Influencer Relations For B2B Brands

Most people think of third-party influencers as YouTube stars with millions of subscribers, or Instagram gurus pushing beauty products. Yet influencer PR for B2B brands is also an effective way to reach prospects throughout the customer journey, from lead generation to purchase and beyond. For B2B companies, programs that involve third-party influencers can require more time and effort than consumer programs, but they yield far-reaching results over the long term.

The association and advocacy of unbiased industry experts is a time-honored way to build brand trust through earned media, high-quality content, or special events. Influencer relations is a logical extension of media relations, but less transactional and more collaborative.

But where do PR teams find third-party influencers? Before jumping in, the PR and marketing teams should develop a detailed strategy, complete with goals and KPIs.

6 Sources of B2B influencers


A PR team often fosters good analyst relationships in much the same way they do with media. Because analysts are viewed as impartial experts, an implied endorsement builds credibility and holds greater weight than that from a paid consultant or endorser – even though some analyst relationships are paid. Media and influencers read analyst reports and white papers, so the reach can become exponential. See our previous post for more on making the most of solid analyst relations.

Authors, experts, and academics

Known or up-and-coming authors, academics, or consultants are often the most accessible influencers for B2B companies. Look for authors of recently published papers and studies, books, or industry consultants who teach as adjunct professors. This is a sign that their expertise is relatively up-to-date, and academic credentials are a plus, particularly when it comes to being quoted in media interviews.

Business partners

Companies in related industries can also make great influential partners. A software targeted to small businesses may look at other service providers for SMBs – those that offer accounting, networking or loans, for example. One way to reach many potential influencers with a single initiative is a partnership with a professional organization. For example, we arranged a joint study between a client wishing to target HR professionals and SHRM, the professional human resources organization. The study’s results were featured at the group’s annual meeting and in local chapter seminars.

Industry events

Attending conferences and trade shows benefits young companies in many ways, not the least of which is the opportunity to network with various breeds of influencer. If you have booked your executive as a speaker or panelist, you’ve created opportunities for face to face connections with analysts, journalists, and other thought leaders. A conscientious PR pro will work hard to nurture these relationships in a mutually beneficial manner, perhaps by offering to collaborate on content

Media contacts as influencers

In some niches, journalists can do double duty for a brand, although a working journalist is very unlikely to serve as a paid endorser. Key journalists are industry insiders, so their presence adds gravity to any event, attracts other influencers, and boosts the social media reach at an event. They don’t even have to do a story on the event, although that may be a goal. But just the association can generate good word-of-mouth.

Marquee customers

Another category of industry influencer is the brand-name customer who is able to endorse your brand in published industry testimonials or appear at high-level conferences to discuss your work together. If your company has an innovative product and/or great customer service, you’re in a position to ask clients to write online reviews or blog about their great experience using the product. The worst thing that happens is they say no.

Top ways to work with influencers

Bylined content

White papers, simple bylined articles, or guest blog posts are very effective and SEO-worthy ways to collaborate with influencers.

Video testimonials

The key here is to make any customer video short, sweet, and shareable.

Panel appearances and other speaking opportunities

These are often covered by trade or industry press and can be converted into bylined content.

Customer education events

Investing in one or more big-name influencers for a private customer or prospect education event – whether a webinar or an exclusive black-tie dinner – can pay dividends in PR, word-of-mouth, and customer good will.

Sponsored surveys or research reports

Co-sponsored research, while it comes with a price tag, is one of the most effective ways to tap the expertise of a partner like an academic expert or even an industry trade group.

Finally, although influencers are often paid for their time, compensation shouldn’t be the foundation of your relationship. For an influencer program to thrive, it should be founded on the individual’s credibility and based on a relationship of mutual respect and collaboration.

Influencer Marketing For B2B Brands

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.

Managing The Risks Of Influencer Marketing

Influencer marketing programs are a godsend for PR agencies and others who look to combine the third-party endorsement of earned media with the credibility of word-of-mouth marketing. But any influencer marketing opportunity comes with risks and caveats, as recent news suggests.

Compliance.  Lord & Taylor recently settled charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission for running afoul of disclosure rules for a social media campaign on Instagram. To debut its Design Lab collection, the store arranged for 50 top Instagrammers to wear a specific dress on the same day. The results were gorgeous, and the dress quickly sold out. It even generated positive coverage in marketing media. Problem was, none of the influential fashionistas disclosed that they were being paid by the store.

Something similar happened with YouTube video gaming network Machinima, which was involved in the promotion of X-Box in 2013. Machinima failed to disclose its payment arrangements for the video reviewers who uploaded as many as 300 positive posts about X-Box and were compensated at a rate of $1 per view…ka-ching! It settled with the FTC and in this case the (presumed) ultimate advertiser, Microsoft, was not found culpable.

Obviously the agency intended to send a message, and the incidents are a warning for any PR or marketing people who don’t take FTC enforcement seriously.

Fit. It goes without saying that the partnership needs to be a fit, both in terms of expertise as well as demographics. We’ve used different types of personal finance experts for a credit union with “traditional” members and a money-saving app geared to the mobile millennial set, naturally. And this is where Lord & Taylor got it right. The personalities it chose may not have been household names, but they were fashion-savvy social media users with quality followings.

Overexposure. Brands crave “safe” endorsements or relationships, with good reason. Yet engaging someone at the peak of their popularity poses other risks, simply because many of the “top” personalities like Bethany Mota or Kylie Jenner are overexposed. Multiple endorsements can confuse an audience, and, worse, one-off engagements like sponsored tweets or event appearances aren’t strong enough to build a solid connection with a brand.
Often a brand needs to choose between individuals with high levels of trust, and those with enormous reach. It’s difficult to get both, which is why we often counsel clients to consider “citizen influencers” who may lack household name status but who boast legitimate social networks with strong ties and time-earned expertise. Onalytica talks about the “power middle” layer of Tier 2 influencers, who are often easier to work with than Tier 1 personalities and can offer a way to scale cost-effectively. (see below)

Scaleability.  Scaling an influencer program is probably the biggest hurdle for marketers. How do you manage multiple recommenders across social platforms as diverse as LinkedIn and SnapChat? And how does a brand afford the fees and measurement costs associated with a broad international campaign? For our clients, the answers seem to lie in 1) access to cutting-edge tools for tracking and measurement; 2) the right mix of paid and unpaid media, with influencer marketing often replacing traditional paid advertising; and 3) a mix of tier-one and lesser-known personalities as outlined above. Forrester’s report on the latest word-of-mouth platforms that harness technology to scale and measure influencer programs is useful for some of the recent tools it cites.

Intellectual Property. A social influencer will often use a product photo, trademarked brand or corporate logo, or product photos in the content they generate. Brands and organizations need to anticipate use cases and ensure that logos and photos aren’t modified or misused – the last thing you want is a gif or meme where a branded product is the butt of a joke. On the flipside, a company may want permission to use influencer-generated content in its marketing. The point is that everything must be memorialized in a legal agreement.

Let’s face it, at some level, nearly every influence program falls short of 100% authenticity, and today’s consumers are savvy. A well orchestrated influencer marketing program can fill the gap between “straight” PR, paid advertising, and word-of-mouth, with some of the advantages of each. But like any PR or marketing program, it’s all in the execution.

Why PR Should Rethink Social Influence

What if everything the PR industry believes about social influence is wrong? And that there’s no such thing as truly viral content?

That’s the case made by Duncan Watts, network-theory scientist for Microsoft Research, whose views are outlined in the book Everything Is Obvious (Once You Know The Answer.) His research challenges accepted thinking about “viral” memes propagated by so-called citizen influencers (like hipsters or alpha moms), as promoted by Malcolm Gladwell and others.

Watts spoke at the annual PR Council’s Critical Issues Forum, and his premise is a provocative one for professional communicators. The sessions explored the changing role of PR, and much of the content fell under the broader theme of Big Data vs. Big Intuition. The research isn’t terribly new, but given the size of his data samples and rigor of analysis, Watts’ conclusions are welcome.

There’s more to be explored online, but it basically goes like this. Watts and his team analyzed millions of Twitter posts and mapped social sharing for big events and memes. The social graphs didn’t look like the tree-and branch approach of classic social contagion theory. Instead, they resembled a burst, where clicks and retweets emanate from a single social “broadcast.”

What this means is that most “viral” happenings aren’t truly viral in the way we believe. In fact, Watts’ previous research has shown that those Williamsburg hipsters and soccer moms aren’t even particularly relevant when it comes to spreading a message or meme. Ordinary people can do just as well.

More importantly, Watts got the group thinking about all the events and memes that DON’T become viral. The vast majority that never take off and aren’t picked up by mainstream press. So-called viral events are easier to pinpoint after the fact than they are to predict in advance, and the successful ones are rarely duplicated. Hmmm. It just may be that PR and social mavens are reverse-engineering case studies to suit a successful outcome. And that truly “viral” events are simply accidents, difficult to create and impossible to duplicate.

So, are we all off the hook when clients ask for a viral video?  Yes and no. When we call something “viral,” what we really mean is that it’s simply “popular.” Most of us have long since realized that truly spontaneous memes are nearly impossible to engineer; for every Ice Bucket Challenge, there are tens of thousands of failed attempts at social contagion. When you crack open the most successful campaigns, they usually blend mass marketing and social media.

The good news is that even though lightning rarely strikes, Watts’ research actually gives us a roadmap to achieving the right mix of paid, earned, and owned content to achieve popularity. It also validates what most PR professionals have believed in our gut for a long time, which is the continuing the influence of traditional media – that’s right, the very media coverage that PR has helped generate for decades. So, maybe the battle between Big Data and Big Intuition is a false dichotomy. In our world, they can both win.

7 Ways To Get More From Influencer PR And Marketing

A primary objective of an effective public relations program is visibility, of course. But often, it’s not enough. Building awareness for a new product or explaining a complex issue is a fundamental basis for strategic PR. It’s a very worthwhile one, but increasingly we are being challenged to “move the needle.”

How can PR work harder to engage customers and encourage buying behavior? One way: it can leverage influence. And a great way to generate influence is to “borrow” it from those experts or individuals who already have the ability to persuade or move customers to action.

But how should we define and measure influence? It doesn’t have to mean boldfaced names or even social media stars. One useful view of influencer marketing is Altimeter Group’s three “R”s: Reach, Relevance, and Resonance. Here are some effective ways to look at and leverage social influence in the context of a PR or marketing campaign.

Start with research

The more deeply you dig, the higher the quality of candidates will be. It’s also useful to realize that reach is a legitimate barometer of influence, and tools like Klout and PeerIndex are useful, but it’s a mistake to use reach alone as a metric. For one thing, many tools they are skewed towards social presence on specific platforms like Twitter over others (say, Quora or Medium.) More generally, index-style tools really measure the potential for influence, not the influence itself.

Measure engagement

Not just followers. Engagement often counts more than mere reach, and it can distinguish a humble “citizen influencer” such as those who have been successfully targeted by brands like Virgin Air and Taco Bell,  over bigger-name authors and speakers who are notable but  not as engaging to relevant prospects.

Think niche

Similarly, passion and relevance can trump numbers. A film buff or gadget geek may have fewer followers than socially prominent figures with a more general following, but they may be more natural advocates or reviewers for new products or advocates on issues.

Look for up-and-comers

As with the above, it’s rewarding to “discover” emerging bloggers or others who aren’t yet as well-recognized as top-tier personalities but who have the potential to generate authentic engagement and influence. In several social influence campaigns for clients, we have stumbled across seemingly little-known bloggers with a loyal or super-engaged following. They inevitably drive more traffic to client websites than more established figures and are easier to work with to boot.

Influencers beget influencers

Often a rising social influencer knows exactly who is up-and-coming in his/her community. An organic way to build a sphere of influencers is often through an initial core group which can be mined for peer contacts and friends.

Offer something

It’s not a one-way street, and any influence promotion based solely on shilling a product won’t be as effective as an integrated program based on a true connection. Beyond payment, of course, you can offer audience or category insights, great content, and access to a new audience.

Finally, create your own influencers

Sometimes loyal customers or super-users of a service or product have significant influence and don’t even realize it, or they can be elevated to influencer status. By designing a loyalty program or giving customers a voice you can create a fresh tier of advocates who will inevitably appreciate the love. Offering loyal fans or customers the mouthpiece with which to leverage a role as brand champions can be the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship.

I am proud to blog for Marketing Executives Networking group and an earlier version of this post appeared August 6 on MENGblend.

Ford Leads The Way For Influencer Marketing

As I’ve previously blogged, I get a charge out of the Fiesta Movement, Ford’s nontraditional campaign to promote its new subcompact car. Not because it’s innovative, although it’s undoubtedly a departure for the automotive category. I admire it precisely because it’s not groundbreaking in the truest sense. It’s something better.

The Fiesta Movement is a great example of  a simple idea and a classic public relations strategy – influencer marketing – adapted to the age of the social Web.  And, it’s a template for how a multi-platform social media campaign should be done. By offering cars to 100 carefully selected heavy users of social media, and letting their “agents” market the car for them, Ford has proven that social media can sell cars.

The company’s been very forthcoming about the results of the first six months of the movement. It’s already racked up 6000 pre-orders well in advance of the subcompact’s US launch. What’s more, it’s ignited interest among 100,000 more prospective customers. Those may not be huge numbers, but for a category like this one, in a year like the one we’ve just had, it’s pretty powerful. And it’s proof that social media can drive brand engagement as well as actual sales.

As Ford’s Scott Monty reminds us, this is all without a car in the showroom, and without spending on conventional advertising. “Social media can mean more than just Facebook and Twitter, if it’s done in an integrated way.” The PR mileage, as measured in traditional media coverage, has been pretty impressive as well.

The next leg of the campaign doesn’t sound quite as simple as the first one, which was part of its beauty. Apparently Ford will enlist 20 additional “agents,” who will engage in competitions in local markets that bring to mind “Amazing Race”-style antics. Except that the local contests are meant to “immerse them in cultural movements, allowing them to ignite passion into their communities through social media while opening the discussion about Fiesta.”

Hmmm. I’m not sure what that’s about. But, given the grassroots groundswell surrounding the first Fiesta campaign, we can probably count on more milestones in the near future. At this juncture, the Movement’s about more than just Ford or its subcompact; it’s become a symbol of marketers getting the customer religion. What’s wonderfully ironic is that it took an uncool, utilitarian brand from a tired and crumbling industry to show us the way.