Want to know one of the hidden dangers of influence marketing? Believing in the single person influencer at the expense of the velvet rope community.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, the velvet rope community is an online (or offline) community that has an exclusive membership. By this, I mean that the general public isn’t invited to participate and may not even be aware of the community’s existence. In many cases, these communities are strong, vibrant, powerful networks of people who are individually not strong influencers, but collectively are a force that could be a powerful ally or a devastating enemy.

Velvet rope communities can exist in large social networks, such as closed/hidden Facebook Groups, private circles on Google+, etc. These communities are people who share a common cause, goal, or interest. Some communities number in the hundreds or thousands of people in scope, but you’ll find very few “influencers” among them by common marketing definitions. Here are a couple of examples.

In the martial arts world, Stephen K. Hayes is a legend. He heads up a network of martial arts practitioners that number in the thousands across the world, and when he speaks in the organization’s private, invisible-to-Google forums, everyone pays attention. Yet if you plug his name or information into any of the standard “influence metrics” available to marketers and public relations specialists, you’d likely give him a miss. His Klout score is below 40, which wouldn’t even qualify him for your standard Klout perk, but he could easily mobilize hundreds of people to your cause if you had access to his velvet rope community.

Here’s a second example. At a recent conference, I had the pleasure of meeting with a digital marketing manager for a major brand who shared results about a campaign to parents they ran. One of the surprises was that in this campaign, there was a private, invisible Facebook group of about 500 mothers who shared a common interest. Very few of these mothers appear in any of the marketing and PR tools that are commonly used to identify influencers. This marketing manager explained that they were legitimate friends with several of the leaders of this group, and when they rolled out their new product campaign, they asked the group leaders to participate. The group as a whole mobilized, and suddenly a significant majority of the 500 members were blogging, tweeting, sharing on Facebook, giving out high rated reviews, and were a major force in helping the campaign succeed in generating awareness and business. This same community has made bestsellers out of authors, chart-toppers out of musicians, etc. because they move as a group, as an “influence army”, where lots of people moving in concert vastly outweighs what a single influencer could do.

A standard “influencer outreach” campaign would have missed both of these examples. Beware looking for the magic bullet single influencer! Both examples above are shining cases of why there’s simply no substitute for being a valued member of these velvet rope communities long before you need them, because in order to leverage the influence of the private community as a whole, you need to have earned a tremendous amount of social currency beforehand in service to the community.

How do you get in? Depending on your company size (or the agency you hire), you may already have employees involved in some of the communities that could affect your business positively. Ask around! If you’ve got an all-company email list, ask your employees what groups they know of, and be sure to encourage your employees (with appropriate policy and guidance) to be proactive in joining and participating in communities as they find them in your industry. Instruct them not to sell, just to be helpful and valuable members of the communities, so that when a time comes that you need to leverage the power of your extended community, your team can mobilize those groups effectively.

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