How We Built An Influencer Marketing Business

This is a piece I published back in October on LinkedIn and I’ve finally managed to convince our editor to feature this on the blog. So without further ado, let’s talk influencer marketing.

Over the past three years at Twenty3, we’ve built our own sports influencer network that we use to drive website traffic, app downloads, betting sign-ups and video views for customers, ranging from world-leading sports publishers to betting organisations and mobile gaming companies.

It’s been a long journey, and, to be honest, at times, a slog. But we got there in the end and we now have a successful and profitable influencer program.

I’d love to say that Influencer Marketing was something we’d always considered because we had the foresight to see its value, but the truth is that we actually fell into it by complete accident.

Back in 2017, we were looking for more effective ways to drive traffic to our website (Football Whispers) as our primary traffic driver up to that point – social media advertising – was becoming increasingly expensive and as a consequence, less and less viable. Believe it or not, at one point we were spending over £1,000 a day on social media ads. Clearly this wasn’t sustainable.

We would spend hours each day analysing our site’s Google Analytics, looking at all of our sources of traffic to the site and looking to find a winning formula. We were producing some seriously good football content that the time (and still are of course), so it wasn’t a surprise when a large fan account on Facebook would find one of our articles and share it with their followers.

Whenever this happened, we would immediately be able to see a spike in our traffic and the time users were spending on our site. Eventually, we decided to reach out to some of these fan accounts that had grown big followings on social simply by sharing favourite content and opinions about their football club (think ArsenalFanTV). We created partnerships with 10 of these influencers, whereby they would share our articles focused on their club and in return we would pay them a fee for every 1000 sessions they delivered for our site – which is more commonly known as a ‘CPM’. 

Some of our early influencers.

Each day, we would have one of our editorial team write an article tailored for their club and individually email each influencer a link to post. When we grew the network to 60 influencers, we knew we needed a more efficient process.

However, with the influencer scene starting to blow-up through the promotion of beauty products and fast fashion brands, it wasn’t long before we were approached by a big influencer marketing agency who told us they could send our website traffic skyrocketing. Initially, the idea that someone could take what we were already doing and scale it exponentially was really appealing.

However, as we sat through a mystery-filled presentation that promised us some astronomical headline numbers without any real explanation of how, two things were apparent: Firstly, we were being shown a templated, out-of-the-box ‘solution’ that had probably been given to ten different companies that week; And secondly, that something wasn’t quite right.

As anyone who has worked in advertising or marketing before will know, such offerings are typically very reluctant to be held to any kind of exact figures, because there are so many variables and things that can impact the eventual performance. As we tried to dive deeper, it was also clear that there was no real understanding of metrics that we cared about as a publisher.

Even something as basic as Sessions (rather than simply Clicks) was apparently not something they could offer. What they did offer was reporting and charging based on Clicks and little else. Nevermind more complex metrics such as audience retention and engagement. After this meeting (and several others with similar agencies), a couple of things struck us.

Firstly, we felt there was something shady going on and these experts were keen to distract us from it with impressive ‘results’. And, secondly, that there was nothing more sophisticated to these proposals. It was a fairly simple transaction between two parties and therefore, this was something we could easily do ourselves.

Though the concept of using ‘celebrities’ to sell things is an age-old marketing tactic, with the rise and ubiquity of social media, the scale, diversity and, crucially, access to these celebrities (influencers) opened up a whole new world. Inevitably, as new industries emerge, there’s a lot to learn, adapt and improve. Three years ago, the influencer marketing industry was in its infancy and so the timing was relatively fortuitous. We could learn on the go, make mistakes and grow.

The first few months were hectic, particularly as we trebled our network of influencers. However, if I were to capture the three biggest learnings from that period they would be:

  1. Most of these fan accounts were keen to monetise what they were already doing.
  2. It’s very easy to get distracted by the headline figures.
  3. The margins don’t warrant manually emailing influencers with content every time it’s ready.

Being a technology company, we thought we could solve all of these growing problems with technology. There were a few influencer marketing software products out there, but in the end, we felt we had a slightly different model and with our talented team we could build something better suited to us.

So, we decided to create an internal tool that we call Influencer Ninja. Influencer Ninja was quickly able to recognise whenever we post a new article, identify which club(s) the article was about and automatically send a trackable link to each relevant influencer. This massively increased efficiency and, by saving us some invaluable time, allowed us to broaden our focus.

The Influencer Ninja dashboard. How we monitor and track our influencer activity.

At first, we were amazed by the results we were getting. At our peak, the Football Whispers website hit over 2 million sessions a month and it appeared that our influencer programme was finally delivering us the results we wanted. And while it’s always easy to get excited by vanity metrics, once we delved into the actual data of some of the traffic, we knew we had another problem.

It turns out that many of the owners behind these communities were very (very) keen to maximise their revenue, or, as we like to call it; ‘go rogue’. They would continuously find new ways to game the system. This could range from relatively well-known activities like posting clickbait headlines all the way up to using bots to click on links automatically and even manipulating Facebook layouts.

The whole thing became such an issue that we ended up forming our own internal police force – affectionately known as the ABI, or the Affiliate Bureau of Investigation. This crack team was dedicated to looking into and identifying these rogue influencers and removing them from the network.

We literally had to have a call every morning to review results, list possible suspects and devise plans of action in order to stop this happening. You might legitimately wonder why we took it so seriously. At the end of the day, we were still getting real people engaging with our content.

However, it was the traffic that wasn’t real or from regions that were tough to monetise that really bothered us, because first and foremost we wanted to grow an audience on Football Whispers that we could monetise and that loved coming back to the site. We also had our minds fixed on potentially selling our newly found skills as a service to other publishers.

So we knew that we had to build a network of influencers that could deliver quality audiences with actual results for eventual paying customers. We even restructured our payment model so that influencers would be incentivised and rewarded heavily based more on engagement figures (like Average Session Duration) rather than simply Sessions. Of course, this didn’t stop many of them from trying to find new ways to game the system, but it helped dramatically in reducing the volume of fake traffic.

As a piece of advice for anyone who may be running a campaign at the moment and might be concerned about inflated results, we found it really helpful to set out clear benchmarks that we could hold ourselves and the influencers to account. By having even a rough idea of what ‘good’ looks like, you can easily begin to spot anomalies or suspicious overperformance and act accordingly.

Over time, we were actually able to engage with and train the influencers to post in a more ‘ethical’ fashion, dropping the clickbait headlines for genuine comments about the article. In many cases, we went on to build good relationships with the influencers and even asked them for their input into the content we were producing.

Ultimately they know their audience best and so by asking them what they thought their communities would want to read, we’ve been able to further refine what we write about and naturally grow our own community as a result. I’m proud to say that we now have a really strong network of influencers who are completely bought into our vision. They know they’re not just distributors to us, they are an integral part in our story and our success. When you have your influencers involved in the end to end process, that’s where the magic happens.

As you can probably tell by now, we’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into building our influencer marketing business.

If you have any questions then please feel free to get in touch by messaging me directly on LinkedIn. I’d love to help out.