In early 2019, Johnsonville Sausage PR and Social Media Manager Stephanie Dlugopolski and her team had used consumer insights to discover what keeps some people from cooking or grilling with sausage. Based on the data from this research, they learned it was often because they didn’t know how to cook or grill it.

“We took those insights to heart and decided to talk to those who are actually cooking and grilling, and see if they’d consider sharing their content with us to demonstrate the versatility of using this protein so that other consumers could learn from them,” said Stephanie.

Over the course of 2019, that idea sparked their micro influencer program.

The first thing they did was create a strategic brief to ensure everyone on the internal social team were aligned with what they wanted from this content.

Then, they started looking at fans they’ve been talking to for years who have some expertise and get great engagement from their peers.

“We also used social listening to find people posting content in areas we were not as strong in,” said Stephanie. “For example, we have a lot of people using our products for the keto diet, but we don’t have a lot of recipes or content geared towards that. So, it was a perfect opportunity for UGC to shine with peer-to-peer content.”

In their first six months of planning, Stephanie and her team identified eight micro influencers for the program.

After the planning and research period, the Johnsonville team started recruiting those they identified as great content producers who were also skilled in the kitchen and on the grill.

“We wanted to make sure we had a strong strategy in place and understood any potential challenges,” she said. “Then, we spent a couple of months doing background research on the influencers we had in mind.”

In their search, they wanted good photography, but not perfect photography that looked like an advertisement.

They also looked at how the potential micro influencers were engaging with their friends, families, and followers. The Johnsonville team was also looking for those who possessed a humble attitude and a genuine desire to share their recipes, tips and tricks.

“They all have full-time jobs or are retired, but cooking/grilling is really their passion and something they spend a lot of time doing,” said Stephanie. “They generally like to cook, are making creative recipes with sausage, and like to share their work or tips with others.”

The Johnsonville team contacted everyone by email, conducted phone interviews, and got to know their micro influencers. “We explained how we wanted to use their content to help others, and also celebrate their creativity in cooking and grilling sausage,” said Stephanie.

Once they got to know the group, the Johnsonville team asked the micro influencers to sign an agreement before they started developing content.

“We didn’t want there to be any obligation to use the content and didn’t intend to put them on any specific schedule or demand any specific recipes,” she said. “We provide them a $50 Visa card to cover the cost of creating a recipe, as well as product coupons to minimize the expense to them — plus some fun Johnsonville swag.”

When using their content, Stephanie and her team credit the micro influencers so they can also gain followers and engagement. “We really want this to be a win-win for all of us,” she said.

They started seeing the first micro influencer content pieces come in last July.

In the first six months, they had over 40 pieces of content from that roster of eight people, using the content on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

“Once everything was confirmed, we talked them through some of our big occasions, like Bratsgiving, tailgating, Thanksgiving, and Christmas,” said Stephanie. “We asked them which occasions they preferred to plan content for and sent them their prepaid cards and coupons. We were originally reaching out to these folks asking for three to four pieces of content in a 12-month period. Almost all of them have done far above that already. They’re genuinely having fun doing this, and we are also enjoying making new friends!”

To date, one of the content pieces that’s generated the highest engagement came from one of these micro influencers.

Stacy Petty (@ChinaEcho8), a retired cosmetologist in Texas, got inspired by Johnsonville’s Bratsgiving holiday. It’s their brand holiday for National Bratwurst Day, and Stacy made a house from various breakfast and dinner sausages to mimic the log cabin used in the brand’s Bratsgiving book.

Johnsonville first met Stacy through a Facebook Live broadcast the brand conducted several months earlier about smoking sausages with different methods and grills.

“Stacy was talking to us on this Facebook broadcast and shared her grilling and smoking tips with our listeners. She knew her grilling game, and we could tell our fans appreciated her expertise. So she immediately came to mind and is one of our most enthusiastic micro influencers.”

Stephanie said their micro influencers feel like part of the Johnsonville family now.

“In addition to Stacy, we’re also working with a husband and wife who enjoy cooking together,” she said. “We sought out some people who are looking to use sausage in a healthier way, so we’ve got a couple people who are focused on keto content, cooking with sausage. Then, we have a couple other micro influencers who just love to smoke and grill and are showing people how to do it.”

She said what brings them the most joy is that they’ve made new friends with these micro influencers.

“We trust what they do. That’s why we called them in the first place. So, we don’t ask to approve anything before they create and post something. We want them to be true to their work and followers. They genuinely do good work and we’ve had a lot of fun with them in our first year.”

With all the micro influencer content, Stephanie said they’ve also seen strong engagement and conversations across the board.

“People are asking for their recipes and really engaging with their stories,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of follower growth on Instagram, and each of the brand ambassadors that are working with us have gained followers, too.”

According to Stephanie, some of that success is due to the nature of having a micro influencer program.

We’re not looking to have 15 or 20 of them right away because, to us, it’s more about the quality of the relationship.

“With the micro-influencer focus, they can really shine,” she said. “There’s less risk for them, so if they want to experiment, they have that freedom to do so. And if it doesn’t work out, we don’t have to use it. It’s definitely more authentic. They’re coming up with creative hacks or unique recipes that we might not be thinking of.”

Moving forward, Stephanie and her team want to look at more specific trends that would be a good fit for their micro influencer effort.

“Watching trends and looking for potential micro influencers who are more experienced than we are is a good place to start,” she said. “We’re also open to expanding our partnership with them. They could potentially be media spokespeople in their market for some cooking or grilling content or join us on one of our mobile marketing tours.”

One of Stephanie’s biggest pieces of advice is to define a tight strategy and know how you will use the influencer content, because that will help you find the right people.

“And be flexible,” she said. “If you’re a brand that demands a lot of oversight, this may not be the best strategy for you. Fortunately, we’re not in a regulated industry and being a food brand, we’re a social brand by nature. That makes it a little easier for us to do it in this fashion.”

She also emphasized the importance of being open and honest with the influencers to help their creativity shine.

“Make sure you have the time and resources to stay connected with them,” she said. “That’s why we’re not looking to have 15 or 20 of them right away because, to us, it’s more about the quality of the relationship. We want to celebrate the content they have.”

Stephanie has been a member of since 2015. You can follow her on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn.