Doing more with your influencer program: How Kristy Houston and her team successfully incorporated paid media into their influencer efforts

When BJ's Wholesale Club Senior Director of Corporate & Brand Communication Kristy Houston assumed her role four years ago, she and her team saw influencers as an opportunity to share their brand message.

Early on in that process, they launched influencer initiatives geared towards expanding awareness and engagement with their target audiences and on their brand channels. Then, this past year, they entered into the next step of their program: putting paid support behind their influencers' social handles.

With this evolution, their initial priority was to support their membership acquisition program.

We have a concentrated effort on acquisition marketing to bring in new members, and we thought influencer marketing would be a great way to support that. Kristy Houston
“We're a membership wholesale club, so you have to buy a membership to shop in our locations,” said Kristy. “We have a concentrated effort on acquisition marketing to bring in new members, and we thought influencer marketing would be a great way to support that.”

She said they also saw it as a way to specifically target one of their key demographics: smart-saving families.

“We know from a data study we conducted that the influencers we partner with have engaged audiences that are either having families or already have children, which is our target audience,” said Kristy.

Once they decided on the direction they wanted to take with this new component of their influencer program, Kristy said it only took three months to start executing.

“We were fortunate to already have a successful influencer program up and running,” said Kristy. “So, partnering with influencers and getting that content was something we were already doing. The next step was to integrate a paid media plan around that content.”

Historically, she said, they've found influencers through relationships with their brand advocates. Then, they research and look for influencers who have a follower demographic that aligns with their core membership base, their target of the smart-saving family, and their regional footprint on the East Coast.

“We reach out directly to partner with them throughout the year and outline what an editorial content calendar might look like with them,” she said. “We also do scaled programs to support major initiatives and promotions by partnering with a managed service partner, who helps us partner with influencers at scale to do a big push around a specific initiative.”

During that planning period, Kristy and her team were focused on finding the right tool to enable them to incorporate paid media natively on their influencers' channels.

Once they found the right tool for them — a system called Lumanu recommended to them by their PR and influencer agency — they focused their efforts on getting their media teams and agency trained in the system. According to Kristy, they have anywhere from 20 to 40 partners enrolled in Lumanu, depending on their campaign needs.

In the early stages of this new program, Kristy started by using influencer ads in their overall Facebook campaign to recruit members.

When they first began to execute it late last year, Kristy and her team reached out to a handful of their influencer partners and launched with a small batch.

“We saw an excellent performance late last year with that pilot,” she said. “We saw higher click-through rates on the influencer content and a similar or lower cost-per-acquisition.”

From there, they transitioned into larger batches and started to get more influencers enrolled into it. Now, they're working on launching additional influencer marketing efforts to support traffic to their different web properties — their same-day delivery website, Delivery.BJs.com, and BJs.com.

Throughout this process and the rollout of the new system, Kristy said they've had to adapt their social media strategy.

The early results showed a higher click-through rate on our influencer ads compared to our traditional acquisition social media ads. Kristy Houston
Their first change was a procedural one, where they had to specifically ask all the influencers they were planning to utilize if they were willing to enter the Lumanu program and enable BJ's to put paid media dollars behind the content on their channel.

“It's a benefit to our influencer partners as well because we're helping boost their content to more audiences and get more audiences engaged with their social channels,” said Kristy.

The second major change was that the content performing well as paid media differed from the content performing well organically.

While Kristy said she and her team were always able to look at metrics like engagement rate on their influencers' organic content and the content they reshare on BJ's brand channels, they started seeing some specific kinds of creative and content outperforming others in the paid space.

“That caused us to look more closely at the types of imagery and content we're asking our influencers for,” she said. “We want to make sure we're doing a strategic mix so that we deliver a strong, engagement-driven organic program while optimizing content for paid performance.”

Based on their results so far, Kristy said paid media will continue to be a major part of their media mix for their acquisition efforts.

We've found that it's possible to show ROI and the benefits of influencer marketing. Kristy Houston
“The early results showed a higher click-through rate on our influencer ads compared to our traditional acquisition social media ads,” she said.

“It kept our cost-per-acquisition in line with our KPIs for our overall acquisition social program, so it wasn't costing more to acquire people through the influencer channels, and we saw a higher penetration of our target demographic signing up through the influencer ads as compared to our traditional social ads.”

Kristy said one of her biggest takeaways throughout this process has been the potential for influencer marketing to make a meaningful impact on their business.

“We've found that it's possible to show ROI and the benefits of influencer marketing,” she said. “And that it's possible to continue our traditional influencer marketing efforts to drive awareness and engagement while also driving bottom-of-the-funnel metrics.”

She added it was a crucial learning for them that they didn't have to sacrifice their larger influencer initiative to do this work — instead, creating a successful, holistic strategy.

“We've maintained an engagement rate of about four percent which is about 2x the industry average,” she said. “We feel positive that we're able to maintain that while seeing great results in our bottom-of-the-funnel metrics.”

When building out a system like this, Kristy recommended looking at all the possible tools out there and considering the expertise you have in house.

“Lumanu links up to our Facebook Business Manager, so our team and agency partners are able to create the ads within the BJ's Ads Manager and have access to all of the data we have coming in,” she said. “It's a great way for us to set up the program and measure results in a comparable way to our social advertising from the brand channels.”

For teams that might not have that in-house expertise, she recommended looking specifically at similar service providers who can run the paid media for you.

“Make sure you review multiple options,” she said. “Find one that will help support the expertise and the team you have in place.”

Kristy Houston has been a member of SocialMedia.org since 2017. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter.