Can influencer marketing work for B2B brands? PR programs with influencer tactics evoke emerging YouTubers or glitzy Kardashian-type personalities, but influencer marketing works in B2B public relations, too. The names may not be as glamorous, but the impact is real.
Here’s why. Most B2B companies operate in a competitive category characterized by a long selling cycle, relatively high costs, and, most importantly, a highly informed buyer. An executive who buys enterprise technology, for example, has access to unprecedented amounts of material like analyst reports, reviews, studies, and informal testimonials on social media. The wealth of information, in fact, can be so overwhelming that it leads to purchase paralysis. The firsthand experience of an influential user or a report that includes relevant trend forecasts can make a big difference.
A few years ago, influencers were considered an elite group, operating at a rarefied level and not very accessible. Today, almost anyone with expertise can become an influencer if they create relevant content, deliver compelling speeches, or counsel clients successfully. For business clients, long-term influencer relationships are PR gold. Here are some principles to bear in mind when planning a B2B PR program that involves influencers to tell its story.
Don’t confuse influence with popularity
The two can certainly coexist, but a person with narrow, yet deep, expertise can be a top influencer even if his name isn’t widely known. A niche industry analyst can have an enormous impact on brand visibility even without a large following. This is particularly powerful in high-information verticals where expertise is at a premium. Many consumer marketers have turned to micro-influencer campaigns where a single individual might earn $250 or less for a post, but where hundreds of such bloggers or social posters can be harnessed within a campaign, with powerful results. Such long-tail influencers are not as plentiful in B2B sectors, but they don’t need to be. With its more precise targeting needs, many B2B verticals are targetable with smaller numbers and keyword-rich content.
Seek insight, not endorsement
The right endorsements are terrific, but on the business side, they are rare, occasionally expensive, and often lacking in credibility. A stronger way to reap influence over the long term is through the insights and opinions of tastemakers in relevant sectors. At our company we create periodic thought leadership events for B2B clients that comprise journalists, authors, analysts, and experts to explore a burning issue for two hours. Those two hours can then be turned into bylined articles, short video bites, earned media coverage, and – perhaps least obvious but most significant – ongoing relationships with brand influencers.
Collaborate on content
This is what companies like SAP do to move influencer marketing from an awareness model to one focused on demand generation. The most effective influencer component for most B2B companies is a content marketing program featuring contributed articles, videos, or posts by thoughtfully selected individuals where each can make a distinct contribution. Relevant content partnerships have a 1+1=3 kind of impact, aligning a brand with an expert’s own name and reputation for industry insight and practical knowledge. And when a business influencer participates in content, they’re naturally more invested in promoting and sharing it.
Build relationships, not just recommendations
Endorsements are transactional and by definition, one-dimensional. An expert or personality promotes your product for a fee. But a true influencer relationship should be more than a transaction. Smart B2B brands use influencers for their opinions on new products or even messaging, getting feedback on marketing strategies and opening doors to new market segments.
Make it mutually beneficial
Many influencers want to be paid, of course, but the majority are building their own brands for the long haul. Smart businesses help that process by introducing their partners to others like them, letting them make multiple connections with the company network and promoting them to clients and other business contacts. Similarly, influencer relationships can guide program messaging and elicit insights that can be used in PR programming. Survey them for opinions and ideas; they will appreciate it if proper credit is given.
Take a long-term approach
Anyone familiar with the cycle of analyst reports knows that a short-term relationship with a key analyst is a waste of time. The same is true for other types of influential figures, from super-users to authors and academics.
Have someone own the relationships
Make no mistake, the care and feeding of business influencers takes time and skill, and it should be owned by a capable executive (or agency staffer) with sufficient seniority to signal its importance.
According to Altimeter Group, most marketers say they’re either still experimenting, or they’re running individual influencer campaigns rather than maintaining ongoing programs. Just 24% of respondents say their brand is running ongoing influencer programs, and only 5% say they have integrated influencers across all marketing activities. B2C companies still have more mature influencer marketing programs overall, but, we haven’t seen the full potential of influencer marketing for business brands.