The noisier the particular market, the more the influencers matter. After all, the person drowning in information clings to trusted sources – and influencers trade in trust.
Because there are few who truly have influence online, and because they could come from any corner of business (they may even work for one of your competitors), the struggle to get noticed is a pebble in the social marketer’s shoe. It’s a persistent discomfort.
This is why Leslie Bradshaw and I tacked this topic in the Social Media ProBook. It’s vital to most businesses, yet most marketers don’t even know how to begin addressing it. The following is a crash course in “infleuncer marketing.”
The debate about whether “influencers” exist continues. The topic was discussed in several panels at SXSWi 2011. Much of the debate germinated from the article “Is the Tipping Point Toast?,” which ran in FastCompany in 2008. The story looked at research performed by then-Columbia professor (now Yahoo! research scientist) Duncan Watts, who provided compelling evidence that influencers don’t exist - so what's the point of influencer marketing?
However, an overwhelming amount of evidence argues against Mr. Watts’ assertions, and most marketers agree that influencers not only exist, but are also a vital group with whom to build relationships.
Why do “influencers” matter more than ever? Because the social Web gives individuals reach that was previously available only to institutional publishers. Microsoft’s PR team found that one person – TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington – triggered considerably more awareness for the launch of Bing than did The Wall Street Journal. While both are important – because they reach different audiences and yield different feelings in the reader – most people still view traditional media as more influential. Clearly, online influence matters just as much. In every industry, there are “influencers” who are disproportionately persuasive.
Being an influencer (also known in some industries as a “tastemaker”) yourself is a sure-fire way to get recognized by other influential personalities. How can you become an influencer? Blog, tweet, review products, public speaking, publish research, write a book, comment on others’ blogs, produce videos, and contribute articles to trusted publications. Of course, your goal shouldn’t be to set out to be an influencer – that objective will certainly distort your output – but rather to become a Influence is the byproduct of continually producing high quality content.
Jeremiah Owyang, an expert in influencer marketing, said, “The best way to become an influencer is to create one.” Translation: Shift your thinking from “what can you do for me,” and instead focus on, “what can I do for you?” Helping someone else become an influencer is the most reliable way to get you and your organization noticed and supported by the larger community of “personal brands.” How can you do this? The press is always looking for independent experts to give a disinterested perspective in articles. Recommend different emerging influencers as interview candidates. This “free PR” is likely to be rewarded with familiarity and loyalty later. Other ideas: Allow the person to guest post on your blog, interview the person for articles you write, include examples of the person’s work in your presentations.
Don’t try to “rush to the close.” When you begin to form a relationship with an influential figure, resist the urge to ask for something, especially a blog post or tweet. Try to form a real relationship, one built on mutual value transfer and personal familiarity. Reducing the exchange to a “transaction” may be immediately gratifying, but in the long term, it will harm your ability to inspire the individual later become a true brand advocate.
Think laser, not buckshot: The influencers community is, by definition, finite. Don’t try to build relationships with all of them at once. You are better off identifying one or two people likely to be receptive to your company’s story. Use your board, investors and friends to make the introduction and select people likely to be “friendly” toward your brand first. The key is to keep it sincere and personal. Narrow and deep beats wide and shallow when it comes to influencer relations.
Why do people write? They write to be read. It’s truly that simple. Be sure you are familiar with what each person has written before you start trying to forge a relationship.
Don’t just stop at Klout scores when measuring influence, there are many great tools out there including Twitter Grader, Peer Index and Twitalyzer. You should also ask customers and partners who they listen to when it comes to your industry.
Be normal. Be natural. Coming across as a flack or, worse, a shill will get you tuned-out. It will seem like you are asking for free advertising if your heart isn’t in the right place. Influencer marketing contains some old school strategies. Maximize human contact where possible - meeting for coffee or talking on the phone will form a much stronger bond between you, your brand and the potential influencer.
Many Web properties are quickly releasing tools designed to allow users to transfer “social currency” to people and organizations they find influential. This social currency takes the form of digital recommendations. Google offers its “+1” button, Klout allows users to share up to five “+K” badges per day, and, of course, many of the Q&A sites allow members to vote up select answers. Empireavenue, the virtual “human stock exchange,” takes this model a step further by enabling participants to buy and sell faux equity in rising stars in social media. All of these tools can be used to grab the attention — and hopefully favor — of influencers, but proceed with caution. Relying solely on this technique or overusing it is likely to backfire by reinforcing the imbalance of influence between you and the individual you persistently applaud.
Social strategist and PR expert Meg Fowler sums it up best: “If you’re constantly asking for introductions, favors & ‘ins’ over social networks, you’re going to teach people to avoid you.”