Not every business model will work for every business need. And business models that once worked, may not always work.

I recently came face to face with those truths as I moved through the steps of a digital marketing campaign. I won’t identify the specific digital marketing company I’d hired because they were an honest and hard working bunch. Though their results were disappointing (to put it mildly), they certainly weren’t out to mistreat me. 

It was all about my “Keeping Up: Backgrounders to All the Big Technology Trends You Can’t Afford to Ignore“, a book that I’d just published independently. Since, unlike many of my other titles, this book didn’t have a traditional publisher with its own in-house marketing team, it was obviously up to me to take charge.

I briefly experimented with a number of advertising platforms used by the independent book industry with little success. But it was the openness, savvy, and enthusiasm of one particular digital marketing company that persuaded me to invest in a significant campaign. 

The process, I was told, would first require me to create flashy landing pages on my website for both the book and my own profile. I would then need to build up accounts on Facebook (including the purchase of expensive – and in hindsight largely useless – Facebook ads) and Instagram in addition to my existing LinkedIn and Twitter presence. There were two reasons for this: to generate greater “brand recognition” for me as an author, and because potential influencer partners would expect it.

Social media influencers

Just what is an “influencer partner?” That would be someone who’s well known and respected within his or her professional field. The goal is that an influencer who promotes your product can increase your visibility on social media in ways you could never do on your own. 

This isn’t a new idea. Major brands have been using celebrities to represent them forever. What is relatively new is an entire industry filled with thousands of lesser-known individuals who have built up social media accounts with tens or hundreds of thousands of followers. 

Owners of such accounts are, it seems, qualified to call themselves “influencers.” And those of us looking to sell products (like my book) can hire the services of an influencer who will, in exchange, promote the product through the usual social media channels and even host an “Instragram live” interview.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with all this. Due to the nature of the medium, fraud or material misrepresentation is rare or perhaps even impossible. I have no problem with people trying to make a living this way. 

But does it work? I’m sure it sometimes does. A “tier one” influencer like a sports megastar or a public figure on the Elon Musk level is going to attract serious attention. Without a doubt, a promotion from a tier one influencer will drive the masses to your door. Of course, you probably can’t afford Elon Musk (even if he were for sale). 

That leaves us with the tier two influencers, whose ability to drive your success is decidedly less certain. In my case, the influencer campaigns and interviews the team at my marketing company organized for me drew reasonable levels of viewer attention and engagement. The influencers themselves were professional and supportive. The whole process progressed pretty much according to plan.

What actually happened

But it all failed miserably. Perhaps, as my marketing company suggested, my “brand recognition” and “market reach” has grown. I won’t dispute it because there’s simply no way to know. But the only metric that mattered to me was book sales. And, as far as I can tell, all of our efforts only managed to increase sales by 31 copies. 

I spent close to $16,000 on the campaign, which means I would have needed to sell around 3,500 copies just to break even. The fact that I sold only 31 leaves me facing an overall loss in the neighborhood of 99%. (Although I won’t complain quite so loudly in a few months while enjoying my tax write off.)

What went wrong? Perhaps it was the product: my book. Perhaps digital marketing is less a science than a lottery. It can work, but whether it actually will requires intricate coordination between a number of independently moving parts. Or, in other words, luck. 

Or perhaps the influencer model is just plain broken.

Have you had your own positive or negative experiences with digital marketing? Do you have insights from the “other side?” Why not share them here.

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