(Author's note: After posting this, I spoke to the fisherman featured below. He asked me to identify him by name in the post. So, in this version of the story, I have changed the fisherman's name to respect his wishes.)

My buddy Mark is a great fisherman.

He fills his social media with photos of himself holding massive trout, salmon and other fish. (In case you’re wondering, he releases everything he catches except for the occasional salmon that he keeps for dinner.)

Others like the pictures, and 1,660 of them follow Mark on Instagram.

That’s not a huge following, but it’s big enough to attract marketers’ attention.

In marketing-speak, my friend is an influencer.

Whether you’re a fly fisherman in Utah or a small-business person in St. Louis, you can grow your business by being an influencer or partnering with influencers.

Here’s how influencer-marketing works for Mark: He ends the posts with hashtags to highlight the brands he favors: Scott Fly Rods (#scottflyrods), Simms waders (#simmsfishingproducts), Lamson reels (#waterworkslamson) and so forth. In so doing, he helps promote those brands to his followers.

Last year, a company that makes fishing nets wanted to hop aboard Mark's social media train. The marketing director contacted Mark and offered to “sponsor” him.

The offer: They would send him free gear. He would use the gear. And when he caught a fish, he would post a photo that included the gear and a hashtag-shoutout for the net company.

Mark agreed, and his new nets arrived a few days later.

After using the nets for two weeks, Mark tossed them. They were junk. Not sturdy enough. Not light enough. Not worth using. Not worthy of his endorsement.

A few days later, the marketing guy at the net company called Mark.

“Why aren’t you showing the net in your photos?” he asked.

“Because I prefer my other nets,” Mark said.

“But you said you’d promote us,” the marketer growled.

“I’m sorry, dude. Your nets are not good enough to promote,” Mark replied.

Way to go, Mark!

He understands that his reputation depends on his integrity. He has worked hard to build a following of people who trust him. He doesn’t want to squander that by promoting junk.

What does this mean for you?

If you are an influencer, promote only products and services that you have vetted and that you value. Otherwise you’re just a shill, and your followers will eventually catch on.

If you sell a product or service, find the influencers who attract your target audience.

The influencers might have a blog that your prospects read; they might have a large social media following; they might be on the speaking circuit.

Wherever they are, find them and connect with them. If you offer a service, perhaps you can persuade the influencer to share content that demonstrates your expertise or describes the value of your service.

If you sell a product, perhaps you can persuade the influencer to use it and promote it.

But be careful: Choose the honest influencers, not the shills.

This post first appeared in St. Louis Small Business Monthly for which Tom Ruwitch writes a monthly marketing column. 

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