attraction to a glowing cube

Influencer marketing is gaining momentum across the marketing landscape, but rapid growth sometimes comes with growing pains. Consumer influencer marketing in particular has often nabbed the wrong kind of earned media.

One of the more notorious episodes: a 2017 video spot featuring influencer Kendall Jenner handing a Pepsi to a police officer at a staged peace protest (mirroring a real event when a woman stood up to police at a Black Lives Matter rally). The tone-deaf spot garnered unwelcome criticism in the mainstream press. Business publications, meanwhile, noted additional problems with the influencer revolution: 52 percent of millennials, for instance, no longer blindly trust influencers, says a 2017 DealSpotr survey — a sign that some have become savvy to the compromised integrity of some trendsetters. Luxury hotels, meanwhile, have grown tired of self-described influencers expecting free lodging. And, it turns out, more than 90 percent of top celebrity social media endorsements violate FTC regulations, according to research conducted by Mediakix, an influencer marketing agency.

Yet, even with these derailments, influencer marketing delivers impressive results:

  • In one week, Lagavulin Whiskey saw its YouTube subscriber numbers spike from 5,500 to 23,000 thanks to actor Nick Offerman when he sipped Lagavulin at the pace of growing grain in the brand’s video series.
  • FIJI water made a splash by recruiting fashion consultant/influencer Danielle Bernstein, who featured the FIJI bottles in her new workout video series, Bodyworewhat. In the series, Bernstein reminded followers to stay hydrated and offered a discount code for FIJI home delivery.
  • Microsoft and National Geographic cast themselves in a positive light by teaming up for the “Make What’s Next” campaign, encouraging girls to pursue careers in STEM. The companies photographed 30 female scientists and outdoor adventurers, showcasing the images on the National Geographic Instagram account on International Women’s Day. The posts generated more than 3.5 million likes in one day.

Influencer marketing can be just as successful in the B2B space. The process requires some strategic tweaking, though. The influencers may look different (a corporate CIO rather than Beyoncé) and the messaging may appear on a different platform (the company blog, rather than Instagram), but a tiny campaign can be effective as long as it’s well designed. It’s all a matter of knowing which influencer practices work in best in B2B. Follow the primer below, and you’ll have the basics with which to find success in B2B influencer marketing.

There’s a reason everyone’s under the influence

Whether in B2C or B2B, influencer marketing continues to grow: A $1.7 billion industry in 2016, the value of influencer marketing increased to $3 billion in 2017, then to $4.6 billion in 2018, and is expected to hit $6.5 billion this year, according to Influencer Marketing Hub’s Influencer Marketing Benchmark Report 2019. As the Hub report notes, the number of influencer agencies and platforms ballooned to 740 in 2018 from 320 the previous year, while influencer-savvy businesses can earn up to $18 in earned media value for every dollar spent.

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A few catalysts in particular are driving this growth:

  • People trust other people more than brands. And (until artificial intelligence takes over) influencers are real, live people.
  • The “momentum effect”: A social media post that gains traction — lots of likes, shares, and comments — engages additional users, who become excited to be part of a happening. This gives them post momentum — an effective environment for influencers.
  • The value of Instagram is exploding, and is expected to nearly double in 2019 to $2.3 billion. This social network also happens to pull in influencers and their followers — Gen Z members, in particular, who value authenticity. (Instagram, though, tends to be most effective in the B2C world.)

B2B influence marketing got a slower start than its B2C sibling. Still, late bloomer that it is, the B2B world is looking to make up for lost time — but in its own way. 

Why B2B is Kardashian-free

In B2B influencer marketing, there’s little need to bring in a Kardashian or an international soccer star (Kim Kardashian West earned an estimated $720,000 per sponsored post in 2018; Cristiano Ronaldo, $750,000, according to CNBC). In B2B, the company IT director can actually be the most effective influencer.

Here’s where B2B strategies diverge from B2C:

  • B2B influencer marketing, by design, tends to make a much smaller splash than B2C: Don’t expect to read about many B2B campaigns in The Wall Street Journal. The bonds B2B influencers forge with the target audience though, tend to be more solid, trusted, and effective.
  • Unlike B2C marketing, B2B need not appeal to the masses. A company must merely reach potential clients.
  • A social media behemoth like Instagram may hold little appeal for corporate citizens. An influencer posting on a corporate blog or LinkedIn is more likely to have an impact.
  • B2B influencer budgets may be much lower than those in the B2C sector — but that’s essentially “right-sizing” for the sector. Take the B2B company that employs a stable of thought leaders with strong social media followings: these employees can post about company developments and actually influence clients and purchasers. Any employee with a robust, engaged, social following can have an impact. Clients too can function as influencers. And (salaries aside) these influencers cost nothing.
  • B2C consumers can be influenced to make snap purchases, nudged to buy bottled water without having to worry about C-suite approval. B2B buyers, though, may have to get the green light from a troop of stakeholders. And purchasers may need to research for months or longer and pitch a number of people before getting the okay to buy. A HubSpot/LinkedIn guide to influencer marketing notes that tech purchasers rely heavily on blogs, forums and social media during the research phase. (see chart below)

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With all these strategies moving them forward, more than 50 percent of B2B firms increased influencer budgets in 2018, according to Forrester. And this data from Influencer Marketing Hub shows the dramatic growth of the influencer marketing overall market.

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Influencers worth the money (some are even free)

Employees: As mentioned above, the right people in-house — assuming they have the authority and social media engagement — can be effective influencers.

Satisfied customers/clients: A successful B2B client-business relationship is essentially a partnership. So satisfied customers can make the most authentic spokespersons.

Industry experts: Getting a trusted, independent, industry thought leader on your side gives your message credibility. It helps if they have a significant and engaged social footprint.

Academics: Much like industry experts — and possibly more so — academics garner trust.

You’ve got influencers. You know how to use them

You already know that the most engaging B2C platforms may not register with your B2B targets. So where best to peddle your influencers?

Social media: True, Instagram and Snapchat are two social platforms that probably won’t move the needle for a B2B company. But LinkedIn is a powerful business network. Here, professionals come to stay up to date, keep in touch, and, yes, be influenced — by both paid and organic content. It’s fertile ground for thought leaders. Twitter and Reddit, too, can get your message to the right people. And note that influencer-created and -shared content provided an 11-time higher return on investment over all other forms of digital media, according to Nielsen Catalina Solutions for Tapinfluence and WhiteWave Foods.

Blog posts/articles: Influencer content need not be relegated to social networks. Any well-trafficked company blog can make a great platform. Just make sure your employees and partners link to it from their social networks.

Events: Inviting thought leaders to participate or speak at events and conferences immediately helps associate them with your brand.

Web testimonials: This format invites satisfied customers to sing your company’s praises by relating specific stories of how the company’s products or services helped their businesses prosper. And this practice can work well in any web format from video to text to podcast. In fact, clients have online platforms for this on review sites like Clutch, which digitizes word-of-mouth marketing.

Ultimately, “Whoever you choose to associate with your brand — they have to have that authentic connection,” IBM CMO Michelle Peluso tells Forbes. “It simply can’t be manufactured or bought.” And, she adds, “It’s not necessarily about how many followers someone has, but rather what makes them valuable and interesting to their audience. It’s crucial that B2B companies commit to preserving an influencer’s authenticity as credibility is paramount.”

B2B influencer success stories

Here are some examples of B2B influencer marketing worth noting:

SAP: The company, which develops enterprise software, decided to go the event route. Its annual Sapphire user conference in Orlando attracts roughly 20,000 attendees.In 2016, SAP added influencers, working with 11 of them to create video-based content for the conference. The influencers then live-streamed the content to some 80,000 people who couldn’t attend. Naturally, the content was shared on social media.

GE: The corporation wanted to encourage women to enter the tech industry. A week-long sponsored content run included a video featuring then GE Vice Chair Beth Comstock and actress/author Lena Dunham (who ran a feminist site called Lenny) discussing what a career in science looks like and how GE encourages women in tech.

American Express: With initiatives like Small Business Saturdays, American Express has become a champion for the brick-and-mortars. Taking that to the influencer front, the financial services corporation struck up a partnership with influencers/bloggers Grace Bonney and Emily Henderson. With them, AmEx created the campaign “Love My Store,” reminding customers that even small stores can accept AmEx cards. The campaign earned 5 million impressions and resulted in the distribution of 400,000 AmEx decals.

B2B influencer campaigns like these still make a splash — though maybe not quite the kind Nick Offerman makes when he waits nearly three minutes before wetting his whistle with scotch. Effective B2B influencer marketing means knowing clients will take time to make a decision, will do plenty of research, and want to hear from credible sources before pulling the trigger. You just need to figure out who they want to hear from, where, and how.

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