Influencer marketing is well-established among consumer brands, with B2B companies increasingly embracing the idea. And while the term “influencer” can mean many things, for my purposes, I am defining it as any third-party that advocates on behalf of your company, product or service.
Certainly, consumer brands recognized the potential early on. A reality star sharing an Instagram selfie in front of a data visualization dashboard isn’t likely to drive sales (although that sounds kind of awesome, so if this changes, I am all ears.) Sure, IT buyers may follow the Internet-famous, but it’s purely on their own time — they’re not looking to them to guide work-related buying decisions.
Yet the B2B buyers’ journey lends itself well to a different kind of organized influencer program— built around a report, a guest blog or other content-marketing collateral. Altimeter’s Influence 2.0 report surveyed global brand marketers, finding that while 55 percent of B2C companies run ongoing or integrated influencer marketing programs, only 15 percent of B2B companies do so (and nearly half of that 15 percent is in the “experimentation” stage).
Given the eroding trust Americans have in corporations — we don’t expect them to keep our data safe, so how can we expect them to live up to their sales promises? — it’s no surprise that buyers look elsewhere to help with their purchasing decisions. The good news? Association with influencers — many of whom you may be working with already — builds vital trust through programs built on high-quality content, earned media placements or special events.
The B2B sales cycle is longer than the typical B2C scenario and engagement begins later in the process. The majority of buyers don’t contact a company until well after they’ve researched their shortlist. In fact, B2B buyers get as far as two-thirds through the buyer’s journey before they even reach out to a vendor. And they are dedicating more time researching their options by turning to peers, thought leaders and other influencers, rather than vendors’ sales teams.
For the B2B marketer looking to start influencer programs, here are some obvious entry points:
Industry analysts: Analyst relations with major global players, industry-focused niche firms and sole practitioners alike provide a familiar influencer template. No matter how you slice it, analysts charge for their influence — buyers pay for their industry expertise and connections, and vendors pay them because their opinions actually drive purchasing decisions. It’s certainly not cheap — but it is a proven path to influence.
Consider project-based engagement with the next tier of firms — particularly with analysts who have left major groups to strike out on their own. For example, for enterprise-tech companies in data management or machine learning, there are significant numbers of former Gartner and IDC analysts out doing their own thing who know your market very well. They have highly-specific expertise that matters, and are looking for opportunities — paid research, webinars, quotes for press releases — to extend their personal brands.
Industry bloggers: As highly-specific subject-matter experts, these bloggers straddle the line between reporter, analyst and industry advocate. They may not have huge reach — but they can help you reach the prospects that matter most to you.
Think about your potential target market — let’s say you’re a martech company. What bloggers do marketing data enthusiasts follow? Who gets the most traction on relevant CMO LinkedIn groups? Some quick research can identify targets who both wield authority with decision makers and are open to engagement — anything from earned coverage to social sharing to events.
The first step is familiar — do your research and approach them as you would a reporter. They probably don’t get pitched often — but would likely appreciate a relevant, thoughtful query.
Your customers: There is truly no greater advocate for your brand and if presented as a program of mutual benefit rather than just another favor from a vendor can result in positioning your customers both as your advocates and as industry thought-leaders. And it doesn’t have to be just another case study for your website. For an HR software company, it could be industry-themed videos or bite-sized “1 question with …” micro-interviews on social media about the state of HR tech.
B2B influencer programs look different than most consumer programs. But by modifying many of the programs and tactics you already have in place, you can harness the power of influencers to help convert prospects into customers.