How to Create an Influencer Plan that Drives Your Content Marketing

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When we first launched the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) back in 2007, we had little more than two nickels to rub together. Today, the site averages 130,00 unique visitors per month, almost 300,000 page views, and more than 50,000 email newsletter subscribers (both daily and weekly).

In each category, this is double our performance from 2012, and almost all of our revenue at CMI, in one way or another, can be traced to one CMI blog post.

I share these results with you because I believe any company can reproduce the same kind of results by being eternally focused and diligently consistent with the creation and distribution of exceptional content.

Below you’ll find the case study of how we did it.

Getting started

With minimal resources and budget, we looked at all available options for creating content. After looking at the competitive landscape and audience need (our audience consists of marketing managers and directors in mostly enterprise organizations), we believed there was an opportunity for daily instructional posts about the practice of content marketing.

We started with a budget of $6,000 per month to cover five posts per week. (We didn’t start weekend posting until 2012. Today, we publish once per day, seven days a week.) Those funds needed to cover raw content costs, editing costs, proofreading, uploading into WordPress, and any images for individual posts. It goes without saying, but this was not much to work with. Most of our competition has 10 to 50 times this amount of budget.

The only feasible way we thought we could make this work was to reach out to outside contributors, without paying them, in exchange for promoting them on our site.

The influencer list

Luckily, we had a head start with a defined influencer list.

We defined an influencer as a blogger, competitor, or media organization that was creating content of interest to our target audience. We actually rated our influencer list quarterly in something called the Top 42 Content Marketing Blogs.

Initially, this list was made up of influencers we found by tracking keywords (like “content marketing”) in Google Alerts, authors in industry trade publications, those who were talking about the topic on Twitter, and other bloggers that we just found interesting. Although the main list included 42 people, there was a secondary database of more than 300 people that we tracked in one way or another.

Getting the attention of influencers

As influencers, these people are fairly important.

They generally have real jobs, and are extremely active on social networks, spending their time sharing content and blogging. Getting on their radar is not easy. So, to get their attention, we gave away content gifts.

We did this in a few different ways …

Social media 4-1-1

Originally coined by Andrew Davis, author of Brandscaping, Social Media 4-1-1 is a sharing system that enables a company to get greater visibility with social influencers.

Here’s how it works.

For every six pieces of content shared via social media (think Twitter for example):

  • Four are pieces of content from your influencer target that are also relevant to your audience. This means that 67% of the time you are sharing content that is not yours, and calling attention to content from your influencer group.
  • One piece can be your original, educational piece of content.
  • One piece can be your sales piece, like a coupon, product notice, press release or some other piece of content that no one will pay attention to.

While the numbers don’t have to be exact, it’s the philosophy that makes this work. When you share influencer content, they notice. And you share, without asking for anything in return … so that when you do need something someday, the influencers are more likely to say yes.

Big content gifts

As we tracked our “top content marketing blogger” list, we decided we could get better visibility with influencers by actually ranking the influencers and sharing it out with the masses.

This was an incredible success.

We hired an outside research expert to put together a methodology of how to rank the top bloggers, looking at areas like consistency, style, helpfulness, originality, and social sharing. Then each quarter, we would publicize the list, showcase the top 10, send out a press release, and try to make a big deal out of it.

Needless to say, the top 10 and the honored top 42 loved the list. (Copyblogger was a two-time winner.) Not only did most of this influencer group share the list with their audiences, approximately half of the top 42 influencers placed our widget (with their personal rank) on their home page, linking back to our site. So not only are we building long-term relationships with these influencers, we are getting credible links and traffic as well.

In addition to the top bloggers list, we started to put together large educational ebooks showcasing the influencers work.

For example, in 2009 and again in 2011, we launched the Content Marketing Playbook (the 2013 version is in production). The Playbook included over 50 case studies about content marketing, with many coming directly from our influencers. We made sure to note in the Playbook which examples came from which influencers.

When we released the Playbook and let the influencers know about the eBook, those we highlighted in the Playbook eagerly shared the content with their audiences.

Why was this important?

When we first started with this idea, CMI didn’t have a large audience, so we had to either pay for promotion of the eBook or get an incredible amount of social sharing. The influencer sharing is what made it possible for us to reach 50,000 downloads of the eBook in a fairly short time period.

The importance of a community blog

As we didn’t have the resources to pay for raw, educational content about content marketing, we knew exactly where we needed to turn … our influencers.

When we announced the original CMI blog, the first group we reached out to was our database of social influencers. Dozens of these influencers were more than happy to help us out, as we had promoted them for years, without ever asking for anything in return.

Michele Linn served as our content editor, organizing the editorial calendar and topics with each of the influencers. It was Michele’s job to heavily edit the influencer content we received. Yes, most of them were already pretty decent writers, but we wanted their content to really shine. Why? We believed that if we presented them as true rock stars on our site, with amazingly helpful content, the influencers would be more likely to share the content with their audience.

This was critical, because at the time we had very little reach and following online … we needed to leverage their networks in order for us to build our network.

Influencer program results

CMI started to see positive traffic patterns almost immediately simply because of the amount of social sharing from the network.

That, in turn, led to more social sharing and some amazing SEO results. The CMI blog platform has enabled us to launch the largest content marketing event in the world, a magazine, two webinars per month, and every other revenue-generating activity we have.

While you may or may not launch a blog that has outside contribution like ours, committing to maintaining a social influencer list is a critical component to your social sharing program. Oh, one outside benefit I wasn’t expecting — a good number of people on our social influencer list are now good friends of mine.

How’s that for social media magic?

Editor’s Note: This post was adapted from Joe Pulizzi’s third book, Epic Content Marketing: How to Tell a Different Story, Break through the Clutter, and Win More Customers by Marketing Less, released this month.

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Reader Comments (36)

  1. says

    When I worked at VaynerMedia I pitched a very similar idea to our client, The Oprah Winfrey Network. Unfortunately the program never got the greenlight, and I was left with my unfounded guesses about how successful it could be.

    Thanks for sharing a case study, Joe. It’s time for me to sell this idea to my new clients!

    By the way, I just shared your book on Google+ and I’ll be purchasing it on Monday.

  2. says

    Wow, Joe…thank you so much for sharing your strategy in such specifics- this definitely strikes a cord with me. I have been working hard on building relationships with influencers, and the tactics you’ve described here sound like fantastic ways to add value and extend the site’s reach.

    Thanks again. Will definitely be putting some of your advice into action!

  3. says

    Good stuff, Joe. I think I’ll give that book a good look. I’ve heard about the influencer list, but hadn’t really given the purpose of having one much thought. Huh. Once again, I’m schooled by the pros about what I could be doing better.

    On a different note, if you’re reading this Joe, I appreciate your webinars. I try to watch one whenever I am able to make the time to do so. They have been a valuable asset. So, thank you.


  4. says


    Great post! Question: what was the order of events from when you started producing content with the $6000/mo budget, to when you reached out to your influencers for their content? From what I remember back in the day, there was Junta42, and it was just you posting your own content. Did you post the 42 most influential bloggers from Junta42 or from the CMI blog?

    Thanks Joe!

    • says

      Hey Fernando…great question. It was just me for the first three years. Michele and team weren’t brought on board until 2010.

      Was great chatting with you at #cmworld my friend!

  5. says

    Joe – quick question for clarification on the 4-1-1 Sharing System.

    Should the focus be on one influencer at a time? Or is the 4 in the ratio made up of any influencer’s content? Or do you focus on multiple influencers at once using the 4-1-1 ratio for each one?

    Hopefully that makes sense, because I just confused myself.

    Either way, I think the point is – when you want the attention of influencers – you should share more of their stuff than your own. Correct? I doubt there’s anything magic about 4-1-1.

    • says

      Hi Kasey…the 4 in the equation means ALL influencers on your list, so that means you can share multiple influencer posts.

      And you are right…you need to be sharing MUCH more influencer content than your own OWNED content.

      Hope that helps.

  6. says

    What’s so great about your original strategy is that you actually sat down and planned it out. You’d be surprised how many people I talk with that have no idea where they want to go, and perhaps more importantly, how they’ll get there.

    I had no money when I started my latest blog and turned to Google Books. I researched historical topics that would interest people where I live, and which weren’t online much in a clean, crisp, and clear way.

    You can always find some area that’s lacking in content and fill that gap, and maybe you’ll even create an audience in the process.

    • says

      Greg, you talked about using google books to create resources. Just want to ask-did you buy the books or did you use the pages that were available to write your review?

      And secondly what strategy did you apply to monetize the traffic you got from writing such awesome content?

      Joe just have to say thanks for sharing this inspiring story with us.

  7. says

    Extremely helpful article. People (including myself) tend to underestimate how important it is to leverage other influencers networks, especially when your community is just starting up or is very small. Awesome post, can’t wait to see the results of this advice Joe!

  8. says

    Great post! Definitely something more bloggers should work proactively on as the traffic and social media shares will not come by themselves. I like the 4-1-1 system!

  9. says

    Awesome stuff Joe. I think knowing how to network and build relationships at a very high level is an intangible, yet *mandatory*, skill for every content marketer. I followed this exact strategy the moment they gave me the reigns at Drillinginfo, and continues to pay huge dividends.

    Thanks again for all you do to (virtually) mentor us all. Can’t wait to read the book, brother!!

  10. says

    Great story of your starts with great tips for every reader. I found very useful the idea of 4-1-1 and the importance of the community.

    When i started my blog i didn’t know almost nothing. Thanks Jon! You are a contributor at my evolution.

  11. says

    When you first published that ranked list, what was your readership? Did it matter to the people on that list because your blog was already (somewhat) popular? Or were those people just excited about the exposure and in turn shared which in turn increased your exposure?

    • says

      Hi Jared…when we first published the list in January of 2008, we didn’t have more than 5,000 visitors a month. So we weren’t popular at all.

      But the key was we started building relationships with these people before the list came out. They already knew who we were, so that really helped in them accepting the list.

      Hope that helps.

  12. says

    Man, $6,000 is a bit more than two nickels to rub together.

    I’ve launched a content firm with enough cash to buy the domain name and hosting. Presently, I do most of the writing myself and have a few writers/editors/researchers who are all new to the world of online writing, yet well trained and skilled.

    I’ll be reaching out to influencers more when I’ve decided our company is ready for the exposure.

    As a respectful aside, this was not a terribly engaging post.

      • says

        Ah, great. Thanks for clarifying. Impressive growth, I look forward to having an actual budget for such things. For now, it’s just budgeting time and sacrificing other paying opportunities.

  13. says

    “We believed that if we presented them as true rock stars on our site, with amazingly helpful content, the influencers would be more likely to share the content with their audience. ”

    100% agree. Your best influencers deserve a little recognition for what they do. And most of us love to see something positive tied with our names so why wouldn’t we share it and give ourselves a pat on the back? By promoting your influencers you are helping build their personal brands, which can then positively reflect back on your own site because they can be seen and reached there.

  14. says

    Great article.Working with an influencer to promote your brand can be very beneficial to improving brand awareness and in turn sales. This is definitely an exercise in fit, we have to ensure that the influencer matches the personality and goals of your brand. Once you find an individual that suits your brand’s initiatives, collaborate with them and watch as engagement numbers rise.

  15. says

    Thanks for sharing these tips Joe! Marketers should take time reading this article if they want to have more productive outcome in their campaign.

  16. says

    The 4-1-1 rule is completely changing the way I think about reaching influencers. We’ve tried to get their attention by creating awesome content, but have really missed out on sharing what they’ve already created. Mind open.


  17. says

    Very informative article. Do you think the 4-1-1 system is applicable to Facebook for retail brand building as well? The system sounds great to use on Twitter.

  18. says

    Wow these are really great tips Joe. I am grateful after reading the whole article. Great and beneficial knowledge from expert are my guide to achieve what they have now. The approaches you’re sharing are precise. I put myself out on building connections with influencers and I see that you’re ideas here are incredible technique to motivate me on extremely active on social networks and start getting the attention of influencers. I will definitely follow your ways. Please continue to share your great ideas and thanks again.

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