Sam Fiorella co-authored one of the first books on influence marketing in 2013. He then used that research and smarts to re-shape his agency to reverse engineer influence marketing using branded communities. These walled gardens give brands the opportunity to research and identify pain points in the consumer journey to know exactly who, what, why and how needs to be triggered to influence everything from consideration to purchase to loyalty. In this episode of  Winfluence – The Influence Marketing Podcast Sam peels back the kimono and shares more insight than you might bargain for.

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Winfluence – The Influence Marketing Podcast is a companion piece to my forthcoming influencer marketing book, Winfluence: Reframing Influencer Marketing to Ignite Your Brand, set to publish in early 2021 from Entrepreneur Press. I interview the Who’s Who of Influencer Marketing weekly — from brand managers to software creators, and from agency strategists to influencers themselves. If you know someone who should be a guest on the show, shoot me an email at jason – at – jasonfalls – dot – com.

Winfluence Podcast – Sam Fiorella Transcript

Jason Falls 0:31
Hello again friends thanks for listening to influence the influence Marketing Podcast. Buckle up a bit for this week’s episode because you are going to hear from Sam Fiorella. He and Danny Brown wrote one of the first real books focused on influence marketing. In fact, it was called “Influence Marketing.” You can still find it on Amazon. It’s about seven years old, but it’s highly relevant and very useful.

Jason Falls 0:52
Sam and Danny’s book is very academic and data driven in its approach and arguments about influence marketing. It’s 100% on point and a great book to understand everything from influence methodology to the intricacies of measurement. But as Sam even admits it’s heady. However from that work, he and his business partner evolved their agency since a marketing in Toronto to build branded community platforms with the intention of reverse engineering influence. Yeah, I told you to buckle up. Sam explains how controlled contained communities, built for your target audience serve as a perfect observation deck to see exactly what context surrounds the point of consideration to trial, trial to purchase, purchase to loyalty and beyond. He walks us through what that looks like and what you have to do to build it.

Jason Falls 1:45
And one note that you’ll need for context toward the end of the conversation, Sam refers to his charity the friendship bench and yellow is for Hello. Sam’s teenage son Lucas suffered from depression and unfortunately took his own life in 2014. So Sam developed the yellow friendship benches as a symbolic and practical solution to depression in young people. Yellow is for Hello refers to the fact if you’re depressed, you can sit on a yellow friendship bench as a way of saying I need a friend to talk to. Sam explains more and how his community influenced mining approach influenced his friendship bench work too.

Jason Falls 2:20
You can find links to resources to learn more and certainly contribute to the charitable foundation in the show notes at, but it will be helpful for you to know that background when he talks about it. Lots of great insights here folks, get out your notebooks because here’s my talk with Sensei Marketing’s Sam Fiorella …

Jason Falls 2:43
When I sat down and decided that I was going to write a book on influencer marketing, it took me about 35 seconds to go, “Dammit my my friend Sam’s already written a book on influencer marketing, what the hell am I doing?” And so I thought who better to bring to the podcast To talk about my book then Sam fiorella to talk about his book and you know what he’s doing now and what’s changed and all that Sam How are you man?

Sam Fiorella 3:08
I’m doing very well. Be honest with your audience — you know the only reason is that you want it to tell them or show them everything I did wrong. So … will be good in comparison

Jason Falls 3:22
Not at all in fact, we I went through a bit of a brouhaha if you want to use a weird word trying to get a copy of your book so that I made sure to a mine the intelligence out of it and be not replicate the good work that you and Danny Brown did on your … your book’s called “Influence Marketing,” so, you know, I couldn’t I couldn’t steal from you know, the people who went before me. And for some reason or another, the only copy that I could get on Amazon was like $5,000 or something. So thankfully you have a client in Louisville and came and delivered one to me, so I appreciate that.

Sam Fiorella 4:01
Yeah, you’re the only person that I’ve actually traveled halfway around the world and deliver a book to.

Jason Falls 4:07
And for those of you who don’t know, Sam Fiorella is in Toronto, up in the Great White North. And he he is one of the main people behind Sensei Marketing, which is a now I’ve called you guys a digital marketing agency. I think at one point you were saying you were a customer experience consultancy. How do you define since a marketing?

Sam Fiorella 4:30
Yeah, that’s a really good question. Because we’ve morphed we started as a digital marketing agency. My partner Don Whitbeck and I got together to try and do something a little bit different. But, you know, at the same time, Danny Brown and I wrote the book Influence Marketing and you know, as a backlash to clout more than anything else. And, you know, with the lessons that we learned and trying to prove that model wrong, and we’ve been getting so much attention around influence marketing, That we’ve continued down that path. And our business has actually progressed because of the book. And because of the lessons learned and all the experimentation that we did. So today, we’re actually morphing into a community technology company. We’re actually we’ve developed an engagement platform, a relationship management platform is what we’re calling it. It’s something completely new. And it leverages what we’ve learned, I hate that word leverage, got the marketing lingo? it leverages what we’ve learned in terms of identifying and building influencers from the customer forward as opposed to, you know, pushing influence how do we pull influence by developing these communities, mining the communities, and then identifying what sways the communities. And so we started doing this about seven years ago since they’ve been around for Almost 10. Around seven years ago, we started doing this with one of our clients. And it now morphed into an enterprise platform that is, you know, in some of the world’s largest companies. It’s fantastic experience from a … for us anyway.

Jason Falls 6:16
So So is what you’re describing to me, would you? I mean, how does it compare to or does it compare to a loyalty ambassador platform type management CRMs versus maybe an employee engagement platform where you’re feeding them content for them to promote help me categorize in my brain a little bit here?

Sam Fiorella 6:38
Yeah, and this is one of our biggest challenges. Actually, maybe we should hire you to come and do some branding for us because, to be honest with you, we have struggled a little bit because we’re actually doing something that is an offshoot of what others are doing with CRMs and you know, what nimble is doing with its relationship management platform and Just taking it to the next level and applying our concept of influence marketing. So essentially what we’ve done is developed community engagement platforms not too dissimilar to what’s already out there in terms of, you know, supplying relevant content in a client owned branded community. But we’ve added we’ve added loyalty offers by relevant partners. We’ve added, you know, the gamification through badges and points and contests and surveys and user generated content development through the forums and challenges and things like that. So a lot of these things individually you’ve seen elsewhere, what I guess is a little bit different in terms of what we do is we mined we purposefully develop content and encourage ambassadors to develop content and to network with each other. We don’t try and feed too much content, we try and seed content and then have the community build around And then what our AI does is identifies Where are the decision making points, at what point are certain people based on their profiles based on where they are in the buyer journey, because what we’re doing this entire time that they’re communicating with each other, is we’re mapping them along the buyer journey, and then identify At what point of the buyer journey, is there a trigger? Where do they go from just being interested to wanting to buy? Where did they go from? You know, thinking maybe not even realizing that they need something to saying, hey, maybe that’ll work for me. And then we overlaid it and this is all this is basically what Danny and I wrote in the book, this is what we figured out, you know, seven years ago. We then overlay what is happening around these consumers, when they are talking about their problems and their pains, what are the situational factors that are happening is there any is there some one on the economy? Is there something going on in their industry? Is there something going on in politics that could shift the way that an influencer, his message will get received? And we map all of these data points and we then reverse engineer influence. You know that the basic premise, if you know, our book, I have one criticism of my own book, and that is that it was way too scholarly. It was way too clinical in the weeds. Like no other textbook I had ever experienced in university. I don’t, we didn’t intend it to go that way. We were just so fixated on the science of it. Again, it was really and I’ll be honest with you is 100% to prove that quote, was 100% bullshit back in the day, from whatever they were peddling as science, the actual science, and that’s kind of why we went to that level. But what we figured out was that you need to understand what motivates a consumer to go from awareness to consideration consideration to purchase. And then from purchase to satisfaction, satisfaction to loyalty and then finally, loyalty to advocacy. That’s six different influence marketing campaigns right there within one buyer journey. Wow. And that’s kind of what our software does. It’s basically a platform that enables what we built what we wrote in the book.

Jason Falls 10:27
So, all right, so I’m starting to understand what you’re what you’re talking about here. But let me put on my consumer hat for a minute. And I need you to give me an example of one of these sort of branded communities that I might be interested in joining. Because when I think so when when someone says to me, well, we’re going to build a branded community. My first reaction to that is normally nobody wants to join your fucking community. What are you talking about? Nobody wants to be in your club, unless you’re going to incentivize the hell out of it. And that, you know, skews the people that are Gonna be there and whatnot. So give me an example of a branded community or an environment that I might come to, for one of your clients. That makes sense to me.

Sam Fiorella 11:09
Okay. So I’m glad you said that because that it, it, can’t we, I’ve been you while you and I both have been involved in a lot of these beta communities out there. And you know, none of which have really lasted. I can give you maybe one of our client examples right now, and I’m not sure and this is actually why I come to Louisville, Kentucky all the time. And, you know, just for for this particular client, which is Echo USA Echo, they’ve developed power tools for landscapers and arborists and lawn care professionals, professionals, basically for the green industry, handheld power tools. They put me a number of years ago and said we’ve got a problem. You know, and we’re thinking that maybe an influencer marketing strategy might work well you come and speak at our sales convention. So I went and I did this thing. At their sales convention and in listening to them, I understood quickly what the problem was. And they had an awareness and a perception problem, their product was seen as consumer as inferior to their major competitor, even though the science and statistics proved otherwise, they had a serious branding issue. And so when I looked at their marketing, all they had been doing is pumping out features and benefits and showing the stats and side by side comparisons. And what they missed. Was that this audience, lawn care professionals, they’re the new makeup YouTube generation, you know, remember all these YouTube, you know, these teenage girls doing makeup videos that became these instant celebrities? Well, that, you know, I don’t I don’t follow them. I don’t know what’s happening in that industry. But I can tell you that this this market is alive and well on YouTube, and an Instagram for this particular community. You have all these, you know, awesome rednecks. You know, you’re talking about power tools and hit that smash button for the next video and or sorry, hit you smash that like button and so on and so forth. I mean, it’s really

Jason Falls 13:10
You’re talking about my people Sam!

Sam Fiorella 13:12
Yeah, I work with them every day, I absolutely adore every one of them. And I’ve learned so much in working with them as well about influence marketing. So what we basically what we did is, I didn’t want to do what their competitors were doing, because they were they had tried various influence marketing campaigns and the analysis that I did, and they lasted three months, and then they died. And then they tried something different with another group and it died. There was nothing that was long lasting, which is not uncommon because you get a lot of eyeballs for a short period of time. Somebody like the CMO says, Well, what money did that make me and then nobody can point to a bottom line. So I then said we need to do something a little bit different. Let’s not look for the guys with the biggest social media file. Things that everybody else is going to, why don’t we build a community of professionals for professionals. And this is essentially one of our platforms because what I learned in analyzing what was being said on the forums was that everybody thought that echo was a solid product. Their warranty was better than anybody else in the market. And the products were a little bit cheaper. And frankly, even if they broke down between the lower price and the warranty, they were still ahead of the game. So what they were saying was that you know what echo means business for me. Echo is all about business. If you want this if you want to look sexy and pick up chicks take the competitor product strapped on your back, walk down the street, right, I guess there’s the equivalent redneck, you know, female that wants these guys with these power tools.

Jason Falls 14:53
It’s it’s, it’s it’s it’s mullet Matthew. Big and big hair, Betty That’s their, that’s their personas.

Sam Fiorella 15:01
Okay, I’m gonna have to write that down. I like that.

Sam Fiorella 15:06
So, what we decided to do then is play up on that. And so we branded the community, Echo Means Business. We didn’t try and influence anybody to buy any products. What we did is we went out and we found 30 professionals, everyday professionals that have varying levels of experiences that basically make up, you know, a slice of who this community is, you’ve got some 18 year olds that are working their way through college, you know, with a small left lawn care business guys who are, you know, have come back from the army and needed to start a business because nobody will hire them. And this is what they did. And so we’ve got this incredible mix of people that represent the community. And what we said to them is, how would you like to mentor other professionals who are looking to get into this business or who are in the business but are maybe struggling and we supply them with not only our clients products, but competitor products, they go ahead, try them, compare them side by side, and post commentary on our community about what works and what doesn’t work and why they’re to slam our client if they want. If they don’t like the product, they’re free to say that. But at the same time, they have to give us content that talks about how to better manage their taxes, how to better manage employees in the offseason, how to deal with, you know, the crazy environmental laws that you know are going on in California right now, for example, and and how they, you know, put pesticide on the ground. So they basically have to help everybody not just decide what’s the right product for them, but how to run their businesses better. Right. So the community is actually nothing about what we put what we create, we develop very little content. What we do is we facilitate an annual group of we call user advisory group And we have a new group of 30 that comes in every year and basically mentors the community through a series of these engagement tools that we have on our platform. Well, that started four years ago, five years ago, when we first launched five years ago when we first launched the community. And I think we ended up getting, I don’t know, 1000 or so people. Now we’re four years later, we’re up to 67,000 professionals in Google on the website and a dedicated mobile app that is there now their number one tool for information and engagement within the industry. And what we then do with this now to the to the outside person, they look at this and they go, this is just boring. Like, who cares about this? Well, it’s niche. It’s specific, not for the entire world. I don’t want everybody there’s 80,000 professionals in the United States in Canada, that call themselves green industry professionals. We have 67,000 of them. That’s all I wanted. I got the lion’s share of the audience on my platform. to each other. And what ended up happening over this time is we again, we started mapping their conversations, we started against their personas against their profiles, their industry type. And we started identifying where are they challenged when it comes to different parts of the business, and especially when it comes to buying product. And we were able to feed that information not only back to our client, but we were now able to reverse engineer influence. What we, you know, so now we can say, well, these guys, I can now pinpoint a professional where they are in their buying cycle. And I know exactly which influencer and what content to put in front of them that will help them sway that decision to bind my clients product versus another current product.

Jason Falls 18:46
That’s crazy smart.

Sam Fiorella 18:48
That’s exactly what our communities do.

Jason Falls 18:52
Wow. And it’s four years old and you got over 60,000 professionals.

Sam Fiorella 18:57
Yeah, that’s, that’s amazing. And then we don’t have time to go through all of them. But I got the exact same example in with one of the world’s largest financial services firms. It’s completely private, not public at all b2b. I’ve got another one with a national association of accountants, boring as hell, sorry, my wife. It’s one of the most boring communities but they are incredibly engaged because it’s peer to peer. And it’s not these pseudo influencers pushing, you know, hunting product. And this is, you know, one of the main premises of what we wrote in the book, Danny and I, and what we discovered in the experiments that we did and all the things that we did wrong is you can’t push influence, right? influence is pulled, your someone needs to be ready to be influenced. And so a good influence marketer will take the time to understand at what point in that journey is Somebody’s most receptive and most in need of that influencer message. And that’s when you have to be ready to hit them at that point.

Jason Falls 20:09
So saying that, is it possible then to execute good influence marketing on on scale on large social media networks like Instagram and YouTube and so on and so forth when you don’t really have a finger on the pulse of the audience as well as you could in a branded community?

Sam Fiorella 20:30
Yeah. And this is where, you know, our peers and I have, you know, a lot of arguments. Because, you know, they’re saying, Sam, you’re killing my business here. People are listening to your clients CMOs are listening to you, and they’re not going to hire me because that’s what I do. My answer to that is, it’s not impossible. That’s what we call the fisherman’s model. It’s a spray and pray. If you’re if what your client is looking for, is to just Get some eyeballs and get some awareness, then sure that can work. And if that’s what you’re how you’re being measured by eyeballs, great. It’s just my experience has always been that whenever a client says, look, all I want is awareness, I want to get so many likes, I want to get so many followers, I want to get so many impressions. You know, and hopefully some click throughs. That is good for a year or two. But eventually the CFO If not, the CMO will step up and say we’ve just invested all this money into marketing with this agency, what have they done for you? You know, where’s the measurement? And what I was finding is that it might those projects, those clients are only lasting two years. The clients that I’ve said, No, no, no, no, I know that’s what you want. But that isn’t the way that it should be worth that’s, that’s not how it should happen. Echo is a perfect example of this. Those clients that I’ve pushed back and they’ve allowed me to do what I think needs to be done and that’s analyze the audience first and reverse engineer this influence path to identify who those macro influencers are. Those are the clients that I’ve had for four to 10 years. Well, they’re the ones that, you know, pay my bills, the other, the other ones that don’t allow me to do that never last more than two years, because eventually they realize that it’s not right. And they just find the next agency to give them a little bit of a bump. And they just keep cycling through these types of agencies.

Jason Falls 22:21
So if, if, if I’m sort of reading the tea leaves correctly here, and to kind of categorize this for the audience out there, you’re talking about reverse engineering influenced marketing, from the perspective of, you know, branded communities or communities have, I guess, you know, knowledge bases where people are generating content, there’s a lot of user generated content. There’s maybe some, you know, a little bit of influencer invitation on your end, and a little bit of inspiration from the content perspective, but then you are really just data mining at that point, and trying to find those insights that you can say okay, here are the points in the in the marketing funnel, where where influences is going needs to happen. And here are the opportunities. So, when I look at that, if I’m gonna put that in a couple of categories, I totally understand your perspective on this is reverse engineering, influencer marketing, but I also think you’re doing a really fantastic job of, of, of community building, which goes into when I think of community building, I think of word of mouth marketing examples like Fisketeers, and the Harley Owners Group and whatnot. I’m thinking about things that aren’t categorized necessarily as influencer marketing. So is it really that this is a sort of a mixed bag of a bunch of different sort of strategies that kind of come together nicely.

Sam Fiorella 23:52
You know, using the Fiskars and the Harley example really shows our age. There isn’t a single millennial out there listening that has any clue what you’re talking about right now? That’s true. Well,

Jason Falls 24:03
You know, yeah, they might get they might get the Harley Owners Group of Fiskars is a little odd in that when that community went away to I don’t know, yeah, drove me crazy.

Sam Fiorella 24:13
But you know what? Yes, you’re 100%. Right. And listen, I’m an old fucker. I’m lumping you in that category as well. Um, we’ve been around the block and we we understand that mark, you know, the right message to the right audience at the right time. That’s exactly what we do. And it’s why we’ve been successful over these years and why we’ve been able to grow our we’ve been we’ve doubled our revenue every year for the last five years. You know, throughout COVID, I’ve just hired four people in the note five people in the last four weeks, I’ve onboard. You know, it’s because we are not looking for flashy software. We’re not looking for the latest trend. We’ve gone back to the basics to understand that marketing has to be responsive to the bottom line and we can Go out to social media networks and we can find, you know, the latest Tick Tock star and have them where you know our clients product or promote it in some way, or get Jennifer Lopez to include it in a video of hers. That doesn’t necessarily drive product sales, at least not in the long term. What we do is build communities that are multi purpose. But while we have them, if you’re successful at building a branded owned community, you own the data. And you know, you it doesn’t have to last forever, it doesn’t have to last 100 years, even if it lasts five to seven years. You’ve got meaningful data that comes out of that. And, you know, to build micro influencers, you know, to understand who they are and, you know, it’s micro influencers, you know, you and I’ve talked about in the past micro influencers that sway purchase decisions, macro influencers may drive eyeballs, but it’s micro influencers that drive purchase decision. consideration or change attitudes about a particular product. So that’s exactly what we’ve done. I’ve gone back and the reason I referenced My age is I’ve gone back to what we’ve always done. And that is understand how people make decisions, why they buy when they buy and what are the obstacles to buying. Today, instead of doing focus groups, you need to analyze what they’re saying online. But to do that on LinkedIn, or Facebook, or Twitter or tik tok, or anything else, you can’t get access to that data or very little of it, right? So by having a branded owned community, you basically own that community, you own the data, and you have a direct one to one, even if you don’t, even if a client doesn’t understand that you have on like the end client, the audience, you basically have a one to one relationship with them because you see and hear everything they’re doing, right by data mining, that you can map those conversations and work backwards.

Jason Falls 26:54
So the challenge I think then becomes coming up with the I hate to use this word because that’s not the right word. It’s coming up with the strategy. But coming up with when you’re talking to the consumer, the people that you want to come into this community coming up with the gimmick that gets them to buy in and say, Yes, I want to come there. Yes, you’ve got content, or engagement or people or advice or something that I want. That probably is the first challenge that you have to tackle when coming up with one of these concepts. So how do you go about answering that question? What are the what are the questions you ask your client? Or what is the research you do to figure out what’s the right gimmick to get people to buy in and say, Yes, I want to be a part of this.

Sam Fiorella 27:38
Yeah. And I don’t even object to the term gimmick because sometimes that’s what it comes down to. You need some kind of a hook. And I typically don’t ask the client. What I do is I ask to look at the data of their clients. And everyone like I just you know, I did a college in in Florida. was my first one like this. And what I did is I just started to survey, the end audience. I actually went on campus. And I started talking to the students, you know, why did they choose that college? Why and then I went, and I got a database of those who didn’t choose the college except that it competitors competitive college and I interviewed them. And then I went on to their online forums to understand what they were doing. I did the same thing with Echo, I did the same thing with every one of our clients. And I just listened to what they were saying I identified where there was a gap in the market that needed filling. And so the entry point to every one of our communities is typically what are people searching for? What are they what information are they starved for, that isn’t currently being provided? And what’s so what’s interesting about our software, if I can just a little bit of a plug, it’s not I know, it’s not why we’re talking but what’s different about what we do and this is sort of Lesson it’s not about selling what we do. It’s more the lesson learned is that while it’s one platform, it’s one technology, I can show you four different communities that we’ve built, and you would not know that they’re the same community or that the same platform, you would have no clue that it was even the same agency that did it. And not just a creative perspective, the engagements are completely different than each one of them. The types of engagements, the types of audiences. And so what we do is understand where is the need? In fact, I’ve done this with my charity, the friendship bench. No, I don’t know if you’ve heard any of what, you know, any of the speeches that I’ve given on this, but it’s about peer to peer engagement. Right. What we’ve done with that is we understood that there was a growing number of students who are suffering with depression who are taking their their lives because they can’t get the help. And it isn’t because there isn’t help available necessarily. It’s because they either don’t know how How to ask they’re afraid to ask. And what I understood was the problem was that they needed peer acceptance first, before they, they would go and get the help that could be available to them within the school or, you know, within within the medical community. And so that was our approach. When we built the friendship bench, the entire Yellow is for Hello campaign. We said we needed to encourage students to make it okay for other students to talk about it. And so our entire community that we built around that was that and now in the schools where we’ve developed these influencer campaigns, these micro influencer campaigns, we’ve seen an 18% rise in the number of kids asking for help after we’ve implemented and implemented our program, you know, and obviously, I’m doing that for personal reasons, as you know, but I basically applied this influence marketing community strategy, and focusing on micro influencers instead of macro influencers and it seems to work. So it’s always a different gimmick in your words. It always fills the hole. That’s why I never asked the client, what do you want to say? Or where do you want to go? I go to their audience and I understand what are they missing? And then I build around that reverse reverse engineer influence.

Jason Falls 31:19
That’s fantastic. Leave it up to a damn Canadian to figure all this out.

Sam Fiorella 31:23

Jason Falls 31:26
Sam, where can people find you on the interwebs?

Sam Fiorella 31:30
The easiest way is a — S-E-N-S-E-I Marketing – dot – com

Jason Falls 31:36
Awesome. Sam, thank you so much for sharing all this with us great insights and certainly puts a very different perspective on influencer marketing in my mind and I know the minds of our listeners. So I really appreciate your time.

Sam Fiorella 31:49
It’s always a pleasure talking to you my friend.

Transcribed by

The Winfluence theme music is “One More Look” featuring Jacquire King and Stephan Sharp by The K Club found on Facebook Sound Collection.

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