Influencing Influencers: 5 Questions With Executive Branding Coach and Author Mark Schaefer

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Mark Schaefer speaking

Mark W. Schaefer is a globally-recognized executive branding coach, author, speaker, podcaster, and business consultant who blogs at {grow}—one of the top five marketing blogs of the world. He teaches graduate marketing classes at Rutgers University and has written six best-selling books including The Tao of Twitter, The Content Code, and his new book KNOWN: Building and Unleashing Your Personal Brand in the Digital Age. Mark has worked with brands including Pfizer, Cisco, Dell, Adidas, and the US Air Force.

Schaefer recently co-authored a white paper with Traackr, delving into the rise of influencer marketing in “The Rise of Influencer Marketing in B2B Technology Organizations.”

We had the chance to sit down with Mark and ask him about the fundamental changes going on in the world of influencer marketing, and how B2B specifically can take advantage of these new opportunities.

mark schaefer

What about B2B tech makes the category a fundamentally different scenario for influencers? What’s your advice for B2B brands and marketers on cultivating the right group and size of influencers at the get-go?

In B2C, influencers may be leveraging a huge YouTube or Instagram audience to sell a movie or consumer product. But in B2B, the passionate experts who study your company and its products may be active in small forums, blog communities, or industry groups. The size of the audience may be quite different, but these individuals still have a huge impact because they are thought leaders in their specialty.

Take a holistic approach to evaluating the value of influencers. Technology or agencies can be very helpful with the discovery process but talk to those in your company who know these people. Who do they follow? Who do they respect? Who would they want to work with over time?

You also need to consider how the values of the person align with the values of your company. Your aim is to develop long-term, mutually-beneficial relationships with these people.

In terms of the number of influencers, the experts I interviewed for the research report are tending toward a smaller number. Even very large companies with a dedicated focus are working with maybe 10-15 people in order to have the time to create mutually-beneficial relationships.

How can B2B technology organizations cultivate an influential expert voice to cut through the noise and lack of trust that permeates the solution buying experience?

We live in an amazing time. Anybody with a smartphone and an internet connection has the opportunity to create content and establish their own power and influence in this world. Those who create content consistently, and with insight, become trusted, valued, and even sought-after experts. At the same time, company messaging may seem distant, disconnected, and suspicious. The power in our world has flipped.

Research uniformly points to “user-generated” content as the most trusted source of information today, even higher than the network news. People probably trust a review from a stranger more than your company’s advertising! So it makes great business sense to develop influence marketing as a mainstream channel. It’s hard to ignore what’s happening.

The other reality is that our access to “eyeballs” through traditional advertising channels is declining as newspapers, radio, magazines, etc try to find their way. We need to find new ways to connect with our relevant audience and that explains the explosive growth in influencer marketing.

It seems there’s been a fundamental change in the relationship between brands, marketers, and influencers—it’s more of an authentic two-way street now. What brought this change?

This is true. We still have a long way to go on this—I still get blindly “pitched” by companies every day—but the most sophisticated organizations now regard influencers on the same level as the business press or analyst relations. In fact, one expert I interviewed suggested we stop calling it influencer marketing and prefers influencer relations.

I like that term too because you can’t expect these people to “sell” for you. They are not going to risk the trust they have with their audience by becoming a short-term spokesperson. Yet, it is certainly possible to attain true organic advocacy from a respected influencer by developing a consistent relationship over time. I think that is what companies are finally beginning to learn and activate.

Are influencers consumers who’ve gained traction? Or are they inherently a different kind of beast–like a critic in the analog days of TV/Radio?

In my book “Return On Influence” I characterize this new genre as “citizen influencers.” Every influencer is a consumer, maybe more accurately, a hyper-consumer! The difference today compared to the TV critic analogy you mention is that to become influential today, we don’t have to wait to be “picked” by a television network. We can pick ourselves. We can publish our own content and views and earn an audience through honest assessment.

The other difference is that at some level a TV critic has to be political and sensitive to advertisers and bosses. I think the opinions expressed today by influencers may be more authentic, less sensational, and more data-based than what we had in those days!

Who is leading this charge–consumers or companies?

Definitely consumers. Consumers have seen this opportunity to express themselves and even grow powerful on the web, and they have grabbed it. Companies still want to control their people and their messaging like they did in the advertising days.

Personally, I think an important part of the future of corporate branding will be a shift in this dynamic. Companies should look at the cumulative personal branding of their employees—who have the potential to become trusted influencers in their own right—as an incredibly important asset. The focus will be training employees to be effective and trusted influencers as part of an overall branding strategy. There are wonderfully talented experts at every company. Why not share that with the world?


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