B2B influencer marketing is a rising trend—but why? When I think about influencer marketing, I immediately recall beauty bloggers sharing reviews on the latest shampoos or athletes endorsing sports equipment. With showstopping ROI results like the MediaPost report of $6.50 returns for every dollar invested, it’s easy to see why brands have jumped on board. But influencer marketing has gone beyond the B2C world and is now changing the way B2B marketers reach their audiences. What does a B2B marketer need to know about leveraging professionals for original thought leadership, expanding their reach, and using strategic content development to help get real results for their brand?
IDG Enterprise defines influencer marketing as “the practice of engaging internal and industry experts/influencers with active networks to help achieve measurable business goals,” and adds that “these influencers can help promote your content with added authority.”
Typically, influencers bring several benefits to the table:
In order to understand how B2B brands are putting influencer marketing programs to work, I chatted with Skyword editor Jacob Roundy, whose work helps shape one of my favorite digital IT pubs, Tektonika, from Hewlett Packard. HP is helping IT decision makers face the fact that “IT is a shifting landscape,” and cautioning them to “know the terrain.” A range of contributors, from Fast Company reporter Stephanie Vozza to data analytics expert Jasmine W. Gordon, pen pieces that are always insightful, often funny, and consistently united by an underlying focus on staying ahead of the trends.
In many ways, people’s familiarity with and reliance on B2C influencers has shaped the way that we consume information and get input on potential purchases. “In the B2C space, influencers typically rely on two factors: empathy and comprehensiveness. Think about it: If you’re interested in a product, where’s the first place you go? For me, it’s the internet—I’ll go to Amazon and start sorting through reviews to find customer photos and detailed experiences with the product from start to finish. In today’s world, we’re used to seeing product advertisements, and we know better than to trust them, so we seek others who have already taken the leap and tested the product,” says Jake.
In many ways, influencers have paved a path that we’re thinking about walking—and we can rely on their feedback and expertise to prevent major mistakes. “We want to learn from their mistakes to either follow in their footsteps or avoid that path entirely (based on a positive or negative experience). The influencers I respect the most tend to be individuals who have a deep background with the product area and won’t hold back in their review or overall opinion. If they’re standing behind a product, I know I can trust them,” notes Jake.
B2B buyers are individuals first and businesses second. Their expectations have been shaped by their experiences with influencers in their private lives—from Amazon reviews to Instagram posts—and they want the same convenience in their work life. Brands are finding ways to bring that insider perspective and non-interrupt advertising to the table in business-to-business conversations.
Image attribution: Vladimir Kudinov
The stakes are often higher in business purchases than in your personal life, and brands that leverage influencers in a creative way are more likely to get results. As Jake observes, “In the B2B space, there’s even less tolerance for false promises. As a consumer, you may be more willing to experiment and take a risk on a product, but as a business or employee, you don’t have that same type of wiggle room—and you may be dealing with a sense of urgency to fix a serious problem. You make a wrong move, and that’s money (and potentially productivity) down the drain for the entire business.”
In many ways, today’s decision makers are looking for the same general qualities in their business-focused influencers—but they’re also seeking a deeper level of expertise. “B2B customers are interested in solving problems they encounter every day, and so, they’re going to turn to and trust legitimate experts in their industry’s space. These influencers must know what it’s like to fight in the trenches and be able to deeply describe the practicality a solution offers to influence their audience. The best influencers will cut through the crap and get straight to the point, without dawdling,” Jake notes.
Hewlett Packard has a strong history of developing innovative content. Their approach with Tektonika puts compelling technology and IT influencers front and center.
“Tektonika is a perfect example of strong B2B influencer marketing at work. The Tektonika audience is filled with IT decision-makers—people who are deeply familiar with tech and have experienced what it’s like to work with an IT team. With this experience tucked away in their back pocket, they’re always on the lookout for practical solutions that will help their team work better, smarter, and faster—and these goals can extend across their business’s entire workforce,” says Jake.
Understanding the audience—what they need and want—helps frame the types of voices they seek out for the site. “They want to enable productivity for everyone. And so, they’re looking to experts in the field to guide them on the correct path forward, which isn’t easy in a tech environment, as technology advances at a shockingly fast pace. One misstep, and your business will get left in the dust.”
However, it’s not enough to simply be a trusted voice in the space. It’s important to develop a unique positioning that creates a platform to move the conversation forward. For HP and Tektonika, that’s been through futurecasting what’s coming next in the industry. “Tektonika tries to keep one eye on what’s coming around the corner tomorrow (the latest in tech trends and disruptive tech) and the other on what’s happening today. Tektonika relies on influencers to provide accurate and comprehensive advice about solutions that can actually solve problems this audience faces on a daily basis,” says Jake.
At the same time, it’s critical that examples and advice come from real boots-on-the-ground experience supported by authentic voice and industry relevant references. Jake explains, “For instance, IT security experts (people who have seen the worst of hacking attempts, weak links, and more) offer invaluable information about how to lock down your environment and keep the business fully protected. Beyond that, we need their spice to keep readers interested—an influencer will make a crack about employee security awareness, which is a low-key way to show the audience they’ve really been there and done that, almost like an inside joke to create empathy.”
Image attribution: Bethany Legg
One of the most important questions B2B brands must answer is how to find their influencers. For HP, it’s a strict vetting process that focuses on ensuring contributors have the right expertise and tone for the audience.
As an editor, Jake shares an inside perspective on what the company is looking for. “First and foremost, Tektonika needs experts in the B2B tech space. Each and every contributor has shown their expertise with tech in a business environment—they can talk about the technical details without skipping a beat. On top of that, they need to have a sense of humor that speaks to the audience’s lifestyle. This will prove they’ve been there, done that, and allow them to separate the wheat from the chaff.” He notes however, that baseline expertise is just the beginning. It’s the more unique perspective and thought leadership ability that really help contributors stand out.
“But the most important aspect—and this is what separates Tektonika’s influencers from the average tech writer—is a contributor’s ability to predict what’s coming down the pipeline next. What new tech will actually disrupt an industry? What should businesses pay attention to and what should they ignore? This ability relies on a combination of their B2B tech backgrounds and pure thought leadership—and this is what drives engagement and keeps readers coming back for more.”
For those ready to take the plunge, there are several things to consider when crafting your strategy.
“If you’re interested in diving into B2B influencer marketing, take the time to sketch out your audience and objectives. If you’re not sure who you’re trying to reach, you won’t pick the proper influencers, because 90 percent of the time, an influencer overlaps with the audience. An influencer should know what it’s like to be in their audience’s shoes, because they’re leading them to the next step on their path,” Jake explains. In B2B programs, it’s important that your contributors feel fully aligned and credible to your audience. IT managers want to hear from people who have managed teams and servers; procurement experts want writers who can speak to the unique quirks of that industry.
“If you’re really unsure about who your audience is, don’t be afraid to experiment. Cast a wide net, pull it in to study your readership or viewership, and then cast a smaller, more specific net. You’ll get there eventually, but it will take time. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes!”
“My last piece of advice is avoid investing in celebrities or influencers with the largest social media followings. You need your marketing to be accurate and targeted. Focus on quality. Prove to your audience that you know what they’re struggling with and how to help them fix it, and they will keep coming back for more,” Jake notes. In other words, an influencer with a mid-level reach whose voice and insights are on point for your audience is much more valuable than someone with a large following and a generic perspective.
In the B2B space, one of the most valuable things that outside voices can bring to the table for your brand is thought leadership. Cultivate internal voices, but use influencers to demonstrate the quality of your thinking and how that drives the industry. Coupled with increased visibility, this can help put B2B brands in a position to win.
Tektonika is one fantastic example of B2B influencer marketing; as a recent Entrepreneur piece noted, there are numerous other models. IBM invests in employee advocacy programs. Others focus on social media marketing, podcasts, blogs, and more. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find the best way to get B2B thinkers to lend weight and credibility to your brand.
For B2B brands, the way that we connect with customers is shifting; outside voices are becoming a more important part of the content strategy. Diverse contributors can help shape a more compelling brand narrative and create content that more closely aligns with your audience. A successful B2B influencer campaign will only take shape when you really understand what your audience needs and find contributors that speak to that demographic. Most crucially, you have to be willing to take risks with content and use data analytics to develop smart feedback loops and figure out what really works. It’s early days for B2B influencer marketing, and brands that invest in the area stand to profit significantly over time.
Featured image attribution: Adam Przewoski