The direction Influencer Marketing could have, and should have, taken.

The mass-market direction for Influencer Marketing over the next year seems pretty clear to me. Today’s hype is all about brokering commercial deals between pay-for-play tweeters & bloggers and ‘brands’. Brands are desperate to get as many people talking about them as possible, to explore every outlet, and tweeters would love to be paid for their tweets. Both sides want each other, even if the customer or prospect is the one to lose.

The problem is that reaching out to real influencers is difficult, with no guaranteed RoI and certainly no predictable rate of that return. And that doesn’t fit comfortably with today’s need for guaranteed, predictable measures.

It wont last, but it’s set for the next year or so because it helps the metrics that marketers have set for themselves. Having adopted one of the many marketing automation systems (a la Eloqua, Marketo, etc.) they now need to ensure their marketing programs are well reflected in it, and # of social channels, # of retweets / reblogs / shares, size of potential audience, are valuable metrics for this. Forget they’re having no effect on sales, they are reaching an audience.

So marketing agencies, and it is the agencies who are moving this agenda, are improving their odds by reaching out to the most willing individuals. These individuals may not be influencers, almost certainly they’re not, but they’re willing, they’ll reliably add to the brand’s outreach channels. Most importantly, they’re available for hire.

I’ll give it nine months before the groundswell of opinion turns on it. But there’s so clearly a better direction Influencer Marketing could have taken.

The fundamental reason for reaching out to real influencers was, and should continue to be, to improve your chances of completing a sale. These ‘social influencer’ services divorce any connection between marketing and sales.

To reconnect marketing with sales you have to first analyze which individuals are involved in the prospect’s decision-making process – and which aren’t. Now if you could reliably understand who was important and who wasn’t to a sale, in advance of any purchase decision – and be able to scale that process across industries and across regions – well, that would be truly powerful. But it’s not a direction most in Influencer Marketing seem to be pursuing.

Why paid-for bloggers have nothing in common with ‘Passion at Work’

I once knew an extremely impressive man who wrote a book called ‘Passion at Work’. His book became the go-to reference for how to create stimulating, challenging and motivating workplaces throughout Britain and beyond. He actually made ‘passion’ sit comfortably alongside ‘work culture’. Not many can do that.

So when I get an email from a blogger outreach company advising on ‘worthwhile points when dealing with bloggers’, I immediately treat sentences like “Here’s one I’m really passionate about” with plenty of skepticism. When it leads on to “keep in touch with bloggers who genuinely love your company’s products” I’ve all but switched off.

The exact advice was, “Keeping in touch with bloggers who genuinely love what you offer is important. Send updates, new products and random gifts to stay on their minds and show up in their posts. Furthermore, when you need help promoting a piece of content or a new product, they’ll likely assist with authentic posts.”

I wondered what possible type of blogger she could be talking about.

It seems to me there’s now fundamentally three types of blogger. The first are those with something to say, an opinion they want to get across on a particular subject area – surfing, japanese design, becoming a sommelier, cloud architecture, etc. These people have a degree of knowledge and are deep-diving into the topic. They may well already be influential on that subject in the offline world and use blogging as an additional channel for their views.

The second type are those encouraged by the sound of their own voice, so they blog about everything going on in their world, however diverse or random the subjects. They go for the cult of personality. Some manage it and good luck to them. Blogging to them provides the same purpose as having a personal YouTube channel does to others. It’s personality-driven entertainment.

And the third type are those now being courted by the blogger platform peddlers. The databases now euphemistically called influence marketing platforms. These bloggers aren’t ‘passionate’ about any company’s products – they’re just willing to shuck a mention of those products in return for a payment.

I took a look recently at the most frequently referenced bloggers on a number of B2B issues over the past eighteen months. Mostly these were established consultants or journalists who use blogging as one outlet for their thoughts. I talked with five of them and asked if they’d been approached by these blogger platforms and if they knew of anyone they respected who’d accepted payments. The rule of thumb they said was that while almost 100% had been approached, perhaps 5% of their blogging peers had taken payments for commercial mentions. What’s more, this 5% were easily and immediately spotted by those inside the relevant industry sector and their credibility ‘re-assessed’. Less than a quarter of those 5% had decided to openly state on their blog that they were part of a commercial incentive.

So yes, there are influential, credible, subject-specific bloggers who are taking payments from commercial vendors. But they’re in the very small minority. Perhaps one in twenty of those approached. Do you think the vendors have thought about this?

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The influence marketing platform peddlers are trying to keep greasing the wheels of the marketing depts. by adding more and more bloggers to their PR distribution networks. That has nothing to do with either helping the salesforce or helping the buyer.

If the management team at each vendor was aware of this, do you think they’d allow their marketing depts. to continue supporting them?

Is being an ‘online influencer’ as black & white as you think?

We’ve recently been considering whether there’s still a line between being an ‘online influencer’ and an ‘offline influencer’. And if there is, whether that line is still important.

Take the example of say, a leading academic who has no social media footprint, doesn’t tweet, doesn’t blog, isn’t on Facebook, only engages in face-to-face conversations, meetings, presentations and authoring papers. It would be obvious to categorize them as a 100% offline influencer wouldn’t it?

But then what if other individuals, having met and talked with that person, then blog, tweet and post about that person’s views. Does the original influencer then unwittingly become an online influencer?

I’m sure many of you would say yes, in the same way that David Beckham perhaps unwittingly became a major Hispanic influencer a decade ago. He may have not intended to, he may not even been aware of it at the time, but influential he undoubtedly was. With this as an example maybe an online influencer doesn’t actually have to be online themselves.

But the implication is that all online influencers can be reached by online outreach. That that’s their medium of choice. A prominent trend in Influencer Marketing circles this year has been to assume every influencer wants to be engaged online.

What about the possibility that although an influencer may have never reached out socially, they could perhaps be avid consumers of social media, just not contributors. And what if they then took what they’d ready on social channels and conveyed those thoughts back into their day-to-day offline world. They’d be an offline influencer, correct?

So why do we still categorize people as online influencer and offline influencers? Is that still valid? And even if still valid, is it an important division?

We’re convinced it is. Not only does it represent how they influence, but also how best to establish a lasting conversation with them. Something way too few people seem to be focusing on right now.

New White Paper: To what degree are your prospects & customers influenced by online & offline communities?

WP#18Influencer50’s new White Paper:  WP#18 : To what degree are your prospects & customers influenced by online & offline communities? – is now available for download at: http://influencer50.com/library/white-papers/

Synopsis: A 2013 McKinsey survey of B2B buyers stated that ‘an honest, open dialogue with customers and society’ was the number one most important perceived attribute of their chosen vendors. A 2013 Forrester report polled thousands of B2B marketers and concluded that online communities were one of the most influential tools in a B2B marketer’s toolkit. Despite 76% of B2B industry marketing heads rating their sector’s main forums and communities (both online & offline) as ‘very important’ in terms of influencing their prospects, only one-quarter of those same vendors are confident their organization has ongoing, proactive relationships with them. There’s clearly a vast gap between the perceived importance of industry communities to potential buyers – and vendors’ understanding of them. So why can this be?

Our next White Paper: To what degree are your prospects & customers influenced by online & offline communities?

WP#18We’ve been spending plenty of time in recent months on the subject of influencers within online & offline communities.

Our next White Paper:  WP#18 : To what degree are your prospects & customers influenced by online & offline communities?

Available for download next Monday.

Do most top influencers now tweet and/or blog to establish that influence?

It’s not a question we’re often asked, principally because most prospects and clients automatically assume it the case. At our company we’ve long known different. I was just running through some stats for a client project we’re near completing.

The marketplace is U.S-centric, at the junction of business-tech and Financial Services. No shortage of cutting-edge technology, major deals, plenty of money, global organisations, heavily performance-based. If there’s a technology invented to gain an advantage they use it. And just look at the figures.

Approx. one-third of the top 75 influencers have an active twitter feed (i.e have tweeted in the past month) and less than one-quarter run an active blog (have posted in the past two months). Most of those with a blog also tweet. So whichever way you look at it, significantly less than 40% of the top influencers maintain a presence on social media. That’s not to say they’re particularly keen users, and certainly not prolific, but they are there if you look for them.

When you’re ignoring over 60% of your most important targets, why would marketing depts. continue migrating so much of their outreach to social?

Some marketing depts. have outsourced their logic to Eloqua

The Buyer-side Journey, Influencer50, buyersidejourney.comI was in a prospect meeting last week, running through one of our Influencer Engagement Programs. I was surprised at their quizzical faces when I outlined the program. I thought I was talking common sense. Then they explained. They’d been told not to green-light any marketing program if they couldn’t measure its effect in Eloqua. That’s why they’d moved exclusively over to digital outreach.

Click-rates, open-rates, pass-ons, linger-rates, funnel times – these were all fine. And there didn’t need to be a link with sales, but there did have to be identifiable user actions caught in Eloqua.

But what about real market influencers – those who are one-to-one advising the buyer decision-makers, I asked? They might be doing that in physical real-world meetings, or in direct emails to each other, or across their organization’s intranet. Or there might well be an ‘approved supplier’ list to negotiate first. No, none of those would count, I was told.

I asked why they thought their intended prospects were keen to absorb their outreach digitally, why they believed that increasing click-rates correlated with their buyer’s eventual decisions. There were no answers. They cared only about how Eloqua made them look each quarter.

I ran through how they themselves had made business purchase decisions since the start of the year – items they’d bought or sanctioned for their employer – and whether their decisions could have been tracked had the supplier of that equipment used Eloqua themselves. They agreed their purchasing interest would not have been trackable. But it cut no ice.

The entire conversation was about playing the system with Eloqua. It’s not Eloqua’s fault. But the way some people are using it means they’ve lost sight of what they’re meant to be contributing to their company. That connection between Sales and Marketing is more broken than ever.

Why are vendors’ Influencer Marketing programs so often farmed out to their PR companies?

I figure it’s for one or more of three reasons:

1. In-house staff have been so cut to the bone there’s no headcount left available .. or qualified.

2. With the decline in the number of traditional journalists, PR companies are increasingly pitching themselves as Influencer Relations agencies and so appearing ready-made for the task. They already enjoy direct connection with their clients.

3. Marketing directors have no experience of what metrics to use with their Influencer Programs, so they’re already open to guidance on how to structure them. And from there it’s a short step to being sold on delivery too.

I think this third point is very significant for two reasons. Firstly I’m struck by how few of our incoming enquiries from vendors see the enquirer, usually a Head of Marketing or Program Manager, having already thought about what they’re trying to achieve, and even less how they think they might measure any program’s success.

I’m not trying to belittle the enquirer, in placing a call to us they’ve obviously made a commendable leap to do something about their interest, and I’m more than happy to explain how we typically set out measuring any program’s success. I’m just surprised that the vendor often hasn’t already applied themselves to that question. When you decide to appoint an advertising agency to create an ad campaign, presumably you’ve already decided what you hope those resulting ads will deliver?

The second reason why the agency outsourcing of Influencer Programs is important is because it’s significantly reshaped the whole direction of many Influencer Marketing programs. Gone is the link back to customers, prospects and sales – never the strong point of agencies – and in its place has come the pursuit of outreach metrics – number of new contacts, theoretical online reach, number of retweets, number of meetings secured, etc. All very metrics-based and easy to report at the monthly client meeting. But well disconnected from customers, prospects and sales.

I can’t help thinking the outsourcing to PR agencies is losing our industry one of the core strengths that originally differentiated Influencer Marketing from traditional marketing outreach.

Those active on Twitter and within online community groups appear to be very different people

Infographic: CMSwire.com, The Buyer-side Journey

Infographic: CMSwire.com

At Influencer50 we’re currently collating the responses to a short survey of 150 U.S-based marketing heads on their views of industry-specific community groups, both offline and online. What we already know is that B2B buyers see certain communities as very influential in their decision-making.

One particularly fascinating finding, which until now has been just our adopted wisdom, is that many buyers are either active on Twitter and other social media or online communities – but not both. You might assume that someone who takes an active part in social media conversations would naturally extend those conversations into online community forums. But it seems users largely make a choice between one or the other, or perhaps neither, but almost never both.

Perhaps they feel they’d be repeating their contributions, or perhaps culturally they feel they’re either a Twitter or online community kinda person, but it appears rare for any one individual to be active on both platforms. We first noticed this a few years back as part of our auto-industry work for Michelin, and it seems to be emphasized by our latest survey.

The findings would suggest that any social media outreach your organization may be undertaking is not reaching the online communities you’re likely assuming it is. And so working with your online communities needs to be considered a very separate strategy.

Influencer50’s latest survey is scheduled for release in early June.

(The infographic courtesy of CMSwire.)