In case you hadn't heard, Facebook plans to introduce a dislike button in the very near future. Actually, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the company plans to add buttons that allow users to express a range of sentiments beyond a simple "like" such as sympathy or solidarity. While this may answer the long-standing requests of Facebook's consumers, imagine for a moment what this means for marketers: In a quest for likes, the worst thing that could happen was that nobody liked your post (or brand). But now there is a distinct possibility that the reverse may be true-that people will be able to actively express negative sentiment.

There's not a marketer out there who isn't aware of the power of consumer opinion and likely spends a fair bit of time monitoring their reviews, ratings and comments on websites and social networks. Influencing consumer opinion is part of the DNA of marketing and takes many forms, from one-to-one communication on those platforms to large-scale advertising campaigns. However, one tactic, influencer marketing, can offer a great way to shape the opinions that matter most.

Many small business owners know someone in their community who influences opinion-maybe throughout the town, but more likely in a specific area: the soccer moms who know where the best deals on sports equipment are; the old timers who shape local politics; the head of the local classic car club whose ride everyone admires. And it's likely that you spend a little more time with these customers. You make a personal connection and ensure that they are aware of your latest products and services, and maybe even buy them a cup of coffee and talk mutual interests.

Influencer marketing isn't all that different, really. You identify, then target your marketing efforts at, individuals with influence over your potential customers. As with many aspects of social media marketing, it can be easy to fall into a numbers game and look for those with the biggest follower or fan base. But influencer marketing is reflective of a more mature form of marketing in which the math isn't so simple. Influence is better calculated by looking at a combination of expertise and authority along with audience reach and the strength of relationship with that audience.

It is possible that identifying influencers in your social sphere will be a similar process as that in your local community. You may already have a fair amount of engagement with your Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or other social communities. For others, though, identifying the truly influential people in your sphere will be the first hurdle. There are a number of tools that you can use (both free and for-fee) to help identify social media influencers.

Then you need to turn your attention to engaging and interacting with them in a genuine way. Remember to stay true to your authentic (brand) self. Social media marketing is, after all, social. And nothing comes off worse in a social setting than being a fake. So find genuine points of shared interest and values and opportunities to interact and engage.

If you are already following my advice and creating your own content, consider creating content about your influencers or that incorporates aspects of their expertise. Ask for their opinion and quote them -show that you not only recognize who they are, but that you value their role in your market.

And, of course, there's always perks. In much the same way you might offer a preview event for the most loyal customers of your boutique or a discount for those on your email list, you can offer influencers early access, deals or incentives. The hope, of course, is that they'll try your products and services and share them with their network. This isn't a paid celebrity endorsement deal, though, so there's no guarantees of a positive review-unless, of course, you are doing good business, which is always worth talking about.

It won't come as a surprise to anyone who has been successful building a local following that investing in developing a relationship with valuable members of your community is essential. And, research proves you are right: According to a McKinsey Study, marketing-inspired word-of-mouth generates more than twice the sales of paid advertising, and these customers have a 37% higher retention rate. Clearly, this translates to social media. The bonus gift? The investment in influencer marketing will pay off, not only with a high return on investment (six to one), but in long-standing relationships with your best customers.

Published on: Sep 28, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.