A recent survey revealed 84% of marketers plan on executing at least one influencer marketing campaign during 2017 (according to Forbes). It seems incorporating ‘influencers’ into B2B marketing is a trend on the rise. But why? Is it merely a fad that we have adopted from B2C marketing as a form of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, or are people actually seeing the benefit of influential endorsement?
The BMC, a group of B2B marketing professionals, took it upon ourselves to cross-examine influencer marketing and decipher its value… to us at least.
The first thing we needed to do was define ‘influencer marketing’. Isn’t it just PR? Journalists are surely our influencers – a mention in the news is a tick in the box, as long as it’s good news; and it’s free. Or better still, Corporate Hospitality. Impress a customer or a prospect and they will sing your praises. But this is a cost and always the first thing to go with any budget cuts.
So outside of these, identifying target influencer groups or individuals can be quite difficult, and in an age of Trump, where cynicism and mistrust is rife, who’s to say that anyone is listening? Take even the most influential marketers known in the industry, for example Joe Pulizzi – in our small poll around the table at our BMC client side meeting, the majority said they don’t buy in to the propaganda. There is an argument with social figures like this that any promotion provided would just be quantity over quality. Do you want to be endorsed by someone with 116K followers or by someone your prospects believe and trust in for a reason?
It’s just not the same as B2C’s celebrity endorsement like Cheryl (the artist formally known as Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, OR Cheryl Cole or… I could go on) for L’Oréal, or David Beckham for Calvin Klein/Gillette. The group could only recall one successful example of celebrity endorsement in the B2B sphere, which was Tiger Woods for Accenture in 2009. This ad campaign was all about performance, but it was targeted directly at the C-Suite decision makers that were going through Heathrow airport, who had a high chance of being interested in golf. Tiger had never used Accenture’s products or services, but he was an effective billboard face to talk to the audience. We all questioned, ‘Why isn’t this done more in B2B?’, but, between mouthfuls of chips and scampi, we all agreed that it’s just too hard to find a face to convincingly match the brand and successfully convey the message. This conversation further uncovered a taboo around paying for endorsement in B2B. People seemed uncomfortable with the prospect of spending money on influencer marketing as it felt unethical, but I wasn’t clear why, because how much does it differ from advertising or paying to exhibit at an expo? It’s all brand promotion.
In the absence of celebrities in any of our own marketing campaigns, we did agree however that, if possible, it’s important to put a face to your thought leadership, as people ultimately buy from people. And that’s where customer and employee advocacy come in.
Customer advocacy is key, but still the opinion was that it’s seriously difficult. Creating case studies takes time, collaboration, lots of back-and-forth in a long sign-off process. It’s questionable what the true ROI is on a case study, especially if you are employing someone in a customer advocacy role! You ultimately want to get your best customers to give testimonials, but you have to protect that relationship and if you badger them for it they’ll get pissed off. But this is proven, cheap and effective marketing, so surely it’s worth the effort? Or are we only interested because it’s cheap?
Internal advocates should be far easier to engage, but finding people within the business, at the right level, who want to represent and drive the brand and company message is harder than it sounds. And that brought us back to PR – surely a group with their fingers on the pulse, who know the “movers and shakers” and how the media works, can successfully promote their own companies? Alas, it’s felt they tend to drive their own agenda and are never that closely linked to marketing or aligned with their messages. In my most recent position I have seen internal advocacy built into campaigns, and executed successfully in the form of conference speakers, but this is often an afterthought or managed on a very ad hoc basis. It isn’t part of the tactic ‘check list’, despite the knowledge of ‘people buy-in’.
A lot of our uncertainties around influencer marketing came down to its lack of measurability – nothing feels very tangible. Social media is the only channel that really provides solid metrics. It’s also the obvious platform for this type of marketing, where you can get internal and external advocates to champion your company in the industry. LinkedIn’s Influencers and klout scores means that you can be sure of the strength and impact of an individual’s influence as a thought leader. Many knew little about, but were very interested in, the prospect of working with their businesses’ key spokespeople to get them a prestigious LinkedIn Influencer badge to certify their knowledge on a certain topic, and increase their following, all at the same time as building the company’s brand awareness.
Though most of us admitted not to be bothering with WeChat within our marketing departments, there certainly seems to be a value in its features, allowing businesses to chat with prospects with whom they are already engaged, to keep them up to date on their thought leadership and drive demand generation. It shows a shift by putting social media at the other end of the sales funnel. Ultimately we should be influencing at every step of the selling process, and this platform seems to be showing success with Asian customers by using social in real-time to influence the potential buyers. Others dismissed it as cold calling that would never catch on outside of APAC. It must be a cultural thing!
Twitter was also praised as an effective influencer channel. In an age of digital content, there is too much to try and read it all, so people use twitter to sift through the stuff of interest, and select what’s worth a read. And this got us questioning: with so much accessible on the internet, isn’t everything influencer marketing?
As we started to round up we realised we had talked through a large number of marketing channels/tactics, but we had heard no massive success stories of influencer marketing in any of them. At the beginning of the club night we asked, ‘who’s actively using it?’, and everyone looked blank, but by the end we saw how we were all using it, and came to the rather philosophical conclusion that: ‘influencer marketing is an ingredient, not a meal. It lives within all aspects of marketing’. And with that we were all at peace and headed to the bar!