An Influencer Marketing Case Study From Ryan Holiday

I took the opportunity to ask some questions to Ryan Holiday, bestselling author & media columnist as he was hosting a Q&A open session on Quora, on occasion of the launch of his new book, Conspiracy.

I asked him what kind of media coverage he has found most effective for his distribution and selling strategy. The answer from Ryan Holiday was quite surprising and plenty of useful tips if you’re trying to scale up sales.

The approach Ryan Holiday suggests I believe is well-fit for scaling up sales of products and services which are in the range of $20-$100. In fact, this playbook I believe does not apply to those companies that rely on the sale of services that involve more stakeholders for a final decision.

This kind of sales, which we can define as complex sales require the effort of experienced sales professionals able to deal with several parties before the transaction gets closed. For other products and services that mostly target a large audience or individuals which are the ones who make the purchase decision, the sales playbook showed in this article can be very effective.

NYT vs. Tim Ferris Blog

There is no way a few years back it would have been possible to compare a historical newspaper like The New York Times with a blog, even if that is the blog of the most renowned author, podcaster, serial investor and start-up mentor, Tim Ferris. Yet that is not what Ryan Holiday suggests. In fact, when the NY Times profiled Ryan Holiday’s book, “The Obstacle is the Way” he jumped to Amazon on #1,500; That you might expect. It was December 2016.


However, when Tim Ferris posted a picture of the same book on his Instagram page on January 2017, Ryan Holiday‘s book jumped at #44 on Amazon

This is the chart that Ryan Holiday shared on Quora:


Does it mean that Influencer Marketing is more powerful than media coverage? Not necessarily. Both need to be used in conjunction. However, here influencer marketing has a precise meaning, and it does follow some basic rules.

Before we get into that, when is influencer marketing effective?

It’s all about time, the place, and the tenor of the coverage

When Tim Ferris posted about Ryan Holiday‘s book, the time was right for it to go viral. In fact, Tim Ferris is famous for getting things that aren’t yet mainstream to a broad audience. When he posted another picture of the coin produced by The Daily Stoic store this fueled sales even further, at the point that orders were pouring in each minute,

However, judging the media coverage from NY Times only from the short-term sales standpoint would be reductive.

Short vs. long-term strategy“>strategy

As Ryan Holiday pointed out about his new book,

The New York Times recently reviewed my book Conspiracy and while the review sold little in the way of copies in the short term, the fact that the Times called the book a “profound masterwork” will almost certainly impact sales in the long run (we’ll put that blurb on the cover) and it will likely be transformative for my career.

Therefore, something like a review from The New York Times rather than having an immediate impact on sales it will have it in the long run. That is in part because these reviews are featured on the book cover. Thus, over time this makes people that are thinking to buy the book more prone to do that.

But what’s the magic formula to scale up sales?

There is no magic bullet

The point: There is no magic bullet. Sometimes you think a piece will blow everything up and it does nothing. Other times, something you weren’t even expecting changes everything.

Generally though, I am of the mind that influencer matter more than media. It’s also more in your control and costs less money. A good publicist might cost $15k a month…sending product to cool people costs only the cost of the product.

Ryan Holiday has a point. At times what scale-up sales might be something unexpected. Also, as of now, there is not yet a comparison between the cost of a publicist (that as Ryan Holiday points out might cost $15k a month) and an influencer. I’d like to remark “as of now.” In fact, the influencer marketing industry is still at its embryonal stage. Would influencers start asking for money to feature products, that, of course, would reduce the advantage of using influencer marketing over PR.

But what is the sales playbook to follow for influencer marketing?

The sales playbook

According to Ryan Holiday‘s answer, there are a few basic principles:

Pick up the right influencer

At one point, Ryan Holiday tells the story of Marc Ecko who built his clothing brand Ecko Unltd into a billion-dollar company. As Ryan Holiday explains: 

Marc wasn’t just sending out random stuff to random people—he knew who mattered and he knew what they liked. When Spike Lee directed the movie Malcolm X, Marc “sent him a sweatshirt with a meticulously painted portrait of Malcolm X on it.” The sweatshirt took two days of work to make—even though there was no guarantee Spike would even see it. It turned out that Spike loved the gift and sent Marc back a signed letter. Two decades later, Spike Lee and Marc Ecko are still working together.

If you’re trying to use influencer marketing as a way to scale up sales, then you have to know who to focus on. You can’t just randomly pick any influencer in your industry. Like in Tim Ferris’ case, when he mentions something or someone that product or person instantaneously gains traction. That is because Tim Ferris has a very engaged community. In short, don’t look for the most popular but to the person that has an engaged community.

This leads to the second point.

Fante and the influencer network effect

Ryan Holiday also tells the story of John Fante, and how his works were wholly forgotten until Charles Bukowski didn’t pick up his book, Ask the Dust, in Los Angeles public library. Bukowski started to tell anyone he knew about that. It awoke interest about that novel till these days:

I heard about Fante from another one of his champions, the writer Neil Strauss, who had called Ask the Dust his favorite novel in an interview. I picked it up because of that recommendation. In turn, I have become a champion of Fante and helped sell thousands of copies of his work to my own fans. I tell this story to illustrate the power of champions—it can bring art back from the dead.

Therefore, don’t pick up just an influencer, look for champions. Those people that when figuring out about something exciting they need to tell anyone they know!

Never dismiss anyone

This principle is easy to forget. We tend to judge people based on their following and influence. However, you don’t know how that person can turn out in the future. So, Ryan Holiday says:

Never dismiss anyone — You never know who might help you one day with your work. Tim’s rule was to treat everyone like they could put you on the front page of The New York Times . . . because someday you might meet that person.

Play the long game

If you stop thinking about who can boost your sales right now. But about who can be a trusted friend in the year to come:

Play the long game — It’s not about finding someone who can help you right this second. It’s about establishing a relationship that can one day benefit both of you.

Focus on “pre-VIPs”

Another critical aspect is that you might want to grow together another person when he/she is not famous yet but on the rising. In fact, as Ryan Holiday points out:

Focus on “pre-VIPs” — The people who aren’t well known but should be and will be. It’s not about who has the biggest megaphone. A great example for me was meeting Tim in early 2007 before The 4-Hour Workweek was published. He hadn’t sold millions of books then and didn’t have a huge platform. Now he does and I am writing this post.

Be interesting and take risks

None is going to bother to sponsor you or your product if you don’t take a risk:

As for getting media, the best thing you can do is be interesting and take risks. Nobody at my publisher thought writing a book about ancient philosophy would be exciting or interesting…but when I made it work, I was a refreshingly different person to profile for the Times.

Summary and Conclusions

Ryan Holiday is the author of The Daily Stoic and many other successful books. If there is one thing he has mastered; that is how to scale up sales by using PR and Influencer Marketing. As Ryan Holiday explained, a Media coverage might help more in the long run. While influencer marketing is done right can scale up sales quite fast. However, to make it effective, there are a few necessary things to look out to:

  • pick up the right influencer
  • make sure he’s a champion
  • never dismiss anyone
  • play the long game
  • focus on pre-VIPs
  • be interesting and take risks

These are some of the advice from Ryan Holiday. Here you can find the whole answer on Quora.

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Gennaro Cuofano

Gennaro is the creator of FourWeekMBA which he brought to reach about a million business students, professionals, and entrepreneurs in 2019 alone | Gennaro is also Head of Business Development for a high-tech startup, which he helped grow at double-digit rate and become profitable | Gennaro is an International MBA with emphasis on Corporate Finance | Subscribe to the FourWeekMBA Newsletter | Or Get in touch with Gennaro here

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