News Flash! Influencer marketing isn’t just for B2C brands. But B2B influencer marketing is more involved than you might think. While Gucci can easily send a free handbag to a popular fashion blogger, it’s hard to send samples of chemical compounds, high-end fittings or fabric roofs. Yet, all B2B companies have influencers and a number of new tools at their disposal to reach them. The trick is identifying who they are and engaging them properly.
There are lots of definitions, but I like this one from Lee Odden: “Influencer marketing is the practice of engaging and collaborating with internal and industry experts that have active networks to help achieve measurable business goals.” Influencers have been around forever, right? A potter from 2,000 years ago might have asked a customer to put in a good word with his neighbor. A wagon wheel manufacturer would have done well to cozy up to the time’s top stagecoach designer.
It’s really no different today, but now we can apply digital intelligence to our influencer program, making it even more efficient and much more effective. Note the mention of “internal and industry experts” in Odden’s definition. This is where the five levels come in. With B2B, we’re not trying to influence a consumer to drive retail sales, we’re hoping to interest other companies in buying our products; we’re trying to support the reputation of our company for attraction and retention of employees; and, if we’re public, we’re trying to assure shareholders we’re a sound investment. To really move the needle in B2B, we need to target a cadre of influencers … all at once.
The B2B Influencer Bull’s-Eye
We believe B2B influencer marketing can start right at home and radiate out from there, touching critical audiences that all work together to impact business goals. It begins with an organization’s leader and moves out to media with important steps in between. There are five levels to this bull’s-eye:
1. The CEO: An organization’s leader is at the heart of it all and can be very influential. Leaders are naturally well connected and used to being spokespersons, but the position can be leveraged now more than ever. Tools like LinkedIn, blog platforms, webinar technologies and video allow a CEO’s reach to expand greatly and provide a powerful platform for the brand message … to employees, customers and all levels of the bull’s-eye. The CEO can impact retention, recruiting, business prospects and other influencers who can impact sales. So, if you’re a CEO, speak up! If you’re a marketer, help your CEO develop a louder and more relevant voice.
2. Employees: Whether you call them associates, staffers or family members, they can be your best cheerleaders. (Hint: a healthy corporate culture and products they believe in will increase the probability they’ll want to cheer.) Your own people know the most about the company, what it’s like to work there and the value you can provide. Sites like Glassdoor can make or break a first impression for an applicant. Individuals’ social media networks spread wide and far to reach legitimate business contacts. Engineers can reach their counterparts at potential buyers, providing expertise and thought leadership, guiding them toward a decision in your favor. So, provide guidelines, but don’t censor your people, celebrate them – and they will sing praises.
3. Customers: Whether you call them clients, purchasers or patrons, they can be your most influential advocates. (Hint: delivering great products and stellar service helps ensure the type of customer feedback you want.) Who knows more about doing business with your company? Of course, classic references and testimonials have been around forever. Keep those coming. But today, we have opportunities to go beyond the basics to create videos and in-depth case histories accessible as “owned content” on our websites. Customers can pass along or even create their own social content or blog posts that put you in a good light. Many B2B companies include customers in their product development and innovation processes as they seek to identify unmet needs or pain points. When you come through and solve those issues, you’ve got fans. Engage them.
4. Industry Experts: Here is the group most commonly associated with influence marketing in B2B. For a company in building materials, an influencer could be an architect. In warehouse equipment, it could be a supply chain institute at a university. For valve manufacturers, it could be a trade association or a subcommittee of member company engineers. For software companies, it’s consultants who blog (and those influencers often are compensated). We generally know who these folks are, but if we don’t, there are software tools to help us identify them by their large online following. Before the digital revolution, our sales forces would know these people, take them to dinner, invite them to conferences or host them at the home office. We still do those things because they build relationships and understanding. But we can also draft our followers as brand ambassadors, ask them to create original content for us and invite them to make presentations with us. Remember, we can help them, too … and we should.
5. Industry Media: Editors and writers who specialize in your industry are among the most important sources of information for buyers. What they write is now online, but the same principles remain. They have editorial calendars, they need unique content, they’re looking for new trends and value credible sources. It works to proactively offer up ideas – or even full-blown stories – to them because it makes their lives easier. This content is also amplified by social media and reaches back through the rings of the bull’s-eye … to the experts, your prospects, customers and employees. Consistent, positive coverage builds reputation and influences perception. An age-old goal paired with brand-new tools.
Putting it all together
To create your B2B influence marketing strategy, we suggest a “5 A” process: Assess, Align, Assist, Ask and Amplify. In short, you need to identify your influencers, ensure your interests match up, help them before they help you, request specific action from them and then, once they come through, spread that content throughout your channels to influence decision makers in your industry. It’s not as simple as sending someone a Gucci handbag, but if you’re in B2B marketing, you didn’t sign up for simple. You signed up for interesting, intriguing and different. So make the most of your unique story by addressing all levels of the B2B influencer bull’s-eye. Why wait? Take aim now.