Influencer relations is one of the most popular topics talked about in marketing circles these days but the practice isn’t exactly new. Long before YouTube stars needed agents, businesses have been courting influencers. In the B2B world, they strategically created inner circles comprised of customers, pundits, authors, academics, analysts, and other standouts in the industry.
Unlike paid endorsements or product placements, these nuanced influencer relationships were borne out of a genuine desire to advance the industry through a shared vision — at no cost to the business. This, in turn, makes these high touch relationships even more valuable as unbiased third party supporters come forward to help build awareness, further an industry-wide movement or initiative, and shape public perception.
There’s no doubt that influencer relations have shifted in the age of online transparency. It’s taken on a whole new meaning as the next generation of influencers are being evaluated by the number of clicks, followers and likes they receive. This can be deceiving as fans and followers don’t always equate to true influence, especially in the B2B world. For this reason, creating a sustainable, strategic influencer relations program starts with understanding what makes a true influencer.
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Identifying Your Influencers
Putting aside social media metrics, we can all pretty much agree that an influencer has credibility, a seat at the table, and a network that is relevant to your business. To determine the right fit for your inner circle of influencers, here are additional criteria to consider:
- Reach and Audience: How far the influencer’s network extends and who the influencer reaches in terms of decision makers and other influencers. Once again, quality is more important than quantity.
- Content and Context: The top two or three areas the influencer is known for, how often they speak or write on the topic, and how frequently they’re cited by the community.
- Role: The influencer’s role in their organization.
- Public alignment with other vendors. This might not be obvious so it’s worth researching white papers, social media posts, and public speaking engagements to determine if they have existing allegiances, including one with your competition.
Building a Sustainable Influencer Relations Program
Building your inner circle requires your company have C-level commitment to the influencer relations program. At a minimum, the CMO though ideally you’ll have support across the C-suite. This way, you can attract and engage the highest levels of influencers across various organizations starting with your top customers. Ask those customers who they trust and respect and where it makes sense, seek an introduction.
From there, consider the top audiences and industries your business serves. Digging deeper, take a closer look at the issues and challenges those audiences face and how they overlap with your business.
For example, an online retailer might cite their biggest challenges are credit card fraud, online taxes, and overseas shipping costs. Their inner circle of influencers could consist of credit card fraud experts, advocacy organizations that are well versed in the state-by-state bylaws of online taxes, and an expert in global supply chain management.
Next, identify third-party organizations that have sway in your industry. These might include associations, advocacy organizations, standards bodies, nonprofits, government, and academia, for example. From there, set goals for your program that align with your company’s vision, advance the industry in at least one way, and benefit the influencers.
Based on those criteria, narrow the list of who you want to include in your inner circle. Keep in mind there will be influencers that you engage for various lengths of time based on how much and how long your visions overlap. Also, know that the most active influencers are approached regularly so you want to be sure you’re cultivating a circle that will stay engaged.
In the instances where you don’t have a first or second degree connection to an influencer, reach out directly in response to a recently published paper or blog post or in person at an event. To avoid an awkward cold calling vibe, talk about your shared vision. Your goal is to open the dialog for on-going communication. As you continue to engage the influencer, be transparent about what you hope to gain from the relationship and what you can bring to it. Ask them what they want to get from it, too.
The most effective influencer relations programs are driven by a dedicated team that understands the efforts are part of a larger business strategy. Cultivating and sustaining influencer connections takes time and not every engagement is conducted on a public stage. Success is defined by achieving the mutual vision and program goals.