Influence is attention plus trust. Without trust, you’re just making noise. This is what Amanda Russell, the author of The Influencer Code, believes. Amanda is a strategist, speaker, and professor of marketing. She said when we shift from focusing on transactions and focus on relationships, that’s when we build something long-term. It’s all about shifting how we think about what influence is. On today’s podcast, John Livesay interviews Amanda about her running career and how it’s a metaphor for her marketing expertise. Tune in to learn about her specific tips on what you can do to become more influential.
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The Influencer Code With Amanda Russell
How To Unlock The Power Of Influencer Marketing
Our guest is Amanda Russell, the author of The Influencer Code. She talks about that influence is attention plus trust. Without trust, you’re just making noise. She said when we shift from focusing on transactions and focus on relationships, that’s when we build something long-term. It’s all about shifting how we think about what influence is. Finally, we hear a story about her running career and how it’s a metaphor for her marketing expertise. She gives you specific tips on what you can do to become more influential. Enjoy the episode.
Our guest is Amanda Russell. She was an influencer before the term even existed. When brands like Lamborghini, Cedars-Sinai and Lion’s Gate wanted to better understand influencer marketing, they call one person, Amanda Russell. Amanda is an international brand strategist, speaker, educator and entrepreneur who’s been at the forefront of digital marketing and social media revolution from its infancy. Amanda created UCLA’s influencer marketing, the world’s first fully accredited program and influencer marketing. She teaches the program along with marketing, branding and business strategy at UCLA and UT Austin. She advises some of the top companies in the world on influencer marketing and how they interact with their customers.
Her new book, which I’m proud to own, is called The Influencer Code, where she teaches brands. We’re all a brand whose collaboration is to grow and scale their business. The Toronto Star calls her the real-life Iron Woman and the ultimate go-getter. Amanda is here to help all of us understand what influence is and what it is not, and how to collaborate more effectively with influencers, and how to use influence marketing to build our brands and grow our business. Amanda, welcome.
Thank you for having me. It’s always funny and awkward when somebody reads your bio. It’s like, “How do you respond to that?” Thank you.
Luckily for me, you’re one of my first friends here in Austin. I’ve got to know you on a much more personal basis before I had an in-depth understanding of your incredible influence and expertise. Now you have this amazing book, The Influencer Code and the subtitle, which I love just as much is How to Unlock the Power of Influencer Marketing. From my advertising background, it takes me to the visuals of you’re a locksmith and there are all these locks. You’ve got the keys that you can take to each brand and show them how to turn that knob. If it’s that kind of lock, here’s the key to unlock that.
That imagery is powerful for me, but I want people to get a sense of who you are as a person first, because that’s a big part of your charm and your ability that pulls people in your energy and your passion for life in general. It’s just bar none. I know you started in Canada. You can take us back to childhood, school, where you started. I know you have this amazing fitness story to share but take us back. You start the story wherever you want about where you started to realize, “I’m going to make an impact in the world.”
Let me try to give you the nuts and bolts of it. John, you are observant of human characters as well. It’s been a pleasure to get to know you and get your feedback on all of this as well. I started from a small town in Northern Canada, not exactly a town where big dreams are born to say the least. I learned about the world through movies. I had never left a 3, 4-hour square radius in my hometown. It’s fascinating that I look back now and I see how the lens of my world was incredibly limited. The fact that I remember seeing New York City, which for me was my love at first sight when I saw it on Home Alone 2. I was seven years old and Kevin McCallister walked into The Plaza Hotel and I thought that was what heaven was.
When I learned it was a place called New York City, I thought it was something make-believe in the movies. I didn’t realize that this place actually existed. The United States of America, the name to me was something so foreign. I couldn’t even imagine what that was. It was some teachers in high school that changed my life. There was not the level of organized sport that there is here, especially in my hometown. Their options were not a lot, but the one sport that was popular in my high school was basketball. I badly wanted to be on the basketball team. I practiced like nobody’s business. When it came time to trying out for the team, the coach told me in the most eloquent way possible that I was not coordinated enough to be a basketball player and I didn’t have the size. They said that a small, uncoordinated, young woman like me would have more luck trying running.
Running was the sport that is the reject sport. Meaning that it was the sport that the only team that you didn’t have to make. It was the one where everybody that had nowhere else to go went, but it was free. My family didn’t have the resources to put me in any fancy sport either. My dad said, “It’s free. This is a life sport, Amanda. You can do this anywhere. You don’t have to rely on anybody. You don’t have to drive to a place. You don’t have to have fancy equipment. As long as you have your body, you can run.” I ran and I remember when it was the high school Physical Education coach that said to me, “Amanda, there are these things called scholarships. They exist in the United States in which they will pay for you to go to the school. They will pay for your whole education and you will get to compete in NCAA track and field.”
The idea of that was exciting. What was more impactful to me was that this teacher believed enough in me that I would be possibly capable of being able to do something like that. That was life-changing for me that I ran and ran. The one thing about running, which is different than marketing and sales and a lot of different fields is that it is not subjective. Meaning the time on a track is a time on a track. There is no judgment needed. If you can run a time, you are the fastest. There were no recruiters coming to my small hometown, but I knew that if I could hit certain times that I could write my ticket, so I did. There are teachers at that high school and people in my town who will still tell stories of seeing me running and creating my own practices in the middle of snow storms like, “School was canceled that day, but Amanda is out on the streets running.” This is in Northern Canada before school. This is not a place where anybody exercises before work hours.
I created my own practices. I then found an NHL hockey coach who was training NHL players. One thing we had there was hockey cultivation. His name is Larry Shepherd. I asked him if he would coach me. He told me to wait so I can be stronger. At one point I was training 2 to 3 times a day, creating my own training mechanisms. That became everything to me. I got my Division I scholarship. With that, it became my identity and my career. I didn’t follow a passion. For those of people that are like, “I followed my passion,” I’m like, “How do you even know what your passion is? You don’t even know unless you’ve tried everything.” It shocks people to hear when I say, “I hated running.” They’re like, “What?” The idea of running mile after mile sucks. It’s not comfortable. I’m not like, “That was so much fun.” Getting up at certain hours and pounding out in the pouring rain, in the freezing cold, in the hot weather was not fun, but I was passionate about it.
I was passionate about what it made me, how it made me feel, where it got me, how it created this bigger world, the identity and the confidence that it built. I think that with greatness, it’s not always easy. It’s not like you get up in the morning and you’re like, “I’m so excited. I’m passionate.” There are a lot of hard times. I tell the story to you, John, not because this is directly related to marketing, but because running was literally my life and career. It ended up serving as the most metaphorical career of my life. When I hung up the shoes, when I was forced in a tragic accident to end my career abruptly, it was the death of who I was. I was so lost and I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I didn’t have a US visa anymore. I didn’t have the confidence. I didn’t have a team around me. I trained for four years and all of a sudden, the Olympics we’re not going to happen. That then served as the foundation of what would become the theme of my life.
I think the concept now that running is a metaphor, and there have been movies made about it, the founder of Nike and Forrest Gump. We both share a passion for love of movies and the storytelling around that. When we zoom out a little bit and look at our own life as far as it is as a movie, and showing grit, determination and resilience, as opposed to just telling someone you have it, is the power of storytelling. This concept of doing something because it gets you somewhere and there’s outcomes, not because it’s easy and fun is the first takeaway. That to me is the ultimate metaphor in marketing. You’re “running a campaign.” It’s either working or it’s not. Therefore, you have to decide, “This campaign is hard. Do I want to keep doing it?” Yes, because my purpose is, and hopefully you believe in the brand, I’m getting that message out, even if it’s not a slam dunk the first time you test something.
I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned there. Let’s dive into how you started Fit, Strong and Sexy back in New York City, which was this online fitness and lifestyle community. It had over 80,000 subscribers, over 5.5 million views, and you got all kinds of press. It originally was a business school project that made you very popular and certainly put your stake in the ground. There must have been some lessons learned along that road of what it’s like to start a business, get publicity and make it successful. Anything you want to share about that journey?Everybody gravitates to Lamborghini. That's how sexy the brand is. Click To Tweet
That’s where the stereotypical term influencer sticks onto my name. That’s where most people seem to think that I got attracted to influencer marketing. That was one small part. The fitness YouTube channel was something that I did start in business school. Fit, Strong and Sexy is no longer. I sold that company in 2018. I started it as a project with the thesis that you can have the best product, service or idea in the world but if you don’t have an audience that cares and trusts you, it doesn’t matter. At the time, YouTube was in its infancy. It was mostly Dumb and Dumber style comedy, music and entertainment and no respect associated with it, no rhyme or reason.
I became fascinated with how some of these YouTubers were attracting these tuned-in and engaged audiences that want to know everything about these people’s lives. I decided to start my own channel, and this was before cell phones had cameras. I bought a flip cam at Best Buy and I used my New York apartment as my studio. I became the talent because I didn’t have resources. I didn’t have capital. I wasn’t going to hire somebody. The term influencer gives me nails on a chalkboard, which is ironic. This is why I’m passionate about the subject. I never set out to become a YouTube influencer or a fitness influencer. I use myself because that’s what I had access to.
I did fitness because that was the thing that was most integral in my own life and I think that shows through. If you are into interior design, then that comes through in everything that you do. People ask you about it, you learn more about it, and you venture into new areas. It’s got to be authentic to you. For me, it was fitness because I had spent the past several years rehabbing myself from having to walk again, back to being in shape. I had created this program for myself. That was like, “How do I get into shape literally like an elite athlete without being able to walk any miles or put any impact on your body?” That became my program.
Quickly, we became one of the fastest growing channels on YouTube. I created it like it was a television show. I would say, “Every Wednesday at 9:00 AM.” Even though with YouTube, we all know that it doesn’t matter when it goes live. My philosophy was to create like a show so people could count on it. I was so intrigued by the community and specifically my target was women that would ask all these questions. I would spend hours answering all of their questions and becoming invested in the community. By doing that, I became an expert at my audience. I could name the five different profiles and I knew exactly which one everything spoke to.
As I was speaking, they were like my friends. You can’t fake that. The more invested that I got, the more invested that they got and the more that it grew. At the end of the day, you don’t own anything on a social media platform. My thought upon leaving business school was instead of going back to my consulting firm, I would love to do this as a business, but I need stability, I need longevity, and I need to be able to scale this and own it. I thought that the way to do it was to drive to something that I own. I had this idea of a subscription model. I know that sounds so trivial, but this was before this existed.
This was before people even put their credit card information on the internet to buy a product they were going to physically get, let alone a series of online content that’s not even tangible. It was a bit of a leap of faith, but I had this audience that I knew trusted me enough. I even changed the name because I didn’t want it to be my name anymore. I pulled my audience. Fit, Strong and Sexy was not a name that I came up with. It was a name that my community came up with. It hurt me a little bit because I built it on my name and I switched it. My whole long-term goal was to back out of it. I didn’t want to be the talent anymore. In building a subscription model, I partnered with Trium Entertainment. The pitch of my lifetime was partnering with them. They are old-school television production company.
Mark Koops, one of the partners at Trium was the founder behind The Biggest Loser and Amazing Race, and everything entertainment meets fitness. I learned a lot about pitching through this, which was, “I’m not going to go ask them to help me, ask them for the capital, ask them to produce my channel. I need to figure out how to position this for them.” I knew that they needed to get into digital. They had been doing television for 25 years and they needed to pivot to digital. I had a dedicated audience. I could be their guinea pig if they would be my 50% business partners, and they did. Together we built out the subscription model. It was one of the hardest things. No widgets were built, there was liability, customer service and crashing. We definitely say that it was a stressful endeavor but we learned so much along the way.
That’s where my idea came. I was like, “I want out of this. I don’t want to be the talent.” No one knows what we’re doing. We can’t hire anybody because no one’s gone through it before. Having going through it and everybody I work with is now going through it, all of these companies are going to start to have to meet people. I wanted to start an agency that did that. LiveStrong.com started creating content and Women’s Health Magazine, FabFitFun and Shape. My agency specialized in doing a lot of the strategy, planning and content creation of that. That’s how the whole buildup began and came to fruition. I’ve been seen on every side of it from being the “stereotypical influencer” that’s doing product placement, which is the social media advertising to working with companies to have to scale their business, using collaboration, identifying the factors that are influencing their audience, and how do you become partners with those factors.
Speaking of partners, you’re now on the Board of Advisors for Lamborghini. That all grew out of your success at this agency. To go from fitness to Lamborghini, it’s a fast car. They must have seen something. It’s on the cover of your book. The CMO had said that this is a great look at how to make either yourself or a brand influential. What was it that Lamborghini needed that you were able to give them around influence? They’re well known and yet I know you well enough that in three years, I’m sure you are responsible for at least one good story of how you have guided them.
All the different things that I do, everybody always gravitates to Lamborghini. That’s how sexy that brand is. I sit on a few different boards and whatever, but Lamborghini gets so much attention. Kudos out to the brand. The interesting part about Lamborghini is that they consider themselves the brand influencer, which I love. That is true. It’s exactly how you brought this up. You said people will answer my call sometimes, or they will pick up that book because they see the name Lamborghini on it. That holds weight. Lamborghini does not use influencers in the stereotypical sense. They don’t use celebrities. They don’t use social media stars. Even when celebrities post about their car, they don’t repost it. They are the influencer themselves.
What Lamborghini has done so well is they understand and work with influencer marketing in the same paradigm that I do, which is that this is not about social media advertising. This is not transactional. They don’t do anything transactional. Everything is built on true relationships. They never pay somebody to do a product placement. They nurture the whole person. They provide an experience and they call it a family. Those are things that you cannot mandate. For example, one of the big initiatives that Lamborghini has done in the past few years and done a great job at is they have taken note that a new market for a sports car is powerful female leaders. Women are in a place now where they’re not just buying fancy purses and handbags. Women of power are now buying real estate, boats and fast cars.
Rather than do some campaign with a bunch of women driving sports cars, what they did was they cultivated a community for these women, providing companionship and network of them. At every major country, they’ve got part of this community of women that can access these fancy Lamborghini lounges. They will send them cars if they want to try a new car experience with no pressure on them to buy a car. It’s more about how can Lamborghini support these women leaders. By nature, what happens? When they’re asking nothing in return and they are this asset in life, what happens is that you become their biggest ambassador ever. It’s true influencer marketing in the way in which I view it.
You said a couple of things that I love. Influencer is built on relationships, not money. The more you invest in your clients, the more they invest in you.
The best influencer relationships often never involve a single transaction of a dime.The best influencer relationships often never involve a single transaction of a dime. Influence is not universal. Click To Tweet
One of the things you talk about in The Influencer Code is some of the biggest misunderstandings around influence, that popularity does not equal influence. That stands out to me because a lot of people might even think that they are synonymous. I’m going to let you explain that so that people don’t make that mistake.
That’s probably one the biggest misconceptions. Even if people say they understand that’s not this case, yet they still go, “For our next campaign, we want to get engagement at this level.” They give some definition of how they’ve decided to determine engagement, or they still are asking about certain impressions, conversions, metrics and all of these things. Not that these are not important, but by focusing on that as attention, buzz and popularity, you’re forcing the wrong metrics. Why? You can be popular all day long. People could love you. You could get attention and engagement off the charts. Let’s say that engagement is the most stereotyped version, which is not comments, but engaged comments, shares and all of these things. If it doesn’t tie back to the desired action, it doesn’t matter.
I use this example of if you took a video of your neighbor’s new kitty cats, and the video goes viral of these kitty cats playing in the living room. If that doesn’t have anything to do with your desired bottom line, it doesn’t matter. Some of the biggest brands in history have made this error. A great example is Kate Upton and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. On the surface, it would look like Kate Upton would be a prime ambassador or influencer because she’s this beautiful model that was known for being a real woman, real curves. Bobbi Brown hired her, and she got all kinds of engagement, but the people following Kate Upton were not women. They were majority straight men in their 30s and 40s. Straight men don’t buy a lot of makeup.
Kate Upton might be an influencer. In some respects, she was not an influencer for Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. She could get all the engagement, all the attention, all the popularity, and she was popular. She had celebrity status, but it doesn’t equate to influence. It goes along with another fact, which is influence is not universal. This is later proved by when she was then hired by a video gaming company. She was hired by them and she’s killed it off the charts. Why? Because her audience was a lot of men in their 30s and 40s, and that was more in the ballpark of their audience. She had influence in that space. Having her beyond these video games was like “woo” for these guys.
I would boil it down to one simple line and that is influence must be relevant. You talk about that in one of your chapters.
Relevant and resonant. It must resonate.
We’ve all heard about smart goals. You take it one step further and talk about smart objectives. You have this example here about which would we prefer, a salesperson who’s going to increase sales by 5% every month leading to 30% increase in half a year, or somebody who says they’re going to increase traffic by 15%, but don’t have a deadline. Reveal to us what the right answer is and what the rationale is.
I think the right answer is intuitive. It’s like, “What would you rather?” It’s like somebody says they’re going to lose 10 pounds. Are you going to lose 10 pounds in five weeks or in ten years? Are you going to gain 20 pounds first before you lose your 10? What does that mean? That’s step one of the codes. That goes back to the running analogy too. It all ties together because the first thing that we need to do and it’s simple, yet it is the most overlooked even by the biggest brands on the planet, especially in the marketing sales advertising realm. It’s that if we are a for-profit business, we need to start that our goal is almost always the same, which is revenue or market share. The rest are objectives.
Things like awareness, impressions and signups, all these things are great but they’re objectives. We need to start with the end goal first and work backwards. It’s the same reason that Pepsi lost market share to Diet Coke in 2010 when they did the boldest social campaign of all time. They stripped their Super Bowl ads for the first time ever in history in favor of a social media campaign that got so much attention, so much engagement. The problem was that all of the interaction pushed a behavior that was people voting for their favorite charities. It had nothing to do with buying Pepsi.
What happened there? The advertising agency could win awards, but the marketing director is going to be fired because brand buys loses market share. Why? Because they didn’t start with the goal of the company. They started with the excitement over buzz, over popularity, over attention. You’ve got to start with the goal and not everybody is for-profit. Nonprofit, what is their goal? It might be to raise a certain amount of money or getting a certain number of homestead or whatever that is. You got to start with the end goal first, and stop confusing goals with objectives.
One of the things that’s helpful in your book, The Influencer Code, is the tactical step-by-step things that anybody can do who has any kind of website. As an example, you talk about a customized landing page. You might think to yourself, “That’s a real estate that I haven’t customized.” Our mutual friend and a previous guest on the show, Erik Qualman, you show his example. When he was launching his book, he had a customized landing page with a very clever image of his face and about focus. It’s a great checklist for people to say, “Am I doing everything I can?” You have gone through a comprehensive list. That’s why I can tell you’re such a good teacher. You think you’re good at marketing. You think you’re good at influencing other people, but if you want to be a black belt in it, I highly recommend that you take a look at getting The Influencer Code into your library. It’s going to up your game. Any last thought or quote you want to leave us with, Amanda?
In terms of the book, one of the biggest easiest takeaways is to shift how you think about influence. It will change everything from your personal life to your professional life because it applies to both. It’s not about transactions. It’s about people and relationships. When you approach things that way, you’re always going to win. It’s the long game. It’s not a quick fix, but that investment when people think, “It’s so much time up front. It’s so much more money,” it’s not because it’s a quick fix or a transaction. That’s a blip that goes nowhere. You would rather build the infrastructure and the foundation. In order to understand influencer marketing, you must first understand influence. That formula is attention plus trust, because attention without trust is just more noise.
What a great way to end. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and this wonderful new book, The Influencer Code.
Thank you so much.
- The Influencer Code
- Fit, Strong and Sexy
- YouTube – Amanda Russell
- Erik Qualman – past episode
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