Salespeople focus on knowing the buyer, but why not those influencing the buyer?

I’ve never known a vendor salesperson claim to know who his customer’s influencers are. Not in any detail at least. The majority I’ve spoken to – and it must now be in the high hundreds – might say “the finance boss”, “her line manager” or, even more vaguely, “usually those in the business unit”, but it’s never definite, precise or much thought about.

Salespeople do undoubtedly have a far greater understanding of the prospect themselves. They’ll likely know who are the eventual decision-makers, many of those who could potentially throw a spanner in the works and those who are likely just tire-kickers. By asking a few questions they’ll know soon enough whether the incoming enquiry has the support of the company’s bosses or not. And they’ll know with whom to start their initial cold-calling. Experience will have told them who they should be engaging with. But they still wont know who behind the scenes is influencing the eventual choice.

When I ask these salespeople why they don’t invest much effort into understanding the real influencers I’m told, “we just don’t get the time”, “buyers like to keep that quiet”, “it’s always changing” and “you never know until the decision’s made”. Salespeople clearly don’t expect much help from their marketing depts.

There has to be a better way. Using data not anecdotes. Now that’s the direction Influencer Marketing should be moving in.

Seeing trends in our ‘Influencer Marketing & Influencer Relations’ LinkedIn Group

IMIR logoIt’s always interesting to look back and review the make-up of those applying to join the Influencer Marketing & Influencer Relations LinkedIn Group. With LinkedIn as a platform going from strength to strength, and each year reinforcing its role as the go-to place for online B2B communities, I think reviewing the types of role of those applying is more relevant than ever.

For the second year running there have been more individuals from agencies applying than from in-house roles at vendors. In 2010 the ratio was 69% from vendors, 31% from agencies. In 2012 it was 57% vendors, 43% agencies. Reviewing 2014 it was 41% vendors, 59% agencies. Since our LinkedIn Group is designed for vendor roles only, we’ve once more declined far more applicants than those we’ve accepted. What’s new is the make-up of those from agencies.

Three years ago they were mainly from PR agencies, two years ago they were overtaken by those from generic or integrated marketing agencies. The first six months of 2014 saw the largest category being marketing tech agencies – those providing blackbox solutions rather than consultancy or services. Think of them as very broadly the descendants of Klout. But halfway through last year began a new trend. A phenomenal number of applicants from small startups offering brokering services between brands and ‘pay for play’ bloggers and tweeters. Looking at the photos of these applicants, these people are very young, I’d guess well under 25. Their startups look unfunded and they’re from all over the world, Asia in particular. Our LI Group isn’t for these people so we have to decline their entry. But it clearly shows where the most movement in this sector currently is.

LinkedIn data shows ‘Influencer Marketing’ job roles are really social media job roles

thebuyersidejourney.comIn 2014 LinkedIn featured 514 recruitment posts for ‘Influencer Marketing’ or ‘Influencer Relations’ positions. That’s up from 289 the previous year. 206 of the 514 were from marketing agencies looking to fill roles within their agency, leaving 308 ‘in-house’ positions. We then looked at what criteria were most commonly cited as being requirements for the position. The three leading criteria, in order, were: Experience of social media outreach & engagement, Proven ability to apply metrics to activity, and Ability to integrate influencer outreach into broader marketing goals.

No wonder Influencer Marketing has gone so off-track. The LinkedIn data proves that those recruiting the positions are now seeing it as social media-based and those fulfilling the roles are themselves wishing to focus on social.

I’m wondering where the ‘understanding of the customer and what influences them’ comes in to play – if at all. I don’t see it in the ‘social media engagement’ because I’m pretty sure that’s all about the level of retweets / comments and shares. And I don’t see it in the ‘integrate outreach into broader marketing goals’ because that’s likely about the number of eyeballs reached and turning outreach into email addresses and Facebook profiles.

So as the incoming generation of influencer marketers bring with them their interest and focus on social media metrics, I think we’ll just have to look elsewhere for a greater understanding of the customer and their buying behavior.

Time for a step-change in what we’re doing.

 

So what’s been the overriding trend in Influencer Marketing this year?

The past few years have seen a number of trends on the world of Influencer Marketing. When I look back at these I can’t help noticing that none of these trends have been, in my opinion, good for better understanding who really influences an organisation’s prospects & customers. The largest trends have been short-term diversions and their shortcomings soon realised. The result is they’ve just confused the subject matter, and left the understanding of the subject in no better a place than it was five years ago. I’ve resolved to unearth some more positive trends in future posts. No point complaining.

In 2011 we saw the rise (and later fall) of the supposed ‘online influence platforms’. In 2012 there was the wide-scale transition of Influencer Marketing programs from being managed in-house (where marketing depts. didn’t know what to do with them) to being contracted out to PR and ad agencies (who didn’t care that they didn’t know because they now had a new revenue stream). 2013 saw the ‘pay for play’ blogger / broker networks make a concerted attempt to redefine ‘influencers’ as bloggers and tweeters who’d willingly endorse products and companies for payment. 2014 is actually harder to identify one over-riding trend but I think it’s been the finessing of which social media metrics are most relevant to ‘influence’. I’ve seen no end of graphics illustrating ‘relevance’, ‘appropriateness’, ‘authenticity’, etc.

What each of these have in common is that they’re all marketing-centric, and increasingly generated by the marketing agencies themselves. I’m seeing surprisingly few vendors and brands driving any more productive trends. Why is this?

 

What’s wrong with the current state of Influencer Marketing?

A starting point is that it needs to get back to having the prospective buyer at its center, not the vendor’s marketing dept., or worse still, the vendor’s PR agency. Five years ago it was of clear benefit to the salesforce, helping them better understand who was most influencing their sales targets. Marketing depts. took it on because they could see it at last being the glue ensuring sales & marketing alignment.

Then social media, which plays a very different role for marketers than it does for buyers, took hold. Marketers saw that through social media, influencers could simply become an additional database at which to aim their promotional messages. Which then led to a series of problems.

1. The term ‘influencers’ was given to any tweeter or blogger with even the smallest of networks

2. Systems like Klout emerged that allowed these tweeters to big themselves up – wasting a lot of people’s time in the process.

3. Marketers – desperate for metrics to show their bosses – could now show impressive graphs of outreach, retweets, likes and more.

4. New marketing tech firms emerged looking to sell the identities of these tweeters & bloggers to brands desperate for new outreach channels.

What this has created is a new marketplace for those acting as middlemen providing access for brands to ‘pay-for-play’ bloggers. Of course, the two sides are sold very different stories. The bloggers are told to endorse the paying brand as surreptitiously as they can, knowing that the more they can smuggle in brand references the more likely they are to earn repeat business. The brands are told that these bloggers & tweeters have been individually selected for their authenticity, sensitivity and audience. And that all their bloggers operate a full disclosure policy to their audience. When the brand notices that the blogger hasn’t disclosed their association they’re told this was a one-off mistake. And far from being individually selected, the middlemen are playing a numbers game. They aggressively advertise for increasing number of willing bloggers, just as low-end taxi companies promise endless numbers of would-be car drivers the best-paid job of their lives. For their part, the bloggers & tweeters game their own numbers – audience numbers, Klout scores, subject coverage, etc. in order to out-compete their rivals for any type of payment.

But these are very far away from being influencers. The problem is that it’s not in any of these circle’s interest to admit that. Brands want to be able to show they’re reaching real influencers, the bloggers & tweeters want to appear as attractive as possible to attract the money, and the middleman broker agencies (for which there’s absolutely no barrier to entry!) want to promise brands access to the largest possible database of would-be promoters. It’s an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ scenario. And it wont stop until the vendors’ salespeople remind their marketing dept. of what they expect from their influencer outreach. Legitimate sales prospects!

As a vendor, what would you most like from what you consider your Influencer Marketing outreach?

Influencer50, Influencer Marketing, As a vendor, what would you most like from what you consider your Influencer Marketing outreach?Influencer50 will shortly be conducting a survey of Heads of Marketing at B2B organizations in the U.S. If you’d like to take the survey please let us know. We’ll be publishing the results in late-Jan or early-Feb’15.

There are just five questions.

1. What pain-point incentivised you to commission an Influencer Marketing program?

– Disappointing closure-rate on sales

– Lack of knowledge in new market

– Unfocused marketing spend / allocation

– Need to prove sales / marketing alignment

– Acknowledgement that “we can always do better”

– Other

 

2. What were the core skills you wanted from your choice of Influencer Marketing partner?

– Experience working with similar peer companies

– Greater understanding of B2B decision-making

– Social media expertise

– Already integrated into our Marketing Dept.

– Other

 

3. At the outset of the program what was the single most important outcome you hoped to achieve?

– Understanding the degree to which our prospects are influenced by online / offline / social channels.

– Broadening the reach of our social media outreach.

– Understanding the identities of our prospects’ top influencers.

– A better understanding about how our prospects make their purchasing decisions.

– Near-term conversion of these influencers into sales opportunities

– Other

 

4. Having seen the results, what was the greatest surprise in your eventual findings?

– We already knew most of the influencers.

– The key individual influencers weren’t who we expected them to be.

– There are many more influencers impacting our prospects than expected.

– The balance between offline / online / social influencers was not as expected.

– Those influencers identified have increased our confusion.

– Other

 

5. In hindsight, where do you believe you were previously wasting most budget / effort beforehand, if at all?

– We were reaching out to the wrong people.

– We were reaching out to too many people.

– Our outreach just wasn’t reaching enough people. It’s a numbers game.

– We had no data to justify who we were contacting.

– We were not focusing enough on social media outreach to reach them.

– We were focusing too much on social media outreach to reach them.

– There was no waste. We weren’t previously investing in influencer outreach.

– Other

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.

How come no-one knows how buyers buy?

It’s always astonished me how so much time, budget & energy is spent on B2B marketing – the advertising, the packaging, the promotion, the pricing, the launch event, the mail shots, the online outreach – when so little has been spent on understanding the process by which its buyers’ buy.

Ask any head of marketing for the four main job titles of the buyers who buy its products – and they wont be remotely accurate. Sometimes they’ll be in the right ballpark – they’ll say “the CFO”, “the head of software development”, or “whoever looks after security” – but they’re just guessing. Oftentimes they’re merely repeating phrases they overheard from a salesperson several months back. It’s just not a conversation that goes on in many marketing depts.

Ask them who’s most likely to be sitting in the room when their salesperson presents their solution to the prospect, and they’ll have even less idea. Is it typically one person, two, five, or more? If you don’t believe me check it out in your own marketing dept.

I know this to be true because of the number of times I speak with senior sales people and  how loose their explanations are. Their responses are peppered with “well, usually there might be …”, “sometimes we’ll find …” and “it depends on …”. They have to really think hard about who they’ve presented to in recent months – and it’s clearly the first time they’ve had to think about it since those meetings, so I know they definitely haven’t been briefing their marketing folks.

It’s not always the fault of those in marketing. I’m often struck by how random those sales situations seem to have been, how difficult it would have apparently been for the salesperson to predict who they’d be presenting to. It might be a new experience for a particular salesperson, but is it really that random? Or is their field of experience just necessarily narrow? With greater experience, a broader set of historical data, could it have been predicted? And would that have likely helped the outcome? I’m pretty convinced the answer to both is Yes.

But no-one has that data.

Why people assume all influence is now online

There are markets where almost all influence is now online. Face-to-face conversations, peer advice and group meetings rarely happen. But these markets are few and far between. Even the influence of particular YouTube channels and personalities is not all online. Plenty of direct teen to teen conversations take place offline to encourage each other to follow certain personalities. And the culmination of following these ‘celebrities’ – is a very offline public ‘meet-up’.

So why do the media continue to promote this image of all communication now being conducted online and through social? One answer has to be because the media themselves are so entrenched in it. They get their news leads through Twitter, their research through the web and increasingly, their output is exclusively online too. The media says they’re reflecting society but they’re actually only reflecting their view of society.

Their job is to focus on what’s new, what’s changed, so they lap up the latest fashions, trends, gadgets, platforms and more. They might write of how millions are tiring of and moving away from Twitter, when the truth is that the vast majority of the population has yet to even move onto it. I walk down my local shopping street and I’m struck by how few stores are embedded in social. A handful of them may have a Twitter feed and the majority could tick the box saying their business ‘is online’ – but that’s not where even a significant minority of their income originates.

The same goes for most businesses. They’ll do social outreach, they’ll do Adwords, they might even maintain a company blog – but none of these are likely to drive the majority of their sales.That majority is driven the way it’s always been driven – by dedicated sales teams effectively cold-calling prospects and reacting to RFPs.

In my Influencer50 role I talk extensively with many individuals from marketing depts. and sales depts. In conversations with marketing folks the subject of social is always there. The success (or not) of their social outreach campaigns, the prominence of particular individuals on Twitter, sentiment monitoring trends and more. Every marketer lives and breathes social.

For every conversation I have with Marketing heads, I have an equal number with heads of Sales. And it’s a very different conversation. Social is only rarely mentioned. Buyer behavior, prospect entry points, initial messaging, check-signing hierarchies, customer pain-points, customer politics – these are standard topics. But social? Almost never, and only fleeting if then. Why is social so much lower on their radar?

Important stages of the B2B buying process have moved online – no-one can doubt that – but the vast majority of those stages, and the most crucial elements of almost every stage, are resolutely offline. At least for now.

That may not be a media-friendly message but there’s no doubting with B2B it’s still the truth.

I’m far from the social marketing skeptic you might think

I was reminded in my podcast conversation with Paul Gillin the extent to which he views our company’s work as going against the perceived wisdom in our industry. Paul’s a social marketing consultant – and very good at it. He’s a strong advocate of the power of social marketing and he mentioned a couple of times that I have the opposite view. I’ve been thinking about this perception.

I’ve never actually thought I do hold the opposite view – in some situations I’m a complete convert to social marketing. I look at my own teenagers and there’s no doubt they’re constantly swayed by what they’re reading and watching on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and more. But the media is obsessed by teenager marketing, and portrays every audience as behaving in the same way. And that’s what I disagree with.

The fact is, the B2B marketplace still works in a very different way. It will evolve, and it may evolve into something similar to today’s teenager marketing. But we’re such a way from that today – and our clients want to know how to engage with their influencers now, not five or ten years time.

The perceived wisdom in marketing circles seems to be that every stage of the buying decision process is now carried out online – problem identification, decision to act, solution scoping, etc. And that’s just not the case. The reason marketers act as if that’s the case? Because marketers have a far louder public megaphone than buyers do and they want to be at forefront of trends. Buyers might not agree with how marketers are framing their world, but buyers just get on with their buying and try not to be swayed by what marketers are telling them. And buyers see no reason to bother putting them right.

You want proof? Find a friend you know who buys products or services for their employer. It might be office furniture, software tools, real estate, human resources or whatever. Ask them who or what most influenced their eventual selection. Online search is almost always part of the process, but aside from Google, the other influencers are likely to be individuals – individuals that influenced them offline! Co-workers, bosses, previous experience, people they’ve emailed, policy-makers specific to their industry, third-party consultants. Individuals who likely don’t have a very large online presence. Try it and tell me if I’m wrong.

The majority of B2B influencers still operate very much offline. And while there certainly are some important online influencers, the overall picture, whatever your industry, remains a mix. I’m just in the minority talking about it.