As traditional advertising loses is glamor and agencies convince their clients that influencers are the way forward, companies face countless pitfalls in their attempt to target audiences in meaningful ways.

Influencers are a fickle bunch. You can never really know how valuable they are until you pay them; their reputation relies on word-of-mouth recommendations rather than hard evidence, and there are too many charlatans out there trying to raise their klout with fake followers and inflated likes and shares.

How Should B2B Businesses Engage With Influencers?

First of all, lets cut the crap. Most influencers aren’t influencers. It’s called endorsement if you get paid for it. At least the tax code says so. A famous “influencer” talking up a perfume or underwear brand in exchange for cash is nothing else but celebrity endorsement. End of story.

True influencer marketing is much more subtle. It happens often without payments changing hands. I blog about lots of technologies and companies without ever getting paid. I mention the companies and products I like, and I don’t endorse products I don’t believe in, no matter how much you pay me. I also focus on technologies and trends more than individual products.

These are the features of a good B2B marketer. B2B companies like Siemens, ABB, or GE, can do marketing by focusing on the solutions they provide, not the products they sell. This is true influencer marketing.

Around 3/4 of agencies rely on influencers in some way or another. This rapid rise of a centuries-old strategy, combined with the latest advances in technology, has lead to a push for automation in influencer marketing. Which is a total oxymoron at first glance, because influencers are meant to build meaningful relationships between real people. Bots have no place there.

Some companies have come up with innovative solutions to the problem of finding and nurturing influencers, in particular for small brands. Linqia, for example, connects people with a following between 10’000 and 250’000 with brands and agencies. Onalytica lets you find influencers for specific subjects and industry. Content creation, approval, and distribution are still done manually, so influencers’ posts retain their authenticity.

The Curse of Automation

Even though this is called automation, it is a subtle one. The “automation” is mostly about the analysis of posts, matching of brands and people, and optimizing content for future delivery. But combine that with MeetEdgar or Hootsuite and you’ve ruined a good idea.

Even when done right, many companies are reluctant to embrace this technology because they crave control over their influencer. Managers are paranoid about influencers taking a wrong step. By choosing a platform like Linqia, companies are relinquishing control to an AI system and the ethical standards of the platform. If an influencer falls out of line and tarnishes the brand, heads will role in the marketing department. With the strict hierarchies in more traditional companies, no CMO is willing to bet his reputation on some dodgy AI startup.

That timidity is of course misplaced. In today’s digital world, it doesn’t matter if once in a while an influencer does the wrong thing. Consumers have never been more forgiving. Even big cock-ups like Susan (Doyle’s) Album Party hashtag from 2011 are easily forgiven. They can even drive business.

But of course, conservative firms are shocked by the idea of misrepresentation and scandal. What’s more, they can’t abide the fact that influencers may have had or still work for competing clients. All these fears are misplaced; B2B companies should spend far more money on influencers than they are doing now. The top 20 influencers for the IoT / mobile / automation space reach a whopping 2 million people. Enough to build a solid client base and get news of your product out there.

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The Virtual Influencer

Which points to the probably ultimate solution for influencer marketing: the artificial influencer. The perfect avatar. Already agencies are experimenting with characters that don’t really exist. Photos are taken either from real people, free databases, or a good Photoshop session. (Note to young people: here’s a job opportunity. Sell your face as a marketing avatar!)

In such an artificial environment, content is entirely controlled by the brand or agency. As technology improves, we will see countless Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat accounts for people who do not really exist. Most consumers won’t mind because they won’t be able to tell the difference. Just as Hollywood wants never-aging artificial, cheap actors, marketers want avatars who never say a wrong word or tweet a picture of their genitals.

At the end of this road, you will be able to offer an online AI system a handful of keywords, brand guidelines, sample images and target audiences, and the AI will create the influencers from scratch from a flat fee.

Then brands will have total control of their influencers, and lost the last shred of authenticity altogether. Just what the doctor ordered.

How to Work with Influencers

For companies who take their influencer marketing seriously, in the meantime, there are a few tips on how to select the right one. I am not talking about celebrities endorsing cars or hair dye, I am talking about real B2B influencers; down-to-earth experts in their field that make Huawei, Siemens, and SAP the influential brands that they are.

Your first step is to select an influencer in a specific industry. Go to Onalytica and similar platforms to find them, or simply search on Twitter.

Secondly, check that the influencer is real. A person with 200K followers looks great at first glance, but if every tweet only has 1-2 likes, there is something wrong. They may have bought their followers, or have a following that doesn’t really engage with their message. A good influencer should have multiple tweets a week with 50-100 retweets and likes.

Check if the person is real. Look for images of them in public forums, speaking at conferences, and check their Twitter feed whether they have real conversations with followers and fellow influencers. Only then are they worth their money.

Check the influencer’s other social profiles. Regular posts on LinkedIn are a must, as are daily tweets about the subjects you care about. A good influencer is already working in the field you wish to target, they don’t just start once you contact them.

Influencers in the B2B space are most efficient when they show up at industry events. Send them a plane ticket and pay their hotel room at major conventions and exhibitions. Equip them with cameras, smartphones, microphones, and everything else they need to create vivid, live reports from your show booth – these are the most credible and effective testimonials for your product or service.

Finally, don’t scrimp on pay. A good influencer is worth the expenditure. Trying to negotiate the lowest possible rate means you will get the worst service amongst their current client base. An influencer will always work hardest for the brand that is willing to support them the most.

 

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