Because paid advertising is increasing in expense and, in some cases, decreasing in effectiveness, companies of all sizes and shapes are turning to earned exposure through influencer marketing.
In theory, it makes perfect sense. Consumers trust one another more than they trust messages from brands. Thus, if we can get human beings to carry our marketing water on behalf of the company, not only do costs go down, but persuasiveness goes up simultaneously.
There are some critical challenges with this type of marketing, including scalability, disclosure, and the tendency of companies to confuse influence with audience when selecting persons with whom to align. But the genie is not going back in the bottle. With hundreds of influencer marketing software firms in play, powered by venture capital, this is a marketing sub-genre that’s going to be around awhile.
But the overwhelming majority of influencer marketing software and industry chatter focuses on the use of influencers to pitch consumer-focused products. Instagram is rotten with influencer appeals (many of them ham-fisted) for all manner of B2C doo-dads and gadgetry.
In reality, however, influencer marketing is more important for B2B than for B2C. After all, the average purchase size in B2B typically dwarfs that in B2C, and the impact of referrals and word of mouth are more critical to the success of the organization. Note that 19 percent of the overall US economy (B2B and B2C) is driven specifically by word of mouth, but 91 percent of B2B transactions are at least influenced by word of mouth.
In short, without word of mouth and influencer marketing, B2B purchases would grind to a halt, because nobody takes a flyer on B2B products and services the way they gamble on consumer-focused items.
Many of the tenets of influencer marketing work the same for B2C and for B2B. But there are several important differences that I’ll focus on in this piece.
Because the factors that go into a B2B purchase decision are often more nuanced and comprehensive than consumer purchases, the impact of B2B influencer marketing will naturally take longer to take root. Consumers goods companies can—in theory—pay some models to hawk bikinis on Instagram, and purchases will roll in almost immediately. It doesn’t work like that for B2B.
Further, because most B2B purchases involve multiple decision makers, it is likely to take longer for the impact of B2B influencer marketing to touch a plurality of those people. This is why, incidentally, we all should be using more influencers in cooperation with account-based marketing.
In the estimation of me and our strategist here at Convince & Convert, you shouldn’t expect results from a B2B influencer marketing program for at least six months, and you should seek to work with B2B influencers one year at a time. This differs a lot from B2C influencer programs, which can be as short as 30 days.
Categorically, I’ll say that companies are too eager to look outside their existing ecosystems to find “fresh” influencers. In many cases, outstanding advocates with pre-baked topical knowledge are already associated in some way with the brand.
The first step—once you know why you want to engage in B2B influencer marketing at all—should be to carefully analyze and evaluate your existing customers, fans, business partners, and employees for evidence of advocacy and influence.
Something as simple as using a tool like Cision (a Convince & Convert partner) or FollowerWonk to examine the relative social influence of everyone who follows the brand on Twitter can yield remarkable insights. Social chatter is so diffuse now that it’s entirely possible influencers are routinely talking about your brand without you even knowing about it (until you make a specific effort to identify them).
These people constitute the first pool of potential B2B influencers because they already have a proven affinity.
Advertising is about influencing potential customers. Influencer marketing is about influencing the people that influence your potential customers. It’s one step removed.
If you want to figure out who is really going to resonate as a B2B influencer—and you do—it really helps to know who your customers are already listening to, reading, and watching. I love the Affinio software for this purpose, as we used it to determine who influences fans of Convince & Convert, and used that list to help select podcast guests, among other outcomes. It’s slick.
But, if you don’t want to purchase a software license to do that kind of analysis, launch a quick survey of your customers using Typeform or something similar. Ask them specifically who they listen to, read, and watch. We’ve done this kind of research too, and I suggest you add a question about trust—something like, “Among this list of B2B influencers you’ve acknowledged you listen to/read/watch, please rank them by how much you trust them.” This is incredibly helpful information, as influencer marketing is all about trust for B2B.
Of course, social media reach is often used as a key measure of influence, but it’s by no means the only way to gauge B2B influencer marketing viability. In fact, some of the most powerful influencers in the world are not active at all in social media. On the marketing front, for example, Seth Godin is, by any measure, a massive influencer. Yet his use of social media is modest to non-existent.
When we create B2B influencer marketing programs for clients, we also look at potential participants who may not be social mavens but are respected authors, speakers, thinkers, podcasters, and researchers. Yes, using social footprint as the sole criteria makes it easier and faster to run a report to “find” influencers, but I can absolutely guarantee that doing that alone will miss a lot of truly influential people that your customers respect.
Once you have a list of potential influencers, it’s incredibly useful to be able to compare them using consistent data and a common format. This is why I always strongly suggest preparing influencer dossiers.
This is a document—usually in Keynote for us, but it doesn’t really matter—that discusses the strengths, weaknesses, history, and passions of all candidate influencers. For each person, chart:
Many B2C influencers make all or part of their living doing just that: recommending products. That is not the case with B2B influencer marketing. Most B2B influencers have a “day job” and are influential in part because of that position.
In some cases, the influencer may be a sole proprietor or may run a company, but she is still tied to that organization. Consequently, B2B influencer marketing programs are much more likely to have circumstances whereby a proposed influencer cannot participate, or at least can’t participate in a way your brand would find ideal, due to existing relationships, company partnerships, or job restrictions.
This is another reason why you need to make sure you give yourself enough time to find and activate B2B influencers. In our estimation, 60 days is the minimum lead time necessary to research and approach influencers, and then figure out what’s possible, what creates an untenable conflict, etc.
When working with a B2B influencer for the first time, it’s wise to build those bonds incrementally. Unless they are already huge advocates, they’re unlikely to jump immediately at the chance to work on something together.
A better approach is to tap into the influencer’s wisdom and connections by putting together a curated collection of influencer thoughts. You’ve almost certainly seen these kinds of pieces, like “23 content strategists predict 2018 trends” or similar. Here’s one we created for Cision, called “Listen: 5 Audiences Brands Can’t Afford to Ignore.” It features Scott Stratten, Jeff Bullas, Mark Schaefer, Neal Shaffer, and myself.
This is a great first step when building relationships because it doesn’t require a ton of the influencers’ time, and it’s a nice entrée into the brand, its products, and its messaging. After finding success with an initial trends/predictions report, expand and enhance the relationship to include more detailed and comprehensive content co-creation and promotion. Also, if you have a brand-led podcast, that’s another good way to break the ice with potential influencers.
When you’re ready to expand the relationship beyond a trend piece, it is imperative that you spend time truly educating the people in your B2B influencer marketing program about your company, products, customers, competitors, and culture. This step, unfortunately, gets overlooked quite a lot. I think it’s because brands think they may be imposing on their influencers if they require so much education time. But in my experience, if the influencer is truly engaged with the company, they want to know as much as possible, for two reasons.
First, the best influencers have genuine passion for the industry and for the company, so spending time learning more about the ins and outs is a joy rather than a burden. Second, B2B influencers—especially those who have some experience with these kinds of programs—know that the more they learn, the more effective they can be because they’ll be able to better tell company stories in their own words.
B2B influencers aren’t just supposed to parrot your party line and retweet your brand account word for word. If that’s the game plan, just buy some ads. The more influencers put their own spin on the benefits of the products and services, the more impactful and persuasive they are on your behalf.
The best way to move the needle with B2B influencer marketing is to find the right people and educate them. Next, explain clearly what you are looking to accomplish with influencers, and why. Then, just listen. Let the influencers come up with ideas on how to create interesting content, how to promote your events, how to engage with key customers, how to enable your sales team, and more.
Let them pitch you ideas. This works so much better than you and your marketing team concocting a content initiative and just recruiting influencers to amplify it. Influencer led co-creation breeds better outcomes and is much more interesting for the influencers, as well.
B2B doesn’t stand for “boring to brainwashed.” Almost universally, the best B2B influencer marketing programs are those that have a heavy dose of creativity.
This piece last year from LinkedIn called “Great Marketing Stories Read by Top Influencers” is one of my all-time favorite examples. In that program, the company worked with a dozen marketing influencers and asked them to select a favorite, recent digital marketing blog post or articles.
Then, each influencer created an audio recording of themselves performing a “dramatic reading” of the blog post, which the company then published as a holiday-themed playlist.
Discovering that Scottish marketing genius Chris Marr chose to read my blog post (in full brogue) about why you shouldn’t post quotes of yourself in social media was a delightful surprise.
In most cases, you’ll go out and “recruit” people for your B2B influencer marketing program. But it doesn’t have to be that way every time. In fact, some of the most successful influencer programs in history turn this relationship on its head. In these cases, the company creates enough great content and community that influencers show up and participate without having to be asked to do so.
Hubspot’s recently deceased Inbound.org community is an example of this influencer attraction in practice. The best conferences do the same. Joe Pulizzi’s Content Marketing World and Mike Stelzner’s Social Media Marketing World collect digital influencers like Kim Kardashian collects weird baby names.
The events are good enough that influencers want to be there.
It’s by no means a certainty that you’ll be able to pull off the reverse attraction. It requires a huge commitment to killer content and a truly thriving community. But it can work, and when it does, it creates self-perpetuating momentum that you rarely see in B2C.
B2B influencer marketing can be a tremendous boon to your brand, and many of the best practices are similar to how you’d handle B2C programs. But there are important differences you should keep in mind. I hope this article will help you along your journey. And if the team and I can help you, please do let us know.