Can’t Buy Me Love: following the social engagement protocol

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The other day, I was meeting with an associate who was relaying to me his frustration with influencer marketing:

“Tara, influencer marketing just doesn’t work. I made a deal with the most influential person in this network and he posted his shining endorsement of my product and I got very little results.” He lamented, “He has over 200,000 followers!”

I asked him what else he did in the influencer’s community to build up relationships and he looked at me sort of puzzled. He thought the relationships this influencer had would be enough to get the attention of the majority of his followers.

“But they seem so engaged!” He added.

Sure. They are probably very engaged…with the influencer dude. But that doesn’t mean that they will jump on every little thing he writes about every company. I told my associate that I have over 45,000 followers on Twitter, but only a small portion of them joined up on Buyosphere…and it was MY COMPANY! I have relationships with various people who follow me for various reasons. Some of them liked my work on Coworking and early BarCamp days. Some of them started following me when I worked in San Francisco with Citizen Agency and our cool clients like Slideshare and Tripit and ran all sorts of ‘web 2.0’ events out of our awesome Citizen Space. Some discovered me through speaking, through my books and other writing and interviews. Others may just have happened upon me on a good day when I said something witty. Either way, I don’t have the undivided attention of my 45,000+ followers.

Every day, I build relationships within that audience and no amount of money can actually make those relationships transferrable.

I’m not a fan of influencer marketing. I think it’s lazy and short-sited. It’s also highly unrealistic. We trust influencers. That’s what made them influential in the first place, but we don’t automatically trust their associates. And we can sniff out a paid endorsement a mile away.

But I *am* a fan of building out relationships in active networks – which can be entered by building relationships with influential types that operate within that network. It’s a longer term, more intensive task, but it pays off big time. You just need to follow relationship protocol and slowly climb the Social Engagement Ladder:

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Each step of the Social Engagement Ladder respects the state of mind of the person whose attention you are trying to get and trying to skip steps will only lead to frustration. You wouldn’t walk up to a person you’ve never met and expect them to marry you. You wouldn’t ask a new friend to help you move. Social networks are built on relationships and even if they are online, they are still relationships. In fact, you probably need to be even more patient and take even more care because you don’t always have those non-verbal cues to work off of.

Here are the stages and their characteristics/instructions:


“I’ve seen you around” This is the stage where there is little to no brand awareness other than a quick glance.


  • Sees a friend interact with your page on their FB feed.
  • Comes across you in a search.
  • Reads an article where you are mentioned.
  • Heard a friend mention you in a conversation.
  • Saw an ad for you or your product go by.


Probably forgot your name 5 seconds later. Barely made a blip on their radar


Impress more of your current customers and keep getting the word out.


Flash a nice smile. You aren’t even close to getting his/her attention.


“I recognize you” Brand awareness is starting to build. People remember your name.


  • Has seen a few friends interact with you on their FB feed.
  • Sees you in several articles.
  • Sees your ad pop up quite often.
  • Has heard from more than one friend that they are using your service.


Growing more aware, interest being piqued…but still apprehensive. Can be spooked/turned off. Brand awareness/interest, but no affinity.


Approach cautiously, but in a friendly manner. No aggression.


You catch his/her eye. He/she smiles back. Slowly make your move towards her/him. Think of something non-douchey to say.


“I’ve checked you out” You have their attention. Not yet undivided. But you are moving in a great direction.


  • Clicked one of the FB feed posts and checks out your page.
  • Clicks on a link in one of those articles to check out your website.
  • Clicks on an ad.
  • Asks a friend for more information and why he/she recommends you.


Warming up and opening up to you and should be greeted with open arms.


Greet customer with open arms. Listen a lot. Learn.


Buy him/her a drink. Have a great conversation. Ask him/her to dance. Flirt. Time to ask him/her out for that coffee.


“I’m hanging with you” This could be a very long stage, depending on the customer, your product and your moves. It’s mostly your job to help them remember every single day why you are in their life and that you enhance it. If most of your customers linger here, great. It’s a good place to be.


  • Liked your page.
  • Comments on posts. Likes.
  • Joined your site.
  • Bought your product.
  • Dined at your restaurant.
  • Customer.


Every day should be a day to remind that customer why they got this far with you. You are rockin this relationship.


Don’t screw it up and take him/her for granted.


Things are going very well. Coffee moved to dinner moved to drinks and so forth. Don’t screw it up and take him/her for granted.


“You are the bomb!” OMFGBBQLOLYAY! This is a rare and beautiful stage. Heaven.


  • Sharing your posts.
  • Recommending to friends.
  • Retweeting you.
  • Writing recommendations on social networks.
  • Defending you to naysayers.
  • In love.


Very few customers ever make it here. When they do, you should be finding all sorts of ways to celebrate them. (and feel good that you made it here!)


Help make it easier for your customer to be your #1 fan. Thank them.


Enjoy. :)


So I told my associate that “influencer marketing” is a crock, but influence is real. It just can’t be bought. It has to be earned. It takes finesse and empathy and all of that stuff that nobody can sell you or really even teach you.

Okay, so it’s not simple. It’s a completely different way of doing marketing than they told you in school and there are really no short cuts. And dammit, it’s fun and amazing and there are bumps along the way, but they are way interesting. Until customers are replaced by algorithms and robots, you’ll have to approach them as a human. ;)

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Categories: community, eMarketing, featured, marketing, social capital

Author:Tara Hunt

Strategist. Researcher. Interdisciplinarian. Founder, Lime Foundry + Buyosphere. Author, The Whuffie Factor. Speaker. Mother. Karaoke lover.


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5 Comments on “Can’t Buy Me Love: following the social engagement protocol”

  1. June 25, 2013 at 05:05 #

    Really fantastic article Tara. Makes a lot of sense and goes to prove that there’s no easy path to success. Some wisdom in there I will certainly use to help guage my social startup. Thanks, Andrew.

  2. June 25, 2013 at 12:37 #

    My favourite line, “Think of something non-douchey to say.” Great article, Tara!

  3. June 25, 2013 at 12:41 #

    You nailed it. Much better to focus on building loyal customers than to try and work with strangers.

    The problem with “influencers” is that when they are not customers, they don’t necessarily buy into your message or understand what it’s about. And often they’re not actually influential either. Sure a lot of people follow them (it’s not hard to make that happen), but most of their engagement comes from a big echo chamber of so-called “influencers”. Furthermore, while everybody likes free stuff, there’s no reason to think they will drive any real action for your brand if they’re not a trusted authority in your industry.

  4. June 25, 2013 at 16:49 #

    Absolutely love it Tara! Genius way to present it!


  1. Why Content? | Tara Hunt - June 26, 2013

    […] way more likely to get your potential customer from AWARE to ENGAGED to even EVANGELIZED (see the social engagement ladder here). It’s worth the investment. In fact, you can’t ignore it. All roads lead you […]


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