When was the last time you felt more inclined to buy a product, believe in a new workout regimen, or try a risky fashion statement because a blogger you like, a celeb you follow, or a friend with stellar taste did it first?

A survey from digital agency Burst Media, which looked at influencer campaigns across 15 key advertising verticals, found that for every $1.00 spent on influencer marketing programs, advertisers received $6.85 in earned media value. Not too shabby.

To boot, brands are becoming more creative than ever when it comes to how they work with influencers.

Notable examples: Gillette Venus looked to professional dancer Julianne Hough to host a dance-off to promote their new Venus Swirl razor blade while Nerf, long-loved toy brand (my personal fave: the "cheater" vortex aero howler football which ensures a perfect spiral), tapped into YouTube group Dude Perfect to connect with their target audience and demonstrate their product in action.

Both are great examples of how collaborations with social media stars and celebrities can help to build your credibility among consumers, but that's not the only benefit. Influencer marketing also gives you the ability to enhance your public relations efforts by filling engagement and trust building "holes" that traditional media can't always deliver.

Read on to learn how investing in your own digital spokespeople can take your PR efforts to a whole 'nother level!

#1 - Influencers build trust and give consumers a life-like understanding of your brand

Consumers trust reporters because of the reputable publications for which they write. They recognize reporters' authority and rely on it when news breaks. But trusting an influencer is different. Consumers don't trust them because of their proven track records for fact checking info. They trust them because the influencer has exhibited a point of view the consumer can relate to or they've demonstrated niched knowledge (what's up, beauty bloggers!) in an honest way.

Stefania Pomponi, Founder, President and Chief Evangelist of Clever Girls, an influencer marketing agency states, "Influencers like bloggers and Instagrammers have worked hard to build trusted communities, and they don't want to do anything to jeopardize that trust."

With influencers, there's a sense of authenticity and honesty that even the brands with the biggest pocketbooks can't buy.

Vulnerability also plays a part. "Consumers feel a connection to influencers because they see much of their lives, private and professional, play out on social media," adds Kelsey Williams of talent procurement platform Thuzio. "People trust recommendations from other people more than a traditional sponsored or promoted social media post. The more authentic the alignment of influencer and brand, the better the understanding will be."

Traditional advertising will always have a place in the marketing ecosystem, but trust is shifting toward authentic interactions: genuine dialogue and online relationships that develop over time.

#2 - Influencers create real emotional connections with their audience

Unless you're broadcasting tear-jerker TV commercials, pushing conscious products or services, or delivering kittens every year, chances are much of your PR efforts, though surely valiant, aren't evoking oodles of emotion. Cue the power of influencers, the sincere storytellers that strike a chord with consumers through the open windows to their lives.

Influencers are able to create emotional connections with consumers, especially their own audiences. They're seen as relatable, familiar, and trustworthy, just like a good friend. It's much more trustworthy than traditional advertising or PR where consumers are forced to take brands for their word, although those stories are just as important to tell.

Schoola, an online consignment shop that specializes in children's clothing, donates 40% of their proceeds to schools. They recently worked with influencers to spread the word about their charitable #PassTheBag campaign, where they asked community members and influencers alike to request a donation bag and then #PassTheBag to three friends in an effort to fundraise for area schools in need. They even got Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg to participate.

Schoola's Director of Social Media & Blog, Turi Fesler Steffen, comments, "This campaign was particularly successful because everyone who participated had important memories from their school-age years that resonated with others." She adds, "One blogger, Erin Loechner of Design for Mankind, mentioned that her parents were both teachers and her donation was coming from a very personal space. There's no replacement for that kind of authenticity."

#3 - Influencers grant customers "permission" to engage with your brand

If you think about it, it's not all that different than peer influence. Remember the first time you saw someone wearing skinny jeans? Chances are, if they were someone you thought had good fashion sense or always seemed to get it "right" with trends, you were probably more inclined to adopt the skinny jean yourself.

Once an influencer talks about your brand, it opens up a gateway to engagement. It grants customers "permission" to engage with your brand because they've seen someone they admire and trust do the same. Pomponi comments, "When influencers recommend a brand or service, it's not only because they're a fan, it's because they know their audience has the potential to become fans as well. As a result, the influencer has the potential to become the 'gateway' to the brand for that consumer--and that can be very impactful."

Engagement can include participating in conversations, sharing content with social networks, or taking action and making a purchase. Think of influencer relations as the catalyst to the conversion funnel your PR strategy helps to kick-start. PR pros start the buzz, your influencers keep the conversation going, conveying their real-life experiences in an authentic, response-garnering way, and the consumer takes it from there.

Williams adds "Being a part of a conversation makes a consumer feel 'in the know' and closer to the influencer, and ultimately the brand."

Which type of brand you will you strive to be? The one that sends prospective customers an email blast, or a handwritten invitation?

Published on: Dec 15, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.