The Barbell strategy for risk-averse influencer marketing

Skip the middle, go big or small: win with the Barbell influencer strategy!

Yash Chavan

Yash Chavan

August 2, 2022

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When you're starting an influencer program, it's common to ask yourself if you should go with big influencers, mid-sized ones, or smaller niche ones. Let me tell you something, if you pick just one of these... you'll likely not see the best performance (or fail!).

What if I told you there's a little-known strategy in influencer marketing that flips the odds in your favor:

"Heads, you win. Tails, you don't lose much!"

Meaning, you do have the option to get extremely high returns on your campaigns if they go well or not lose too much if they don't perform so well.

I'm calling this the Barbell strategy of influencer marketing.

The concept of a "Barbell strategy" was popularized by Nassim Taleb and mainly applied to financial investments. It seeks to allocate investments into two buckets — extremely safe assets (such as cash, gold, or treasury bonds) and highly speculative assets (cryptocurrencies, startups, options) — at the extreme ends of a volatility spectrum. Here's what a barbell portfolio would look like:


The Influencer marketing Barbell seeks to engage with influencers at the extreme ends of the price and audience-size spectrum. It involves partnering with only two kinds of influencers:

Nano-influencers: Smaller creators with an audience smaller than 20k people. They might bring in fewer but consistent visitors & customers to your store in exchange for a free product, commissions, or a small fee.

Whale-influencers: Bigger creators, usually with an audience of 1M or more. They might help your product go viral and give an instant boost of awareness, but charge a considerable amount of fees.

The Barbell strategy is called that because the effort and investment are entirely concentrated on two sides, just like a barbell. The idea is to limit risk and make space for an unlimited upside. It avoids micro-influencers who involve average risk and also average returns. This is key, don't mess around in the middle -- go extreme!

Just like financial investments, the critical component of a Barbell strategy is — time. The Barbell strategy increases the odds of getting a good ROI from your marketing efforts over a long enough time period. It does this by increasing your potential for upside (hit big with macro influencers) while gradually building your “fat tail” of nano influencer-driven sales.

Influencer marketing is a long game. It's not like a paid marketing faucet that you turn on to get clicks The Barbell strategy works in your favor if you're in this to build long term relationships (which you should be, else why are you on our academy!?).

Benefits of Partnering With Nano-Influencers

A Nano-influencer is a social media creator with ~3,000 to 20,000 followers. They are like a girl or guy next door who creates niche content for their followers. Their audience trusts them like you'd trust your friendly neighbor.

Nano-influencers might not have a considerable reach but enjoy more profound connections with a good percentage of their audience. They have more time compared to macro-influencers and hence engage with followers, respond to comments, and take time to talk to brands. Their engagement rate is usually higher, which means your campaigns have a higher impact on the eyeballs that see them.

Nano-influencers' initial audience is formed through friends, colleagues, and second-degree connections. So their followers don't see them with the same skepticism as they see more huge celebrity influencers.

Collaborating with a bigger influencer can get intense. You have to pursue them for weeks & months, engage in a back-and-forth, pay a cut to their agency, and a lot of other shenanigans. It can be hectic if you are a small team or an individual marketer handling the program.

Nano influencers are much more accessible. They're more likely to respond to you and pursue an opportunity to collaborate with smaller brands.

Another good thins is that they don't charge much and are even willing to create content for you in exchange for free products and/or affiliate commissions.

Benefits of Partnering With Whale Influencers

Whales are called whales because they can have a huge impact on your business.

Photo by Todd Cravens on Unsplash

They're not the next-door friendly neighbor, but more like the popular people in the city. They usually have 500K-2M followers. Their posts get lots of comments and likes. Their content is polished and curated, and you can see they've created many sponsored posts/videos in the past. Ideally, even whales have high engagement rates. They're not common, but that's what separates them from the other big fish.

They can definitely help brands get more sales not because of the size of their audience alone, but also their engagement and connection with fans. Usually, a whale post can help your brand get featured in Instagram's Explore section or in YouTube recommendations, which is perfect for attracting more people to your brand. Their content is more likely to be shared around by their followers too. It's just a lot of opportunity i.e. a lot of potential upside.

It may be harder to find and make a deal work with a whale. But they're totally worth the time and effort. If they engage with you, you can expect high-quality content, professionalism, and a long-term partnership. These engagements usually come with a large upfront fee, but you can negotiate this into a combination of flat fee + commissions to make it more palatable. It also incentivizes the creator to create compelling content.

Collaborating with whales also attracts nano-influencers, which helps you fill the other end of your barbell. This strategy is uniquely self-fulfilling ❤️

Balancing The Two Sides

A barbell is a useful visual metaphor, and just like every barbell has a bar in the middle, the image below shows how it helps balance & connect the two extremes of influencer marketing.

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Split the % of investment (of time and money) you make as 80-20 between nano and whale creators. Start with 90-10, and slowly build towards an 80-20 split. In the early days, focus on getting momentum by onboarding lots of nanoinfluencers.

Once you work with 20-30 creators, you will understand the motivations of influencers better. You would probably have optimized your process and script in the process. Then you can start reaching out to the whales in your niche.

Having partnerships with multiple creators will also serve as a credibility check for whales to work with you. Eg: A creator with 1M subscribers will consider your brand more legit if you already have 40 nanoinfluencers working with you.

Working with nano influencers will give you a steady boost in users or revenue. You can evaluate product-audience fit, improve your product with feedback or even generate substantial revenue before launching an investment-heavy campaign with whales. This will help you get the most out of your investment. Nano-influencers will help you build enough wealth to fund the whales, isn't that awesome?

When you have built enough cash and confidence to work with whales, don't get swayed by their huge following. It may seem cool to have a celebrity shout you out, but focus on working with actual whales who would have an impact on your bottom-line, not just vanity shoutouts.

Partner only with creators — whether small or large — who have an audience that might be interested in your products.

You need to ensure that you are on-brand at all times and are not compromising on your brand values to get them to collaborate with you. For instance, don’t work with influencers notorious for controversy just because it gets you more eyeballs (unless your brand is built on controversy 😉)

Thanks for reading! If you liked this strategy, consider joining our "No BS" Influence Marketing Letter for more such unconventional tips! 

PS: The inspiration for this post and concept was Alex Birkett's Barbell Strategy for content marketing. Give him a read if you're setting up a content program for your brand.

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Skip the middle, go big or small: win with the Barbell influencer strategy!

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