CEOs are often skeptical of the value of social and influencer marketing.

However, more and more, companies are realizing the benefit that a well-executed influencer strategy can yield. For example, a single campaign for Simple Mills this past year increased sales nearly four times the amount we normally see in the same timeframe - at a minimal cost in comparison to other marketing initiatives.

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending VMG's Influencer Marketing Summit, a summit hosting some of the top names in consumer products and influencer marketing to discuss what works, what doesn't, and how to measure success. It inspired me to collect some of the best practices we've used and watched others use.

Influencers - the new (old) way of driving growth

Brands leveraging consumers with social reach to drive growth and sales is not entirely new. Prior to the Internet, companies like Mary Kay and Pampered Chef used networks to drive their growth.

It's not quite the same as influencer marketing today, but there's been a proven track record and history on the power of consumer circles -- one that has dynamically increased with consumer use of blogs and social networks.

Consider this - nearly 1/3 of the US population uses instagram on a regular basis and 75% take action after liking a new brand. Users are much more likely to trust the content posted by another social media user than a traditional advertisement.

This makes social media channels like instagram a hugely valuable tool in building brand awareness. But, these channels work best when the message doesn't come from you. So how then do you get the message out there?

Influencers. People who regularly post their opinions, lives, and commentary on social media channels for others to see.

There is clear data this works

Nielsen Catalina Solutions analyzed a White Wave Foods campaign and proved that a single influencer campaign delivered 11x the ROI of banner ads.

Another marketing strategy firm, Tribe Dynamics, has used revenue and online comment data to prove the correlation between share of voice and sales growth. Brands with disproportionate share of voice had the highest growth rates in their categories.

So how then to make this work?

Compatibility rules

It starts with choosing the right influencers to work with.

Virtually every consumer category has influencers today. It can mean a dizzying number of people to consider across a number of platforms.

Narrow your search by seeking out individuals who truly move others. In the best-selling book Tipping Point, they're called "Mavens." They are people others look to to understand what is next. They may not be the most popular person, but they are the people whose opinions are the most highly regarded.

Handpick those who best match your core values, brand, products and other elements of your business. Don't assume that any and every influencer can have impact for you - the right fit is important.

Size matters

But, don't confuse size with influence power.

Bigger isn't always better. A great influencer strategy should make use of all micro and macro influencers - a blend of people with both large and small followings.

It's commonly believed that big influencers should be the focus, but this is misleading. They're often risk averse and reluctant to jump on the train first. It's typically the best micro-influencers who influence the macro-influencers.

Focus on micro-influencers who deliver exceptional content.

Cultivate relationships

Influencer strategy looks a lot more like PR than it does social media - it is about developing rapport and building relationships.

We do this through regular interaction with the influencers in our category. It can be through hosting trips, dinners, or even yoga sessions.

Reach out to influencers when you're on the road to coordinate get-togethers when you're visiting their city. Have your social teams interact with them online. Build and maintain your connection.

Leave room for creativity

Influencer campaigns best succeed when there are guidelines, collaboration, and brand clarity - but avoid being too prescriptive.

You want to ensure they're referencing your brand properly, using the right logo, and are in alignment with your objectives. But you also need to trust that they know their followers and allow them to speak in their own voice.

Give them the freedom to talk about you the way that feels organic to their audience, and highlight what they want to highlight. Avoid strict criteria or providing a script.

Go beyond the reach

Don't just tap into influencers to reach their audiences! Involve them in your innovation process, allowing them to help you grow your business.

They can be great sources for data and other insights, or participate in focus groups to test products and share feedback. They spot trends among their followers as well as happenings within your market. Look to them to be your eyes and ears.

Really solid influencers can also generate content for you. They're often skilled and talented in photography, writing, video shooting and editing and other media to support your content efforts.

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Published on: Apr 14, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.