A few weeks ago, I received a series of marketing emails from an influencer marketing technology company pitching their platform and services. It was the usual automated series of messages which concluded with, “I’ve researched you and your company, I’ve called you, I’ve left messages, InMails, etc. everything in my power. I'm convinced our platform can be a game changer for CabinetM and I'd love to be able to show you!”
Sadly, they clearly hadn’t researched my company because we are not as they thought, an agency, and we do not have B2C clients which are the ideal target for their platform. It did however, get me thinking about the role of influencer marketing in B2B businesses.
Influencer Marketing Is Not New to B2B
Though we most often associate influencer marketing with consumer products the reality is that it has always been a part of B2B marketing plans; it just took a different form as analyst and public relations.
With analyst relations the objective is to develop a relationship with the industry analysts (e.g., Gartner, Forrester et al) covering your market space with the hope that they will write favorably about your product in their reports, speak favorably about your product to clients and reach out to you for expert commentary and opinion on market trends.
In the 1990s in the heady days of the telecommunications industry, many boutique research agencies published reports on the industry and its vendors. During that time, companies were going from startup to IPO in two years; it also saw an enormous amount of M&A activity, all with frothy valuations. Everyone wanted a piece of the action. And for a while, the boutique firms (to be clear, not Gartner and Forrester) asked for company stock as part of an agreement to engage — a clear conflict of interest. After the bubble burst, the industry reset itself. Thankfully, granting stock to industry analysts went by the wayside.
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Analyst Relationships Still Have Influence
Analyst relationships continue to be extremely important; large enterprise organizations look to industry analysts for objective recommendations on vendors to work with and trends and information on market dynamics.
It’s important for key industry analysts to know about you and your company. Most will take a briefing regardless of whether you are a client or not. I know that there is a large community that believes that these firms are very much “pay-to-play” operations and favor their paying clients. I don’t subscribe to that view.
Having worked closely with many analysts over the last few years, I have seen how hard they work at being objective and how challenging it is to be an expert in a category with hundreds of products. If you are selling to large enterprise organizations, industry analysts are important. You should be engaging with them on a regular basis.
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Engagement Do’s and Don’ts
What's a good working relationship with an analyst look like?
- DO schedule a briefing with key analysts when you are announcing a new product or a significant product enhancement.
- DON’T schedule a briefing because it’s a quarterly action item. You’ll frustrate the analyst if you don’t have anything new and significant to discuss.
- DO be honest about your product’s capabilities. If you choose to talk about your roadmap, make sure that you convey it is a roadmap and not reflective of current features. I once walked into a company where they had communicated three years of features to the analyst community as current capabilities leaving me no path to re-engage with the analysts as new features became available.
- DON’T bad-mouth your competitors. Communicate feature and positioning differences if asked about competition but leave it at that. You don’t want your time with an analyst to be spent talking about another company.
- DO work to develop an actual relationship with your key analysts. They are some of the smartest people I know and are genuinely interested in your market. I get a lot out of my interactions with this community.
Today's Public Relations Impact in B2B
Public relations used to be an effective form of influencer marketing. I’ve been in marketing long enough to remember waiting on Monday mornings for the industry newspapers to arrive to see how the publications had covered our news. In those days you needed to have good relationships with the key editors that covered your area to ensure that:
- A. They would take your call and be willing to interview you.
- B. They would write something positive about your company and products.
The editors themselves were respected as objective sources of information and an endorsement from one had impact. As we transitioned online and to a 24-hour newscycle, the number of publications exploded and diffused the impact of an individual editor. Today, most publications won’t cover product news because their readers don’t read it; as a consequence, public relations has expanded to include a focus on industry bloggers and podcast hosts. Coverage by a blogger or being a guest on a podcast can have enormous impact.
Don't Rule Out Customer Testimonials
Another traditional form of influencer marketing is customer testimonials that appear as references, case studies and public endorsements. These are, and continue to be, the most potent forms of influencer marketing, particularly when the customer is well known in the industry. There is no better representative for a company than a paying customer.
In fact, over and over again, technology buyers report peer recommendations as one of the most important factors in making a purchasing decision. Technology review sites such as G2 have emerged to deliver peer recommendations at scale. Is each reviewer an influencer? I’m not sure, but there is power in the collective.
Evolving State of Influencer Marketing
Today the definition of influencer marketing has evolved. This is a simple definition of influencer marketing from a post by Joel Matthew, president of Fortress Consulting, on Forbes:
Influencer marketing is a relationship between a brand and an influencer. The influencer promotes the brand's products or services through various media outlets such as Instagram and YouTube. Not to be confused with celebrity endorsements, influencer marketing does more than just attach a well-known celebrity to a brand. Influencers must be trusted figures within a niche community and retain a loyal following. In addition, they typically possess knowledge or experience about what they are advertising.
Looking at influencer marketing today, it is primarily described in the context of consumer products (e.g., paying a vlogger to showcase and endorse your product), is centered around social media coverage and involves a formal business relationship between the sponsor and the influencer. It now has its own martech category with many platforms available to facilitate influencer programs by assisting with identifying, engaging and managing influencers. Though targeted primarily at B2C environments, is there an opportunity to create something that mirrors a B2C influencer program in the B2B world?
Exploring the Potential of B2B Influencer Marketing
In my perfect world, I would like five to 10 industry influencers (in my case I would be targeting highly visible marketing operations practitioners) that would use my product and be willing to talk about it on LinkedIn, Twitter and industry Slack channels. And, potentially, speak about it at industry events, and on Podcasts.
I wouldn’t expect one influencer to do all of these things; it would be more like a menu to pick and choose. The payment for this would be in the form of a free subscription to my platform (not an insignificant dollar value). I know that though I might be in unchartered territory, there are others that have explored this. I remember Canva securing Guy Kawasaki as their chief evangelist in their earliest days, though I’m pretty sure that would have been a financial or stock-based relationship.
I don’t have it figured out yet and would appreciate input. But I do think there’s an untapped opportunity here that could be very powerful as long as it is executed in a transparent way to avoid any suggestion of conflict of interest.