For marketers, working with influencers requires context and purpose.
What is influence? It’s a big enough topic that we named our whole program around it — the Influence Marketing Council. Usually in marketing, people define influence as the ability to get people to do something, as in buysomething. (Most marketers think rather bluntly.) In our work with B2B professional marketing, we like to think of influence as the ability to change the way people think and feel about companies and products — what’s useful, what’s cool, who they like working with.
The social media marketing world has been obsessed with “who is an influencer” since its early days. Last Friday, analyst and author Brian Solislet loose on Facebook with a heartfelt rant about a list of marketing influencers. The list uses metrics like mentions and retweets and likes to do the ranking, all measures that 1. are more a measure of popularity and engagement than influence and 2. are easily affected or even gamed by marketing campaigns for the books, events, or companies these marketers are involved with.
The resulting thread was a fascinating discussion of influence, authority, engagement, and lists. We think about influence a lot; here are two points we want you to understand if you are creating professional relationships with influencers.
Influence is about audience and context
First of all, influence must always be viewed in a context, which is usually authority within a given audience. Gary V, while an entertaining and insightful marketing guy, is not going to help Dell directly sell a single server — he has no authority with a typical IT buyer. Marketers often confuse the overall impact radius of an influencer with their authority over a specific audience.
In my world, I want to know technologists who can influence IT buyers; and not only general buyers, but those even further specialized into areas like networking, storage, security, virtualization, and operations — and then even into even smaller areas like infrastructure ops, app ops, and cloud ops. You have to know the audience you want to reach.
Influence is about purpose and business goals
The second thing to always keep in mind is your business goals and how they relate to influencers on a list. Why was this influencer list even made, how was it made, and how does it relate to something I want to do with them?
The IMC is in the midst of publishing a series of studies of enterprise technology influencers in specific areas (our first two were VMware and Google Cloud). However, with our first VMware list, we found no women influencers in the top 50, which doesn’t reflect the influential women I see in this community today.
What happened? The list was made using Little Bird, which looks at who is following whom. The VMware Twitter community is old — it came together in 2010 as an outgrowth of an existing VMware community which had been growing since 2001 in online forums and user groups. People don’t really change who they follow over time, so those original following relationships in that early, male-dominated, community, are the signal that the tool picked up. For instance, some people appeared on our list were active but haven’t been publicly present in years — not blogging, speaking, or tweeting. There also is some likely gender bias in this list; I hope it is unconscious and we can begin to change it by shining a light on it.
Is the list useful? It is if you realize how it was built. The people on the list have a big potential audience of other VMware influencers; that’s just data. It doesn’t mean they’re currently active or that they’re still focused on VMware vs other tech. It doesn’t mean this is the complete influencer population; for instance, it doesn’t include some popular VMware bloggers, book authors, executives, and speakers who aren’t heavy Twitter users. It doesn’t call out people who are influential within a given geographic area.
The list is a starting point that depends on your goals, not a list of people to BCC on a pitch email. My goal is usually to find some people with authority in a specific professional area to work with a tech vendor; that might be an invitation to a briefing, an offer to do some freelance writing, or the start of a longer-term relationship. Just being on the list certainly doesn’t mean that any of these folks want to work with you and your brand in the first place. They may work for a competitor or their employer might not be economically aligned with you. They may not want to work with brands at all. They might be busy this month.
You’ve got to know what kind of list you are working with. Brian noted that the marketing influencer list was measuring engagement, which is a tricky metric. (If you have a KPI based on engagement, I always recommend tons of kitten pictures.) Another type of list I call The Rumsfield List (the army you have, not the army you wish you had): the people who already are open to working with your brand and who you can help grow in influence with you over time. People also publish lists of people they think should be getting more attention, and there are always the lists that are just exercises in hopeful marketing reciprocity.
Circling back to the original marketing influencer list in question, I’ve had my thinking changed more by Brian Solis than many of the other people on that list, so this isn’t a very good list if you want to influence me. In fact, we started the Influence Marketing Council so that with our peers we could tackle the challenges of engaging with B2B technology buyers instead of listening to most of these marketing gurus. You should know your audience and your business goals before engaging in professional realtionships with influencers, whether they are on a particular list or not!