Monday, January 25, 2010

Dynamics of Influencers

One of the most important uses of social media in a B2B environment is to build and maintain relationships with influencers in your space. There is much agreement with that, but there is also the sense that this is somehow new within the world of social media.

An Old Challenge

Managing influencers, however, has long been a part of the role of marketing – analyst relations and public relations have long had this as their main goal. By carefully managing and cultivating good relationships with influencers such as analysts, journalists, and editors, you would find your perspectives known and understood by the writers, you would be included in mentions, and you might even find a slightly more positive perspective on your company than without such a strong relationship.

Influencers in a Social Media World

In today’s world, this core dynamic is still there. Good relationships with influencers can lead to being present in mentions, having perspective understood and appreciated, and having a slightly more positive bias. However, while the core dynamic remains, the approach that we need to use to manage influencers has changed significantly.

More But Smaller

The first major change is that the influencers have changed in number and in size. Whereas historically, there may have been a few analysts worth focusing on, and a similar number of publications, there are now many, many more blogs, lifestreams, content sites, and magazines (let’s call them all "publications" just to keep things simple). This is brought about by the fact that the cost of infrastructure needed to publish information has gone down to nearly zero. This explosion in the number of publications is matched by a corresponding decrease in their individual size. Many only have a few thousand viewers, or focus on a highly specialized niche that would have been unprofitable for a major news outlet.

Changing Relationships

With this change in size comes a change in how relationships are maintained. Major news and publishing outlets forced structure on the process in order to keep things under control. This led to formal briefing processes, embargoed news releases, and the use of news wires for the release of news. Now, with an explosion of publishers, each of whom influence a niche area of the market, this process is not necessarily as formal – it is a much more social process of relationship building.

However, these new publishers – bloggers, independent writers, and niche experts – do not want to follow the formalized briefing processes of yesterday. What they want are the direct relationships with the key people of relevance to their area of interest or writing. These are often the subject matter experts who truly understand the content that is relevant to the topic at hand.

To build and maintain these relationships, the same rigor we applied to building and maintaining relationships with analysts and journalists over the past few decades, but with two new twists:

- the relationships must be maintained in larger numbers

- they must be maintained by many key people on your team, executives, subject matter experts, and thought leaders, rather than just the PR group

Easier Relationships

Making this easier, however, is the fact that the dynamics of these relationships are changing quite a bit. As Chris Brogan and Julien Smith discuss in Trust Agents (link is to Kathleen Schaub's discussion on this specific topic), the technologies of social media make it easier to maintain relationships with “half strangers” – and in doing so it is easier to maintain a larger number of relationships.

These relationships can be maintained through much more scalable interactions – interacting on Twitter, good conversations on blogs, discussions on LinkedIn, and various other forms. Many relationships are developed this way while only meeting face-to-face once or even not at all.

New People, New Influence

This change, while seeming small, fundamentally changes the dynamics of how we as B2B organizations manage how we influence the influencers in our spaces. The number of influencers has increased dramatically, while their relative size and the formality of their briefing processes had decreased a comparable amount. At the same time, the people they are interested in having a relationship with are the subject matter experts in our organizations. This is the reason why it is critical to have more people in your organization “join the conversation” – each of them maintains a number of relationships with a few key influencers, and in doing so, broadens your influence in the overall market.
Many of the topics on this blog are discussed in more detail in my book Digital Body Language
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