The Missed Opportunity in Influencer Marketing Is Exactly What the Damn Thing Is Supposed to Be in the First Place

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, which is then buried underneath a larger, much more wifi proof rock, you’ve probably heard the phrase “influencer marketing.”

The idea is this: A relationship has been established over time between two sides (also known as “a relationship”). In this case, the relationship is between a collective of mission-aligned individuals known to the world as a brand, as well as one individual outside the brand who has a very certain set of skills — finding people who’ve been Taken, but mostly, creating content that grabs people’s attention. This is especially valuable in a world where attention is the most precious and scarce resource. That creative individual also brings with them an audience and, supposedly, influence over that audience.

The two sides to this relationship ostensibly know each other well enough to partner on some projects, and both are equally willing participants since, given their deep context on each other, they understand that the other sees things in a similar way, cares about the same mission, and wants to create the same kind of positive change in the world.

Or, yanno … not.

That’s what influencer marketing SHOULD BE but unfortunately rarely is.

The phrase “influencer marketing” has devolved into a brand asking an individual to perform glorified favors. Sometimes the brand provides compensation through a formal relationship. Sometimes the brand offers merely exposure by cross-promoting the influencer’s work. And still other times, well, the individual receives an email from the brand out of the blue with a message like this:



In any case, the reality is that too much influencer marketing is transactional.

What should be an actual relationship is a brief exchange of goods. And not only does that feel icky … it misses an ENORMOUS-with-a-capital-ENORMOUS business opportunity.


The Missed Opportunity in Influencer Marketing

The missed opportunity lies in the very thing influencer marketing claims to be and should be.

So what is that, exactly?

Influencer marketing should be about longstanding relationships, not transactions, in the name of building powerful content brands, not branded content.

Rather than moments in time that suck value, this should be based on partnering and building together over time in a way that adds value.

This is about building the next GE Reports or Qualcomm Spark or Red Bull Media House or AmEx OPEN Forum or Will It Blend? (BlendTec) video series or Furrow Magazine (John Deere). This is about stepping into NEW territory and building your very own Gimlet Media or Oculus Rift.

This is about creating absolutely unassailable assets that command industry-wide attention and shape the entire market.

But look around the marketing world, and you see this opportunity being missed left and right.

Tomorrow, a shoe brand will reach out to some emerging musicians to collaborate on a few tracks. The musicians will create like only they can create. Their audience will show the content love. The brand will give the musicians money or exposure or both. Then they’ll go their separate ways.

Tomorrow, a B2B software company will email their favorite B2B marketing influencer to collaborate on an ebook. The influencer will write like only they can write. Their audience will show the content love. The brand will give the influencer money or exposure or both. Then they’ll go their separate ways.

Tomorrow, a coffee brand will reach out to a Snapchat influencer to collaborate on a story about attacking your morning to go have a great day and life. The influencer will snap like only they can snap, maybe creating a story about the best morning ever — leaping out of bed in a fun, entertaining way; dancing to something uplifting while they brush their teeth; traveling to the kitchen which they’ve drawn to look like a trek through a jungle. In the corner, fulfilling their side of the deal, they’ll place a logo of the brand. At the end, the influencer will thank the brand for the great idea and drop a link across the screen.

The brand will give the influencer money or exposure or both.

Then they’ll go their separate ways.

This is broken. This is backwards. This is missing the point of creating content.

All three parties involved in these scenarios lose: the brand, the influencer, AND the audience. And that huge opportunity will sit there, untouched, waiting for someone to think differently.

I challenge you to think differently.

What if, instead of this quick-hit transaction, we pair mission-driven brands and industry-leading thinkers and creators? And what if they set out to build an unassailable asset, a standalone content brand?

What if, instead of a brief exchange of value, that coffee brand said to the influencer, “Look, we see the world the same way, our missions are aligned, why not collaborate on something bigger and bolder and more meaningful to the world together? Wouldn’t that yield greater value for both of us?”

Why can’t that brand say to the influencer, “Wait a second, you’re all about energy and inspiration and motivation to attack the day and live a better life. We can see that in your content. That’s what your work is for. Well, that’s what we are for, too. That’s what our product is for, and that’s what our marketing is for. We believe the same things, so what if we set out to create the world’s best content brand about that thing? Instead of a brief campaign, what if we owned this idea of the morning, period? We could write advice columns about morning routines, stories about transforming your life with beautiful design, fun videos to inspire you, and a podcast for your morning commute?

“What if we partnered NOT to create a day-long campaign but to create a years-long project?

“What if we combined our resources and reach with your creative superpowers and influence … and built the single-greatest hub about mornings that the world has ever seen?”


What If?

Here’s the thing: We go to these marketing conferences and hear these case studies and worship the brands and projects I mentioned earlier — the Red Bulls and American Expresses and GEs— all because they’ve built standalone content brands that dominate the world.

Why can’t we build that too? If we partnered together, each side’s limitations would be supplemented by the others’ strengths.

Unlike advertising-based publishers, most brands could support these giant content successes. As brands, our business models are fine — we just need a different MENTAL model:

Relationships over transactions. Content brands over branded content.

For the brand, the benefits are potentially huge:

  • Building trust and loyalty with an audience that craves your content, which can then be used to grow reach, improve customer retention, do some R&D through the publication (like Kraft is famous for doing), and generally become the go-to source for your theme and your mission.
  • Finding a faster track to the right muscle memory to create massive content brands. Rather than forcing a sea change across a slow-moving organization or asking career marketers to try and act like pure creatives, you can go right to the source of those who live and breathe this content stuff.
  • Getting more bang for your buck. An agency will think in billable hours. A full-time team will take potentially months to recruit, train, and get started, not to mention the cost of benefits and the colleagues who will inevitably try to use the content for their own agendas. But an influencer (and/or her team) provides the best of both worlds: the mitigated risk and creative muscle of an agency with the focus and effort of an in-house team … with the bonus hunger and drive of a content entrepreneur whose name means everything.
  • Building an unassailable asset. In the end, you’d build THE go-to asset, unassailable by your competitors, uncompromising in its quality for the audience, and unprecedented in your industry — the home run in a world of brands who try to eek out bunts.

For the influencer, the benefits are potentially huge as well. And while not every influencer would want to partner with just one brand, many likely would. Their benefits would include:

  • Building something truly big and meaningful in the world: You could do this more effectively and more quickly by standing on the back of a brand that offers resources and distribution clout.
  • Growing your influence and reach: In a career path where the portfolio trumps all else, this is the ultimate portfolio-builder. Hell, it’s a career builder. The model is innovative, so you’d be a pioneer…but the asset itself would claim industry-wide attention, and it’d be yours to proudly co-own. This in turn could mean more revenue-generating opportunities like speaking, writing books, teaching, courses, etc. — all things that don’t conflict and in fact would help the cause of the co-owned content brand.
  • Finding a true partner who actually has that much-needed context of YOU in order to work well with you. No more feeling like a used car salesman to your audience. No more debating whether you’re removing too much creativity from the project with the brand. You’d both know each other well enough to collaborate in the real sense. (I’d also argue against any questions of whether this is selling your soul to a single brand. Athletes sign exclusive sponsorship deals with apparel companies, soda brands, and more. It’s all about the selection and vetting process on both sides in the beginning to ensure mutual fit and excitement, which is, again, all about mission alignment.)


In today’s world, we’re still marketing like it’s yesterday, acting like content “campaigns” somehow matter.

Look around you — the war for consumers is over. And guess who won? Consumers!

We as consumers have total control over where we spend our time because we have near infinite choice in every medium, every channel, every screen, every topic. So the name of the game today is attention.

And if you think you can gain lasting attention through influencer transactions instead of relationships … if you believe you can find success with branded content, not content brands … then I have a very wifi-proof rock to sell you.

Full disclosure: This is the model that we're exploring with the content brand I founded and lead, Unthinkable. If you want to swap ideas about the model in theory or Unthinkable specifically:

Here's our most-downloaded episode so far:



Posted on May 5, 2016 .