Unless you have been on a media fast, you’ve probably heard that the new marketing target is the influencer. You knew that, right? In the past, when you checked the ‘influencer’ box on a form, you were identifying a person who recommended a product or service, not the actual purchaser. But there’s a new world, and influencers aren’t people who simply nod (or shake) their heads. They are a powerful force in the sales process, and marketers now must craft multiple messages for them. This is particularly true for face-to-face marketers where personal encounters are often built around influence.
Like so many other concepts, influencers entered business-to-business marketing through consumer marketing and the power of the internet: from the fierce “mommy bloggers” whose product recommendations create huge markets, drawing the attention of companies who either hire them or ask them to review free products, to the YouTube vloggers who demonstrate and recommend products—everything from elaborate espresso machines to nail polish. Generally, consumer influencers can be found on social media platforms, particularly on Instagram and Pinterest. And let’s not forget user reviews. Whether on Amazon or Rotten Tomatoes, reviews have altered and influenced the buying experience.
Unlike the nodding heads we described above, the new influencers are
- Early adopters.
- Always looking for what’s new.
- Buyers of products and services.
- Social media practitioners.
What exactly is influencer marketing? To paraphrase the Wikipedia entry, Influencer marketing focuses on influential people rather than the target market, identifying those who influence potential customers and orienting marketing activities around them. While social media plays a critical role, influencers may be positioned as giving testimonials or as third parties who exist either in the supply chain (retailers, manufacturers, etc.) or as value-added influencers (e.g., journalists, academics, industry analysts, and professional advisers).
Influencers cut a wide swath across the marketing landscape. It’s easy to chart their effect on the consumer market, but in the business-to-business arena, their role is multi-faceted. Yet the principle remains, and the rise of the influencers often usurps the part of the salesperson, suggesting buyers vet their potential vendors long before developing their shortlists or leaving for a trade show.
If you are responsible for the success of your company’s trade show program, you probably realize buyers are mapping their own journeys, beginning with an online search and using keywords to start the information gathering process. Know the names of the subject matter experts and thought leaders in your field, pay attention to what they have to say on social media, and look out for them should they visit your exhibit.
Decision makers, people with buying power, are skeptical about sales pitches, and as they compile their lists of vendors—or in the case of face-to-face events, their must-see agendas for the show floor—they are more likely to research via influencer content than any other source. The important influencers absorb and create content in their blogs, podcasts, and videos. They not only recommend and review products and services; they share their brand experiences. This is a critical group for marketers to reach without neglecting the audience consuming content since the latter group determines the validity of the influencers’ viewpoints.
How do you reach influencers?
Take a new look at press relations and publicity. Print may be dying a slow death, but the online press has not slowed down, particularly for trade publications. Not all that long ago, marketers prepared press kits prior to exhibiting at major trade shows. If they were not having a press event, they would leave the kits in the press office where industry journalists (and by the way, their competitors) could find them. Today successful press relations can’t be that passive. Contact with your industry press should not be a one-off. It should be ongoing and consistent. Don’t just send press releases. Send videos. If feasible, send products for review. Connect in person with the most important influencers and keep them up to date on your corporate developments.
Connect with universities. Professors wield a tremendous amount of influence on product preference. While your school days may be just a memory, young, eager graduates are looking for what’s new. They already know what is currently in use. Find ways to become involved in university programs in your industry. Offer advice and insight. Open your mind to the next generation of customers. Often students come to trade shows. If your first inclination is to ignore them because they have no purchasing power, think again. They are your future customers, prescribers, or influencers. They will long remember the brand experience they had on the trade show floor and how they were treated in your exhibit.
Become active in industry associations—not simply at the annual convention but throughout the year. Make sure your colleagues are saying good things about your company.
Produce authentic content. Your content doesn’t need to be about your products or services. You can focus on industry issues, safety and sustainability practices, or government policies. Influencers will make decisions on your products, but they will also make decisions based on their encounters with your brand online and off. If they recognize you for thought leadership and your ability to articulate your industry’s major concerns, they will acknowledge your leadership and give more consideration to your products and your market position.
Speak at conferences. If you’re unsure of yourself, team up to speak with a respected industry figure, perhaps on a panel. Usually, those people are welcoming to newcomers. You are not delivering a product message; you are delivering a brand encounter. Tell a memorable story that the influencers will remember.
Stay active on social media. You don’t have to be pitching products to establish a voice for your company that demonstrates the depth of your industry knowledge. Connect with people whose social presence is a good fit with your own, who can affirm your posts, or from whom you can learn. Don’t shy away from third party content. “Content curation” builds audiences and establishes your company’s voice as a reliable source for the full range of industry information.
Don’t neglect the tried and true testimonial. The current environment is making it tough to publish and promote testimonials without getting the necessary permissions. But it’s worth it! There is nothing like a third party saying good things about your company and your product. And if for some reason, an influencer cannot actually recommend your product, a positive review is equally valuable.
Speaking of that environment, if you are using paid spokespeople, the FTC mandates you must disclose that fact. Just like 20th-century marketing textbooks were not complete without the story of the debacle that was “the new Coke,” 21st-century texts will talk about the Kardashians and their failures to disclose their financial relationships with the products they promote on social media. In one of the most notable cases, Kim Kardashian promoted a morning sickness drug that evoked the wrath of both the FTC and the FDA.
Consistently providing the influencers with credible, authentic content across multiple outlets is a powerful tool for your brand’s reputation and for meaningful, significant conversations at face-to-face opportunities. When decision makers walk the trade show floor, you want them to have your company’s name on their shortlists—and that process starts long before they step on the carpet.