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We must act now to save B2B influencer marketing

B2B influencers have yet to become embroiled in the same misleading practices Unilever’s Keith Weed called B2C influencers out for at this year’s Cannes Lions. If we act now, we can keep it that way.

Influencer marketing is like marmite.

Depending on who you ask, it’s either a game‐changing new way to reach potential customers or an over‐hyped millennial spin on something good marketers have been doing for decades.

Since the term was popularised in 2004, it has shot past other marketing buzzwords like ‘thought leadership’ to become one of the industry’s most talked about topics.

With companies ploughing £1.2 billion into marketing on Instagram in 2017, it’s clear this trend isn’t going away anytime soon. But, the rising tide of controversies involving social influencers should concern us all.

It’s up to B2B marketers to take action to safeguard their brands against threats like these – and this article will show you how.

YouTube star Logan Paul’s decision to post a video of himself exploring Japan’s ‘suicide forest’ shows why marketers must take steps to ensure the personalities they partner with are right for their brand.

Meanwhile, misleading practices and a lack of transparency are starting to affect the public’s trust in social influencers. Nearly three quarters of Brits incorrectly believe there are no rules or regulations surrounding influencer marketing and almost half think it is damaging for society.

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The troubles facing B2C influencers could prove to be a vision of the future for B2B marketers. After all, the same phenomenon that gave rise to the first social media stars also created a fertile ecosystem for the various experts, gurus and product reviewers that serve the world of B2B today.

B2B influencers like digital guru Jay Baer and MarketingProfs’ Ann Handley may not enjoy the same vast followings as the Zoellas and PewDiePies of this world. But, they’re no less influential within their respective niches.

There’s no sharp distinction between the two, and both will remain a popular tool for achieving a range of marketing goals – from raising brand awareness to reaching new audiences, increasing brand advocacy and more.

The World Federation of Advertisers reports that 65 per cent of brands plan to increase their spending on influencers over the next 12 months. It surveyed 34 companies commanding £45 billion of marketing and media spend, finding that most still value the connection influencers have with their audiences.

But to make the most of this opportunity, B2B marketers must take care to avoid the potholes so many in the B2C space have fallen into.

So, today we’ll outline how you can develop credible influencer partnerships that drive results for your business – and the first step is to make sure you hold B2B influencers to the right standards.

Influencers must be held to a higher standard

Getting influential people to endorse your products is nothing new. But the advent of today’s internet personalities changed the practice completely.

In the past, a celebrity would be happy for your creative team to take the lead. They’d stand where you told them, say their lines, smile for the camera and collect their cheque at the end of the day.

But modern social media stars don’t see this relationship as a one‐way street. They have their own personal brands to maintain, and they want to be involved throughout the content creation process.

“Brands and agencies should work closely with an influencer to generate ideas together, and not just pitch what they think they want,” says supercar vlogger Mr JWW. “Find a balance of what the brand wants versus what the audience will be receptive to.”

This collaborative process is arguably even more important in B2B than it is in the B2C space – as B2B collaborations generally involve substantial content pieces, rather than superficial endorsements.

Collaboration helps influencers ensure they’re publishing content that builds and engages their own audience. But it also fundamentally changes the relationship between influencers and brands. You’re not just paying for an endorsement. You’re paying for content creation services, and for that content to be distributed to a predefined audience.

That means social media influencers are essentially one‐person content agencies – and you should hold them to the same standards as you would any other external agency or content creator.

We need to take urgent action now to rebuild trust, before it’s gone forever.
Keith Weed, Unilever

Will partnering with them add credibility to your brand? Is their content better than anything you could produce in‐house? Can they really help you reach your target audience? And how will the partnership feed into your broader marketing funnel?

Influencer marketing is about more than buying reach or outsourcing your content and thought leadership creation. It’s about establishing mutually beneficial relationships and finding key voices that can engage your target audience by helping to solve their needs.

There’s no question that the right brand‐influencer partnerships result in outstanding content that benefits everyone involved. So, the next thing to consider is what makes a great B2B influencer partnership – and how you can commission influencer content that works for your business.

How to make B2B influencers work for you

What good influencers do really well is create the sort of bold, entertaining content that your audience members love to engage with.

This is something B2B marketers traditionally struggle with. Many find rigid processes, compliance issues and strict brand guidelines stifle their creativity. Others struggle to get the internal buy‐in they need to truly entertain their audiences. Some simply lack the expertise and resources they need to do justice to certain topic areas.

So, partnering with a respected influencer provides a potential solution to one of the biggest challenges B2B organisations face.

A well‐executed influencer initiative can feed directly into your existing marketing strategy, while also extending your reach to engage new prospects within your target audience.

For enterprise software provider SAP, that means working with independent business consultants, academics and authors to get its message across. These are people who have a strong influence on decision‐makers in the types of companies likely to appreciate SAP’s products.

In 2016, the company chose 11 of these influencers to create interview‐based video content around its annual Sapphire conference. These influencers live‐streamed the content to around 80,000 people who couldn’t attend the event, and SAP later repurposed many of the interviews as blog posts.

“The biggest thing is identifying the right influencers for each line of business,” says Amisha Gandhi, vice president, influencer marketing at SAP Ariba. “Across these audiences, there are credible voices and they can help tell your story in a credible fashion.”

For an initiative like this to work, you need a deep understanding of your own audience – and how it compares to that of your chosen influencers.

That means conducting your own research to create detailed personas of each of your audience segments. You need to be aware of what motivates them as people, as well as their specific content consumption habits. You can then use social listening tools to compare your findings with the audiences of specific influencers.

When commissioning a new influencer, work with them to create a brief you’re both happy with. Agree key messages for them to include, be clear about anything they shouldn’t mention and spell out exactly what deliverables you expect from them before they begin work.

You’ll also need to allow your influencers the creative space to do their thing. They will know what sorts of content their audiences respond to best, and that may mean deviating from your strict brand guidelines.

If you don’t feel confident an influencer will portray your brand in the right light, they’re probably not a good match for your business.

Above all, prioritise building long‐term partnerships with credible industry names over one‐off endorsements. Inauthentic collaborations played a key role in denting the public’s trust in B2C influencers. But more importantly, they’re just not the right strategy for B2B.

While a consumer might plausibly buy a new pair of jeans because they see an influencer sporting them, the same isn’t true of a piece of enterprise IT software. Longer sales cycles and higher value solutions mean B2B marketers will get more out of relationships that build credibility over time.

Only 15 per cent of B2B companies ran ongoing influencer marketing campaigns in 2017, but that figure is sure to rise. As buyer behaviours continue to shift towards peers and thought leaders, B2B influencers will become increasingly important.

B2B influencer marketing isn’t yet embroiled in the same scandals that led Unilever’s Keith Weed to call for urgent action to rebuild trust at this year’s Cannes Lions festival. If we take steps now to safeguard the industry, we can keep it that way and benefit from collaborating with trusted industry leaders.

Key takeaways

  • B2B influencer marketing can be a powerful tool. Credible influencer partnerships will become increasingly important as buyer behaviours shift towards peers and thought leaders.
  • Treat influencers like you would any other content creator. Work with people who can deliver high quality content and distribute it to an audience of real followers that will be interested in your brand.
  • Be strategic with your influencer partnerships. Prioritise long‐term collaborations with respected industry figures that feed naturally into your marketing funnel.

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