Social-media influencers are a charged topic in the beer industry, with vocal critics as well as proponents. Before wading into the debate, it’s useful to clarify what an “influencer” is. For some, it conjures images of reality TV stars hawking cosmetics on YouTube. However, marketing experts describe influencers as a broad category, encompassing anyone from a local beer blogger to a nationally recognized bartender with a popular Instagram channel.
“Influencer marketing is really just a new title for something that’s existed forever, which is word-of-mouth marketing and expert recommendations,” says Evy Lyons, chief marketing officer at Traackr. Her company provides a software platform that helps companies manage their marketing work with influencers.
Social media has extended people’s spheres of friends and acquaintances, Lyons says, taking word-of-mouth to larger and larger scales. “An influencer is somebody who is an expert, who is passionate about a topic, and who has an audience.”
That audience can be small and niche, as in the case of a locally focused beer blogger, or huge and national, as in the case of a celebrity. When done correctly, influencer marketing works because followers trust that person’s product recommendations or endorsements and regard the influencer as a tastemaker.
“When I discover new breweries, it’s all through friends,” Lyons says. “Really, influencer marketing is just making that happen at a little bit larger . . . scale.”
Among the smallest breweries, paid influencer partnerships are rare. (A 2019 report from Traackr found that the top-five craft breweries for influencer engagement were Russian River, Firestone Walker, Goose Island, Allagash, and Sierra Nevada.) More often among small breweries, these relationships take the form of free samples, swag, or access to events—with or without the explicit request that the influencer post about the brewery.
As breweries look to reach drinkers beyond their core fan base, and as large-scale, in-person marketing opportunities such as festivals are still emerging from COVID limbo, influencers could potentially bridge the gap for breweries—if approached deftly.
Here are some critical questions to answer when considering influencer outreach.
Can You Pay? Do You Want to?
This is a foundational question, and one a brewery should be prepared to answer before proceeding. Some influencers may ask for compensation, but many—especially locally focused ones with fewer than 10,000 or so followers—will incorporate a brewery’s beer into their posts in exchange for free product or access to an event.
“COVID decreased a lot of marketing budgets toward these campaigns, but as far as sending free product, merch, and swag, it’s everywhere,” says Jess Bautista, social-media coordinator for New England Brewing in Woodbridge, Connecticut. She’s also an advocate for craft beer, with an Instagram following of more than 22,000 on her personal account, @jessbeerme. “It’s just so much easier to send a package versus trying to talk to the marketing team to pay someone.”
Bautista says rates vary widely by industry, by social-media channel, and by an influencer’s reach and engagement level. However, as an example, an influencer with 15,000 to 25,000 followers might ask for $200 to $300 in compensation for a product post.
During his time in marketing at Tempe, Arizona’s Four Peaks Brewing, owned by AB InBev since 2015, Zach Fowle was part of paid-influencer campaigns contracted through influencer agencies. Now, Fowle is head of marketing for Arizona Wilderness Brewing in Gilbert, and he says that many of the brewery’s existing fans with strong social-media followings are happy to post in exchange for nothing more than some free beer.
It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement: The brewery’s fans feel even more connected to Arizona Wilderness, while the brewery gets shout-outs on their social-media channels.
“From a budget standpoint, it costs us a case of beer here and there,” Fowle says.
What Are Your Goals?
Influencer campaigns should have a clear goal; otherwise there’s no way to measure their efficacy.
“If you don’t know why you’re doing influencer marketing, or you just want to ‘be cool,’ break that down a bit more,” says Lyons at Traackr. “Understand what outcomes you’re hoping to get from this and make sure the influencers you choose and activations you choose are in service of that.”
General brand awareness is a goal for a lot of influencer campaigns, especially if a brewery is launching a new product or entering a new state of distribution. But breweries can also engage with influencers to promote events ahead of time, to drive traffic to their taproom, to show off their food menus, to highlight a brewery concert series, or encourage at-home beer and food pairings.
The key is to make sure that the content an influencer produces reflects that goal. Photos of cans of beer on a kitchen table, for example, don’t do much to encourage taproom visits. A video of an influencer playing pinball inside the brewery while sipping beer, on the other hand, gets the on-premise message across.
Who Will Help You Reach Those Goals?
Based on specific goals, a brewery can target the influencers with whom it wants to work. Kevin York, president of Kevin York Communications, has urged his clients to engage influencers beyond the beer world, depending on their campaign’s goals. Those breweries have linked up with experts in music, art, travel, and even municipal leaders, depending on the objectives.
Imagine how you want your beer displayed—in the outdoors, in your taproom, with family-friendly activities, or alongside food or music or art—and find influencers who already inhabit those spaces. Influencers also can be a bridge to communities that a brewery doesn’t already have strong connections to.
“If someone is showcasing or posting things that are within your niche or vision for your product, don’t be afraid to reach out,” says Bautista in Connecticut. “It’s a great way to welcome new demographics to your product.”
Fowle agrees, adding that influencer marketing was a tool that Four Peaks used to connect with younger and more racially and ethnically diverse legal-age drinkers: “Something I would push brewers to do is to think outside of the ‘pretty white girl’ influencer base, and think about the people who can reach demographics that are maybe not your base, but that are underserved communities in the craft-beer world.”
York encourages his brewery clients to use influencer outreach as a first step to build meaningful relationships with community leaders. Sending a case of beer isn’t as memorable or valuable to them as, say, inviting an influencer to the brewery for a one-on-one photo session, giving them individual access to a behind-the-scenes part of the brewery, or offering them a conversation with the owners.
Just don’t forget geography: If your beer is for sale only in your taproom or in a particular state, an influencer based out-of-state might not move the needle, even if they have hundreds of thousands of followers. Local, relevant experts are likely to be more effective.
What Are the Parameters?
Working with influencers is like any other type of marketing relationship, so setting expectations and maintaining professionalism is important. Bautista always prefers to receive emails about potential partnerships, she says, rather than having breweries reach out via direct message on Instagram. (She lists her email in her Instagram bio.)
“If you have to slide into the DMs, do it very professionally. Do it as you would any other business account,” Bautista says. “I’ve gotten DMs that only say: ‘Can I send beer for your page?’ No introduction, no nothing. It’s such a turn-off.”
It’s also critical to set expectations for the partnership. At Arizona Wilderness, Fowle says he generally tells influencers that he’d love to provide beer to them, with no strings attached. If they post about it, great. If not, it’s a small cost.
Other breweries may make specific requests about the number of posts, the type of content, and when it’s posted, before they send beer to an influencer—particularly if there’s financial compensation. Bautista says the most successful partnerships lay this out clearly. She recalls Night Shift Brewing in Everett, Massachusetts, emailing her about a potential paid campaign to promote its new line of hard seltzers.
“They were super-professionals, told me exactly what they were looking for,” she says. “They were immediately like, ‘Yes, compensation is included. Here’s the product that’s included. Here’s the timeline for when this is released and when we’d like you to post.’”
The campaign was a success. Bautista genuinely liked the way the seltzers tasted, and numerous followers asked her where they could buy it for themselves. She says Night Shift struck a great balance between making their expectations clear and allowing Bautista to have control over the content and aesthetics of her post.
What’s the ROI?
Depending on the campaign, influencer outreach can be more quantifiable than other types of marketing, thanks to the analytics available for social-media platforms.
Experts agree that engagement—more so than audience size—rules the day. Traackr has tools to measure cost per engagement, but even breweries not paying for such services can track engagement more manually. Some options to consider:
- asking influencers to see the metrics on these partnered posts
- tracking a brewery’s own social media following before and after influencer outreach
- tracking direct Google results for a brewery after an influencer post
- monitoring general traffic to the brewery’s website after an influencer post
- asking an influencer to post a URL for an event landing page, or merchandise shop, which creates even more trackable clicks
- monitoring ticket sales rates for a particular event before and after an influencer campaign
If the goal, however, is general brand awareness, that can be more nebulous. Fowle says that if a brewery is sending beer to influencers without a specific campaign goal in mind, the results are about as easy to measure as a billboard. Did people see it? Sure. Did it make them buy your beer? Maybe.
Identifying clear goals and working with focused, local influencers generally increases the odds of success. York says that all his brewery clients now currently do some form of influencer outreach. “We definitely have had some in the past that have been very skeptical, but I think they’ve all seen the value it can bring,” he says.
Here’s the good news for breweries hesitant to dip their toes into these less-charted waters: Influencer marketing isn’t a long-term or costly investment. For the price of a case of beer, it could convert some of your brewery’s biggest fans into brand ambassadors.
A Final Word: Legal Considerations
Social media may seem like the Wild West sometimes, but there are important Federal Trade Commision (FTC) laws and trade group–defined marketing codes that breweries should follow.
The first priority is to ensure that your brewery isn’t marketing alcohol to minors. When working with an influencer, this means not only confirming that the person is over 21, but also asking about the age demographics of their followers. Some influencers may be of legal drinking age, but the majority of their followers (especially on TikTok, whose standard version is available to children as young as 13) could be underage.
The second priority is to comply with the FTC’s disclosure laws. Influencers are required to disclose when they’ve received “anything of value” in exchange for mentioning a product; the agency offers specific guidance for what this disclosure should look like and what types of practices it covers. The FTC uses “Thanks to Acme brand for the free product” as an example of good, clear disclosure. See the FTC website for additional details.