's a good question.  I can probably answer aspects of it.

If we go back to the global conversation, agencies can be very helpful.  If you're talking about expanding into a market, like Asia, or any country that is different from your home market, and you're trying to find a really good influencer, you probably want to find an agency partner or a local partner that can help you find someone, and also communicate with them in the right way. I think Mae actually gave an example in Digital Influence, when she was doing a campaign, I want to say in Thailand, and she couldn't find email addresses so she had to send them like a hundred Instagram messages instead.  And they reached back out and were skeptical, like "Are you legit?" Which just goes to show how complicated communication can be if you're not familiar with the market. 

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Iif you find the right agency, not the ones that just put you on retainer and take your money, but someone who is actually plugged in, I think that is actually helpful.  I also think that maybe just getting started, no matter where you are, it’s probably helpful, just to get an understanding of what's involved.  Like you saw through the book, there's just so many steps.  It’s not as simple as just sending somebody an email saying you want to work together, and then magically it all happens. It's such an individualized thing. So it may be a good idea to work with an agency initially to understand what the best practices are and help work some of the relationships they already have access to. But I think at the end of the day, the influencer views whoever they are working with as an extension of the brand.

Yes. That is true.

I think as a brand, you want to have dedicated people and resources so this is a priority function in your organization. You want to be in direct contact with the influencers. I think agencies can be brought in for different initiatives, if there are certain campaigns that you want amplified, or if there are certain one-off bigger events. Once influencer relationship management is fully established within the company, though, I think the best practice really is to bring it in house, resource it, and obviously structure it correctly.  Influencer marketing can be spread across so many different silos: social media, PR, influencer relations, corporate affairs.  It's all over the place. So, often times, the same influencer will get reached out to with different messages from the same company in a very small window.  When you're ready to bring influencer relationship management in house, it needs to be done in a very thoughtful manner with very clear processes, management frameworks, and accountability.

Influencer marketing has so many different silos: social media, PR, influencer relations, corporate affairs.  It’s all over the place. So, often times, the same influencer will get reached out to with different messages from the same company in a very small window.  So when you’re ready to bring it in house, it needs to be done in a very thoughtful manner with very clear processes and frameworks.

Something we've definitely noticed, as an agency working with brands and influencers, is that a lot of times the brand is very confused about what messaging they want to give to the influencer, so it’s up to us to say "We need you telling them this one consistent thing, and they need to have one consistent person to go to," so the influencer feels taken care of.   

Exactly, because you're the experts.  It's the same when you're looking at a traditional PR firm with journalists. There's a certain way to get a message to a journalist to get them to want to run a story or work with you.  It's the same with influencers, but more than just the initial pitch. For every aspect of that relationship, there's a right way to manage it.

I couldn't agree more.  I don't want to hold you much longer, but just to wrap up, could you tell me what is the most creative influencer campaign that you've seen?

 It's one that I featured in the book, in the chapter about global strategy with influencers, that I thought that was really impressive, done by Lenovo. They used the hashtag #goodweird. 

I've actually heard of this campaign.

Yeah. It was a truly globally-oriented campaign. They were releasing one of their Yoga devices, part laptop, part tablet, which is kind of a unique thing. So they came across this hashtag #goodweird online, which was being used to describe things that were good but in weird and interesting ways. They latched onto that, and made the hashtag the basis of a broad-based, global, content-marketing, influencer campaign. 

On the influencer side, they worked with prominent influencers. They had one in Los Angeles, one group in India, and one in Russia. Then Lenovo gave them full production resources to produce these very creative videos, some of which were actually really funny. The influencers made their own, and they also made one where they all came together, with the product woven in, so you don't feel like it’s an advertisement, but very entertaining content. And not only did they get really good results in the markets where the influencers were based and their audiences were based, but it also came up in countries they weren't expecting.  Pakistan, for example, became a high-performing market in terms of product sales on the back end of that, but it wasn't one that they had necessarily structured the campaign around.  

The fact is, I do not want to look at a traditional interruption marketing message... Whereas I always want to find out what people I’m interested in are reading or what they’re buying, because I know that they’re a natural filter for things that I’ll be interested in.  And I think that’s universal no matter where you are in the world. 

That's really cool. And it really shows how effective and global this kind of marketing can be. 

Yeah.  So much of what you read is very US-focused, but it’s really a global phenomenon that's developing differently in different countries. And some of it is dependent on the internet infrastructure and social media landscape.  I mean, we talked about China and how active they are, but how it’s still very closed off from global social media players. In Africa, in Nigeria you have Nollywood, which is a major industry, so you have a lot more celebrity-oriented influencers there. In Latin America you have some of your most prominent influencers still tied into outdated agency systems, where they have a lot less control over their social media or the companies that they can work with. So it’s happening everywhere, but it’s happening in different ways, but at the end of the day it all comes back to word of mouth.  The fact is, I do not want to look at a traditional interruption marketing message, whether that be a television ad, or a YouTube pre-roll, or a pop-up on a website. I'm going to ignore all that, or I'm going to see it and be really frustrated in the course of watching it.  Whereas I always want to find out what people I'm interested in are reading or what they're buying, because I know that they're a natural filter for things that I'll be interested in.  And I think that's universal no matter where you are in the world. 

I absolutely agree.  Well this has been awesome! I'm going to let you go, but thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me!

No problem, Emily. 


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Want to learn more about how to take your influencer marketing strategy worldwide?  Order Digital Influence: Unleash the Power of Influencer Marketing to Accelerate Your Global Business on Amazon today!