If you’re in a marketing or public relations function, unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few years, you’ve seen the explosion of social scoring and influence marketing discussions and debates online.
If you’re a business that relies on consumers for revenue, Influence Marketing (the practice of identifying how consumers make purchase decisions and effecting those decisions through specific marketing programs) has become a necessary part of your lead generation and sales efforts.
A few years ago, influence in social media marketing became a hot buzz word with the introduction of highly criticized social scoring platforms. As our understanding of social influence and the technologies required to manage it evolved, so have the software and businesses that purport to manage this marketing practice.
Klout is no longer the center of attention for influence marketing strategies; new services such as Traackr and Appinions have become dominant players in the industry because their end game isn’t to manufacture influencers through social scoring schemes but to identify what truly drives specific consumer actions and sentiment across social channels, information that is central to effective influence marketing efforts.
The popularity of influence marketing is expanding across industries too. Once the domain of B2C companies, influence marketing is quickly being adopted by B2B firms.
SAP’s Chief Marketing Officer, Jonathan Becher, reiterates the importance of digital influence as “a significant mechanism to identify and engage potential customers for his business.” Specifically, SAP is looking at the potential to shorten the B2B sales cycle using influence marketing strategies because individuals exchanging experiences across social media has essentially redistributed “purchasing influence.”
It’s less about amplification of brand messages and more about identifying decision-makers in the purchase cycle in order to prep them for the sales call.
Growth of Influencer Factories
Admittedly, as the co-author of Influence Marketing: How to Create, Manage, and Measure Brand Influencers I’m pleased to see the growth and direction of this industry.
Danny Brown and I had a clear vision of influence marketing when researching and writing this book: popularity is not influence; message amplification does not necessarily equate to changes in purchase behaviors; and the success of any influence effort is ultimately measured in bottom line business results, not earned media and number of shares.
Without understanding the relationship between the online audiences discussing the product and the manner in which they make purchase decisions, you cannot effectively exert true influence across this or any channel.
To that end, social relationship management software such as Nimble and the new oneQube are evolving to identify and connect the nature of personal relationships with the content being discussed in social channels and the net effect of that social transaction on actual business transactions.
Essentially, they’re providing businesses the ability to connect social conversations with transactional and personal data found in typical CRM platforms. Be it through internal programming or partnerships with influence marketing software vendors, these two leaders are helping to usher in a new era of influence marketing based on relationships and results, not amplification and shares.
However, there’s one area of growth that could derail the positive strides being made if marketers are not careful and that’s the growth of “influencer factories.” Influencer factories are online communities or networks of bloggers who market themselves as influencers-for-hire. These networks are comprised of bloggers who have audiences of various sizes with general or niche appeal and will promote a product or service to that audience, for the right compensation.
Converting Blog Communities to Influencer Factories
Triberr, already a successful online community that allows like-minded bloggers to congregate in digital tribes around specific topics and share each other’s content in order to increase the reach of any one member, is now marketing that community of “mini-celebrities/bloggers” to companies that wish to hire brand ambassadors.
It’s a great channel for bloggers, and a great option for those seeking to monetize their blogging efforts, but does that qualify the bloggers as effective influencers of purchase decisions within a business’s prospect base?
TapInfluence, originally called BlogFrog, was an online blog network that allowed visitors to “jump from one blog to another” to explore their interests and discover new sites. Now with over 100,000 registered blogs, they’re converting the network to a pay-for-influence model.
The new business model is to offer brands the option to “scale their social presence, amplify online conversations, and generate buzz around their products by partnering with influential social media publishers.” Each are great blogging communities, but does that translate to real influence?
The New Players
Not all influencer factories are converted blog communities. New services are emerging such as InNetwork and the soon to be launched Raynforest. InNetwork is a new, hand-picked influencer network specifically designed for marketers. InNetwork bloggers are vetted through a human algorithm, an ongoing process of researching, qualifying and scoring influencers by an in-house team.
Marketers can search and find influencers based on their audience’s demographic and psychographic data and then use InNetwork’s campaign management tools to brief the selected bloggers and negotiate terms.
My Warning: Bloggers are not Influencers.
Well, not all bloggers are influencers. All blogger are amplifiers to one degree or another, but as we know, the ability to broadcast a message doesn’t automatically make someone an influencer. I’m not suggesting that marketers should ignore these influencer factories, only to be wary of the name and promises made.
Know that influence marketing is a comprehensive marketing strategy that requires an understanding of how customers make decisions and what situational factors are affecting those decisions today, predicting them into the future, and, based on that information, identifying micro-influencers at each stage of the purchase lifecycle.
If your goal is to have your message spread far and wide, pick the influencer factory you prefer and run with it. However, if the goal of your campaign is to measurably sway purchase decisions, it’s important to understand who exactly the blogger’s audience is and the nature of the relationship he or she has with specific groups of people within that audience. Similarly, if measurable sales impact is your goal, you will want to ask for an audience analysis of the blogger’s community before you hire him/her.
For example, InNetwork provides “verified data” regarding the audience of the bloggers in their network including information such as gender, location, specific interests within engagements, etc. It’s a service based on aggregating Big Data in a way that makes sense to the brand marketer and the unique goals of each campaign. InNetwork doesn’t provide you a network of bloggers, it provides you a segmented audience of potential customers that those bloggers are connected to. The end-audience data and the integrity of that data are critical to the InNetwork platform. Further, the firm provides a manual vetting process for the bloggers selected to ensure that each is truly qualified.
Bloggers can be extremely valuable players for businesses seeking to create awareness and buzz around a product. Yet, hiring bloggers within online influence factories might fail to generate a measurable effect if they don’t provide the necessary vetting and end-audience data required for true influence marketing campaigns.
Should you avoid these factories? No. However, you should be clear about your goals. Are you seeking brand amplification or are you seeking to sway purchase decisions? Once you’ve answered that question, you’ll know how to better vet these services.
Sensei Debates: Are influencer factories truly networks of influencers and advocates or just writers with the ability to share a message to a mass audience? Should we qualify what is – and isn’t – a social influencer? Should such businesses distinguish between amplification and influence? Does it matter to you? Share your thoughts – pro or con – in the comments below.
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego
Image Credit Kheel Center, via Creative Commons