This post is part of our “Optimizing Your Arts Marketing Practice” blog salon.

When I first started working in arts marketing, we spent a lot of human resources and efforts on media relations. At my first job, close to 20 years ago, we had one communications officer whose sole responsibility was writing copy for press releases, media advisories, and stroking the egos of reporters and reviewers pre- and post-performances. A preview article in our local paper could sometimes sell up to 100 tickets in one day, and we would utter “you just can’t buy that kind of publicity.”

As we know, those days are long gone. Now I sometimes see my media releases reprinted word for word in the online version of our local newspaper, with no opportunities for an interview. There certainly are no arts reviewers left in my community I can try to woo with comp tickets on an aisle and an exclusive internet connection so the review can be filed before the paper goes off to press.

As I was preparing for my presentation at the upcoming National Arts Marketing Project Conference Nov. 9-12 in Seattle, “Using Marketing Influencers to Grow Audiences,” I interviewed a number of bloggers, digital media experts, marketers, and influencers to get their take on the highs and lows of using social influencers to promote your products and experiences. We have had some great success over the past year with using small, localized influencers in my city of Kingston, Ontario, but you will have to come to my session to learn more (and hear some great guest panelists).

Trusting someone to share their uncensored opinions about your upcoming exhibition or concert season for potentially thousands of people to see is not only stressful for the marketing department, but certainly the front-line and artistic staff as well. Letting go of the control of the message tends to make communicators uncomfortable, and with good reason. Here are five red flags to consider if you want to start working with digital influencers.

  1. Life gets in the way. Many digital influencers are individual people with personal brands that they have built up over years of effort. If you are using localized influencers and you live in a smaller city like I do, there is a good chance these people are not making a full-time living blogging or doing sponsored posts on Instagram. These people are hyper visible, but life happens, and job changes, pregnancies, and other life challenges may be shared online and get personal quickly. Are you OK with having your brand be promoted online with someone who may cry on IGTV or have their lifestyle blog turn into a mommy blog once they have a baby?
  2. The media influencer is the message. The key to success on social media is authenticity. That means your carefully crafted message may not be translated the exact way you were hoping if you have given the person the flexibility to write it in his or her own voice. Are you OK with giving someone else full control to share how they feel about your product?
  3. Arts influencers just aren’t that popular. In smaller cities, many of the high profile micro-influencers are into city attractions, food, drink, and fashion. There are exceptions, of course, but there aren’t a lot of influencers who specialize in theatre, visual arts, opera, and classical music. Is your target audience the same audience who engages with your local influencers? If not, it’s not worth the investment.
  4. They want to be paid. Complimentary passes or tickets are not usually enough to warrant the time and effort for an influencer to promote your experience or product. Be prepared to negotiate a fee and in return some analytics will be shared with you to measure the success (or not) of your campaign.
  5. It might not work. Measuring direct conversions from digital influencers can be really tricky. You might be able to use a special URL from their site or channel, but sometimes it’s not that easy. When you give away some of the control of the narrative, you also lose control over the analytics and customer journey. There is no guarantee that working with influencers will help you sell tickets or attract more visitors.

But don’t take my word for it. Here are some articles that question the value of brands working with digital influencers.

It’s time to address the elephant in the room: Influencers don’t really influence anything or anyone! by Elinor Cohen

Dear Marketers: Please Don’t Do Influencer Marketing—We’re Begging You by Brendan Gahan

Are you still willing to let it go? Come and hear the other side of this story—including a case study of mine—at the National Arts Marketing Project Conference in Seattle.

The “Optimizing Your Arts Marketing Practice” blog salon is presented by Montalvo Arts Center.