Some may object to the concept of 'influencers' altogether. It's a hard term to choke down, I'll give you that. Its close resemblance to 'influenza' might actually be appropriate. But the fundamental idea of the enterprise influencer actually does make sense:
1. Influence is no longer limited, if it ever was, to a handful of prestige analyst firms.
2. Engaging the right influencers can have a valuable impact on customers and corporate direction.
That's the easy part. The hard part is:
1. Defining who the right influencers are. (Do influencers include customers? Does social presence factor in?)
2. Engaging influencers in a productive/sustainable way. Why? Because they require individualized attention, and often don't get along so wonderfully with marketing and PR.
Most enterprise software companies have some type of influencer program, even if its an analyst relations program in transition. Some of their customers do too. (Smaller software vendors and startups are either really good at influencer relations due to their industry contacts, or else they have put it off indefinitely).
Most of the influencer programs I've run into are, well – not special. Even when the effort is there, the results can be questionable. There are two reasons why influencer programs don't work out as planned: under-investment due to lack of measurable results, or lack of engagement due to misunderstanding what influencers are looking for.
I can't unravel all of this in one blog post so I'll hone in on the latter part (influencer misunderstandings). I'm not sure you can begin to tackle the measurement/ROI of influence until this is addressed anyhow.
Avoiding the big missteps
There are industry experts out there who can help your company, but perhaps not in the ways you'd expect. Many are not trying to win social network popularity contests, so you have to seek them out. When you do, here's some pitfalls to avoid:
1. Influencers are not marketers. In some companies, the marketing team is responsible for engaging influencers. It can work IF the ultimate goal is to involve outside experts to make the company better. If the focus is a short term media bump or placing a trendy hashtag, send up a flare. Influencers don't fancy crafting press releases – not the ones you want to influence anyway - and they've been known to disrupt a hash tag or two with snarky bits and uncomfortable truths. Short term marketing goals for maximizing social sentiment can create a combative relationship with influencers who tend to have their own agendas. But - the good ones are in it for the long haul and are not just snarky, but genuinely eager to hear about customer experiences and new industry possibilities.
2. You can't Klout your way to a good influencer program. Tools like Klout are blunt force media trauma. They give some indication of reach, but to who? Casting a wide net pulls in hubcaps and tires. In the enterprise, some key influencers aren't very active socially. Guess what they are doing? Speaking to your customers - advising them on new projects, conducting vendor evaluations. Figuring out who truly influences your customers and constructing an individualized engagement program for that influencer is winning. Tools like Klout can help identify experts and round out invite lists for large scale events, but there is always a last mile you have to take identifying the influencers who are affecting your customers.
3. Get influencers in front of your customers - throughout the year. It's not easy to create a customer advocacy program, but if you don't have customers willing to sing your praises and vouch for specific benefits on the record, you have bigger problems than influencers. Giving influencers a chance to interact openly with customers is an evolution of trust, and will take time. But the end result is that customers provide influencers with the best storylines.
Putting customers and influencers together solves a vexing problem: keeping your company on the conversational radar year in, year out. A well run trade show can get a big bump in brand exposure, but what next? For most companies, notifying bloggers of incremental feature releases is going to result in yawns and indifference. A handful of companies have that Apple-like sex appeal where even the whisper of new products creates frantic blogging, but most communications teams don't have that luxury. Meantime, most influencers would rather talk to your customers and get a field view. We've come a long way with online interaction and video conferencing. Year round interaction is possible.
4. Counting blog posts is for losers. Obligatory blog posts are - obligatory. The best blogs I've ever read by influencers were written out of their own volition. Obligatory blogging is a loser in the attention economy. Great, attention-worthy content is the result of inspired interactions. If a conference inspires an influencer, it will get written about. If not, maybe it's better to follow up with that influencer and figure out which topics carry the most weight for follow up interviews.
If you give an influencer enough access to customers and product experts inside your company, they WILL carry that into their content, whether its blogs or speaking engagements or customer briefings. What's a better metric than number of blog posts? How many customers cited a particular influencer as a reason for purchasing software is not too shabby for starters. What if an influencer never blogs, but you know they are sharing informed views on your products with relevant prospects and customers? I'll take that over the 'event review boilerplate' anyday.
5. 'Positive' and 'negative' is a very limited way to assess media coverage. How about starting with accurate versus inaccurate instead? The best influencers take pains with factual accuracy and fairness (though how someone arranges facts to support their position is where the debates about objectivity heat up). I can think offhand of a number of so-called 'negative' blog posts that cost the blogger dearly in terms of access to a company's executives and events. Yet those same blog posts did more to lead to difficult and lasting change in those companies than did the cream puff posts that got all the handshakes and smiles.
6. Media coverage is just one aspect of a two way feedback loop. The best influencer relations are made up of honest dialogue with executives, partners, customers, and product leads. When companies see influencers as another way to bullhorn messaging, relationships strain. But when the focus is on a two way feedback loop, the benefits mount. Some product leads are savvy enough to engage with influencers on their own subject expert terms, which breaks down the barriers between company and media representative. The content that results from these kinds of conversations can open up your company to new audiences looking for industry know-how, moving the conversation to the top of the sales funnel rather than a product-focused marketing pitch.
Some of the biggest influencer benefits are frank conversations about product direction that provide fodder for a better go-to-market. Other times, influencers (who may include your own customers) can reflect critical feedback that results in product or pricing changes, leading to a more competitive offering.
7. Insist on transparency on all sides. One of the touchiest aspects of influencer relations is the reality that some of these folks will also be involved in paid engagements with your company. Most influencers are rigorous about disclosing such financial ties, both in disclosure statements and in individual blog posts. But let's face it - some are not. And some are new to the influencer game and have not been well-versed in the rules of disclosure. Insisting on this transparency is not always easy. Sometimes we rationalize because the reader won't ever know.
But: the enterprise reader is savvy. They can sense biases, and biases that are not openly shared breed mistrust with the influencer and their content. An influencer's lack of disclosure can backfire onto the clients they are covering. Lesson: sometimes you have to initiate uncomfortable but necessary conversations on this topic. Reader and customer trust is paramount; protecting that trust is job 1.
There is a misconception that influencers must be completely independent. In reality none can claim that; even when there are no financial ties, loyalties to certain companies and relationships foil the claim. We are all dependent and that certainly applies to creating great content which is dependent on sources. The good news is that readers will accept such complications and make their own decisions as to the value of that content - as long as financial relationships and other ties are disclosed.
Influencer engagement is part of a broader process of transforming from old school marketer to digital publisher. Digital publishing is not a one way endeavor; it's a feedback loop built around shared expertise that deepens over time into enterprise communities. Disclosure of agendas will always be important, but that does not mean lines cannot blur in a good way.
The kind of content and feedback influencers provide is ideally a happy byproduct of building the right kind of community around your brand - a community that aims to have an impact on industry and the social good, not just to sell. Openness is vital and that is where culture change rears its head. Excessive moderation leads to stagnation; the community then disperses onto social channels where they air out grievances, spiked by disillusionment over expectations for dialogue raised.
Measuring the success of such endeavors is another undertaking. Once the right model for influence is embraced, measurements should be put in place - even if they will always be somewhat incomplete given that some benefits will remain intangible. Then, and only then, it's time to invest. Oh, and if you have a better term than influencer, I'm all ears.
Image credit: Business man looking for employees through binoculars. © Kirill Kedrinski - Fotolia.com
Disclosure: I decided not to single out influencer programs for examples in this post, but I have served as an SAP Mentor volunteer since 2008, which arguably is an influencer program. However my observations from this post are drawn broadly and not limited to any one program or vendor.
Updated 2/5/2014 5:00 pm US ET, typo fix and additions to 'transparency' section.