Influencer marketing has become a buzz term as B2B marketers try to cut through the clutter and reach key audiences. But reaching influencers—and growing a stable of in-house thought leaders who can act as industry influencers—remains a challenge.
Josh Buckley is senior director of marketing and communications at PTC, a global technology provider of the leading IoT and AR platform and field-proven solutions that transform how companies create, operate, and service products. Formerly, he was a solution marketing and strategy director at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. We asked Josh about his experience overseeing an expert influencer program.
What are the reasons to start an influencer program? Why would this be important for a B2B marketer?
There are two parts to this. First, when you’re in the tech industry (and you could argue that this apply to any industry, not just tech) the trends around technology and the challenges customers face are happening so quickly that you really need to think creatively about how you quickly establish thought leadership and a point of view in the market.
It’s important to get early visibility and credibility for your company in new spaces as they emerge, whether it’s cloud computing a few years ago or the Internet of Things today.
The other part is that the nature of industry leaders has changed rapidly.
Customers still go to the traditional industry analysts—people from places such as Gartner, IDC, and Forrester. But they’re also looking to gurus or other experts who are independent, like a Gene Kim for DevOps or Michael Porter for business strategy.
And then there are your in-house or vendor influencers. These people are just as known as thought leaders in the industry.
In terms of developing your own in-house influencers, who makes a good vendor influencer?
I think when customers come to a vendor for their point of view, the people they want to talk to are the people who are with customers every day, especially in their industry.
Generally, in a software company, the best people to do that are your consultants. These are the people doing projects and proofs of concept or strategy sessions with multiple clients.
Of course, a product manager or a product marketing manager or certainly an executive has a strong point of view. But for customers to get to the next level, they want to hear more about what their peers are doing.
The best people for that are the ones who are seeing the use cases in action, the challenges, and how customers are tackling them. Customers want to hear those war stories.
What do you see as some of the potential benefits of a program like this?
I think there are a few things. One benefit is it’s fairly cost effective. You can get a lot of mileage from an expert with multiple content pieces like blog posts or LinkedIn articles.
A traditional asset like a white paper takes time and effort to create. But you can move much more quickly and potentially cost effectively via social media with a pool of experts that you’re managing.
Then there’s a benefit to the people who get involved in the program. It’s a great way for them to advance their careers and build their personal brand.
Not everyone can go to all the industry events. But with a program like this, people can get visibility based on how much they participate.
What are some of the challenges of an influencer program?
One of the challenges is practical: The people who are close to customers are out there on the road or at events spending their time with customers.
You need to find a way to channel their point of view and get access to them. And then you need to get them to share what they’re seeing in a consistent way that advances a credible point of view.
It’s almost like getting people into an exercise program. It has to become a habit to be active in social media, watch what others are saying, and respond and engage to move the discussion forward.
Another is really making sure you’re aligned with your company’s messaging. You want experts who have a point of view, but you have to remember that you’re representing your organization. It’s really important to have that visibility and alignment. This also makes it easier to add value to existing marketing campaigns.
How do you measure the success of an influencer program? What metrics matter?
When you think about the business case for investing in a program like this, you need to be very upfront about where an influencer program adds value in the context of the buyer’s journey.
It’s going to be early stage. You’re rarely going to generate a direct lead from a blog post or a social media interaction. You’ve got to be very clear that it’s to build reputation and increase visibility. It’s not going to lead directly to a closed deal via inside sales..
After that, one metric that can be valuable in a program like this is tying it to overall company share of voice. Engagement—such as comments, retweets, and so on—is another.
And then I think you can look at anecdotal metrics around engagement with key influencers or customers. For instance, if a particular thought leader is retweeting you, that’s good to know.
Another metric is direct customer engagement. At HPE we had instances around our Discover event where people attending the event directly contacted an expert who was posting via LinkedIn during the show.
What additional guidance would you give marketers?
First, as I said before, it’s important to ensure you’re aligned on what the company’s standard messages are. You’ll create a lot of difficulty if people aren’t aligned on the message. That’s table stakes.
- Start small with a small pool of experts and use that pilot to demonstrate the value not only of what the program can give, but also how it can help individuals establish themselves as thought leaders.
- Measure your experts against their participation in the program. We found that hard participation metrics supported by their managers was necessary to get a core group of people to participate consistently.
- Be flexible about the participation method. One social media platform doesn’t fit all. Some people are more comfortable with blogging, others with Twitter. What matters is consistency.
Lastly, you’ve got to make it easy for people to participate. That involves having someone in the marketing team focused on training people on social media, getting them comfortable with the platforms, managing the editorial calendar so you can give guidance what to post about and so you’re aligned with what else is happening in the company. Just giving someone a Twitter account or a LinkedIn account and asking them to go off and do something isn’t going to work.