How Small Businesses Can Harness the Power of Influencer Marketing


Aimee Song  @songofstyle

Aimee Song @songofstyle


Influencer marketing. The investment in it tops almost every major brand’s marketing budget, with an expected $5 billion dollars to be spent on it by 2022. Clearly, it’s not going anywhere and most major companies have doubled their investment in it in the past few years.

But as a small business, Just how can you utilize it, and is it worth it for entrepreneurial-run companies to even take the plunge?

For many small business owners, influencer-marketing is something on a wish list, not a to do list. Just how is a small business with a small budget supposed to compete? And more than that, does it really work? Is influencer-marketing all it's cracked up to be and is it worth the investment?

The truth is yes and no. For many that research the right people with social power, build long term partnerships with their spokespeople - influencer-marketing can be one of the most worthy investments you make. Almost all consumers (92%) trust recommendations from strangers and people with social power over those from brands. Most marketers have invested in some form of influencer-marketing, with budgets now ranging from $5,000 to $25,000. Consumers demand it, competitors are investing in it.

But don't worry if you don't have that money to invest. Because the truth is, results aren't guaranteed and if you don't do it right or put your money towards the right investment, you could be spending a lot of wasted money you didn't have to spend. And as a small business owner, you may not even have a budget. 

So is influencer-marketing realistic and worthwhile for small businesses?

As a Brand Strategist, I have always erred on the side of going around the crowds, rather than joining them. There is more than one way to get the result you want, and just call me obsessed with small businesses winning, but after spending my life working with everyone from multi-million dollar brands AND mom and pop retailers, I can't help but want to help people who risk their life savings on their passions. Let's hear it for your strong mission and purpose that can turn a generic and costly influencer program into a passion-driven abundance of value...created not by an influencer or ambassador but by ADVOCATES.

While everyone is talking about influencer-marketing, smart small business owners are talking raving fans.


Meet the new influencers in town - they don't have a million followers but they have followers. Engaged followers. Raving fans.

Influence is the ability to cause desirable and measurable actions and outcomes.

One of the main reasons influencer marketing isn't working for many companies is that instead of going for quality, they pursue quantity. And influencer marketing is not a popularity game, and nor can it be bought or generalized.

With the popularity of influencer marketing, paid influencers have been forced to follow FTC regulations forcing them to reveal the sponsorships, and followers across the board are getting wise. Just because an influencer has a lot of followers who like them doesn't mean they has a lot of followers who are influenced by them.

So how do you combat it? I call it Brand advocacy vs brand sponsorship or brand ambassadors.


The second most over talked about marketing trend are brand ambassadors. Similar to influencer-marketing and to brand advocates, brand ambassadors are people contracted to post about your brand. Brand ambassadors are great in terms of numbers, but as with anything, not doing the right research or hiring he right ambassadors can leave you without solid results and spending a lot of wasted money

That is, unless you turn your ambassadors into ADVOCATES.

Connecting with brand advocates and fans is very different than just paying an “influencer” or doing a one off “brand ambassador” program.

When created and used correctly, advocates are cheerleaders and megaphones for your brand’s message. They enable customers who already love your product/service, to be empowered with your message and turn a promotional message into a personal conversation with their tribes.

The critical difference is, they actually BELIEVE IN YOUR BRAND.

They differ from people with social power, who might be used only for a short-term campaign. They are in effect a group of raving fans, compensated for the brand messaging they already are sharing and believing in.

Gone are the days of inauthentic sponsorships. While it is still done, the public is getting savvy and hence, the one off campaigns are losing their online value.

Influence The Advocacy Way

As I mentioned before, there is a hard and expensive way to go about your influencer/ambassador program, or there is a creative and much easier and cost effective way to do it.

So if you’re ready to learn, here are 10 things you must do to get started.


While everybody has been talking about Facebook for marketing your business, Facebook's alter ego - Instagram - has silently been stepping on Facebook's toes and has finally gained significant importance to business owners who want to connect to their customers in a real and authentic way, and more importantly, have the ability to SELL.

And as someone who has worked with thousands of retailers and small businesses as a retail and shopping center marketing director for 25 years, despite the advancement in technology with social media, the key to connecting your brand with your bottom line, lives inside your ability to tell your brand story so that it attracts the people you serve (your raving fans and advocates), translate the values of you and your company, and then leads people to the product or service you sell.

90% of human communication is visual - so of course - to capture your raving fans, knowing how to create your visual brand story is key to connecting with them.

Luckily, the powers of social media (ie Facebook) heard our calls and optimized Instagram so that it is now being touted as a businesses “new home page”. That means using the tools within the platform and the relevant ones you can use with it (i.e. shopify, Planoly, Instagram stories, links in your bio, etc) will help you attract your core advocates.


Anything built from the ground up takes commitment, time, and investment. And while this article is about working with a small budget, having a budget to invest in this important marketing strategy is important to your success. This means hiring the right help or training your current staff to run it and understand it. Spending on the right programs to run the program. And regularly monitoring the results so you can test, quickly create, adapt to the results and to the changing social media trends.

One of the best ways to use influencer marketing even with a small budget, is to connect with influencers with larger followings and allow them to promote your product or service their own way. Many larger influencers are willing to tag brands they believe in by sharing them in an authentic way in their STORIES. They will offer swipe ups, discount codes, and talk about your brand values if those values match their own.

Again, brand ADVOCACY is not the pursuit of mass. It’s the pursuit of authenticity and genuine passion and belief in your own products and services.


Research, research, research - did I say research??? There is nothing more important to your brand advocate program success than actual statistics and results. Knowing your brand’s demographics and psychographics is essential to getting the pulse of your core clientele. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to invest a lot of time or money in research either.

To gain an understanding of who the core clientele are - your advocates and not just followers are, here are a few things you could do that would be cost effective and easy:

  • Conduct a survey to your email list. Give them an incentive for filling it out

  • Put an optin box to a survey on your website for ongoing results

  • Hire a survey company to run a study for you

  • DM people - I know that seem a little high school, but as GaryVee often touts - business these days is “all about the DM” (direct messaging for anyone born earlier than 1985)

Don’t underestimate the importance of WHO your brand advocates are.  You might think you know who they are, but there’s rarely a ‘one-size-fits-all’ view.  You’ll also have to monitor ALL conversations with your customers.  Make special note of the customers that go the extra mile to connect with you, the ones that write you letters, even if they sound negative.


You don’t have to have a million members in your brand advocate program.  In fact, your goal is to go for YOUR “influencers” - the people who are raving about your product/service NOW - and that means they are speaking about you to their followers. If you start small and select those that are truly passionate about your brand and its vision, the growth will come organically as these passionate people will help you identify others just like them.


While everyone wants millions of followers on social media, you can still want and have that but the goal with a brand advocacy program is to create exclusivity. While this may seem the opposite of what you want, just like a bar with no name gets people waiting outside clamoring to get in, you want raving fans not just followers.

Don’t misread that either. You do want followers and numbers, to a certain extent, matter - but for the actual advocacy program, you want fanatics. Raving fans. Cheerleaders.

Exclusivity is not snobbery. It's about understanding your value and making sure you you surround yourself with people who love you. It could be as simple as a private password. Asking them to sign up for a certain list in exchange for access to your program. Remember, the goal is to get your 1000 true fans who will turn into your million true fans (wink wink) and make them feel important.

Give them challenges to overcome so you can weed out the customers that aren’t committed to the brand, or the program.  The true advocates for your brand will already be doing much if not all of what you would require of them as members of the program.


You are now more than just a business owner. You are a KEYMAKER. You hold the keys to your exclusive advocacy program kingdom. And just like a key opens doors, you want to open doors for them to connect to your business AND the other members.

People want to feel like the belong. So when you put together an exclusive place of like minded people, they want to meet other like minded people. Encourage them to engage and connect with the other advocates. You can do this on your social media, and starting an exclusive account - say like on Instagram for them.

Some other ideas for access to your brand and others are:

  • A Facebook group

  • A special Instagram account

  • A forum on your website

  • Regular live broadcasts on Instagram, Facebook and Youtube


This is one of the biggest misconceptions about brand ambassadors.  While most brands will automatically think “how much”, this is the important part of researching who they actually are.

Money is easy but this is why having an advocate program over ambassador is important. Advocates already love your brand - so incentivizing them and giving them additional reason to love you more is a gift If you have a small budget!

Things like access, acknowledgement, influence - the things they may value more than money or give them access to making money from their own ventures gives them something to brag about (your brand!) and compensates them without outright paying them. At least initially.  


You should view your brand advocates as extensions of you, your employees, and your brand. They are the voices that will become your megaphone of influence. Rather than saying “you have to do this”, empower them to get creative.  Give them things to gamify it so they are competing for space on your social media (the advocate with the most likes on their post will appear in our IG feed or stories). As long as you have general guidelines, let them feel like they are “in charge”.


This is different than a mailing list. An advocacy program needs:

  • A  doable way or advocates to track their own progress

  • Levels of achievement so they know they are doing well

  • Feedback from you, as well as instructions, inspiration , and the ability to communicate with you

Capture them with a brand ambassador platform or you can build your own with some simple data management tools like Wufoo or Mailchimp. While both may seem outdated and basic they are virtually free. Remember this is about building the program from the ground up, with a small budget and yet having all of the tools of a big program but with the personalization of personal connection.


Empower your people with the influence they want by making it easy to promote your brand. You want your growth of the program to be organic - and it will be when it is fueled by your existing advocates.  You want to embrace and empower your existing advocates, thus the creation of the brand advocates program.  

Give them access to photos, products, using the services you offer for free - etc. Let them be like extensions of your brand and they will help you turn your marketing into your message.


So as you get ready to pitch your idea for a brand ambassador program, make a plan that details exactly how the program will benefit your brand, and exactly what inspires your advocates. Make sure you have ways to measure it's success (aka: KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that can be measured and tracked. And then make it real with a timeline of the roll-out of the brand ambassador program, for at least the first 6-12 months of the program (commitment!)

Remember, this is not a quick fix and won't produce success overnight. But long term it will give you the greatest return for investment, brand dominance and personal fulfillment when your life discoveries are changing lives.  And even though it may not be easy, if you are committed to your work, your people, and your impact, the results will make program a huge success. And if you need help getting started, let’s see how we can make this happen!

So I want to ask you, will you be creating your own brand advocacy program and changing lives this year? Good luck and cheers to changing lives - one genius moment at a time.

Shana Lynn Yao, brand strategist

Shana Yao is a Branding & Marketing Strategist, with over 28 years of experience managing multimillion dollar retail and shopping center locations, including the famed Rodeo Drive. She works with high achieving clients to empower them to own their expertise so they can make a bigger impact in the world, with a signature business that reflects their personal style. She is host of the Marketing Made Meaningful podcast on ITunes, dog mom, and lover of life. You can find her at the coolest coffee shops in LA working on her mission, or connect with her on her favorite social media app, Instagram (of course!) @total_genius