Influencers are people who influence the decisions of others. It sounds simple—but in marketing, the term has taken on a very specific meaning. Here’s the dictionary definition: 

influencer, n., a person with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service by promoting or recommending the items on social media.

We have talked in the past about the difference between influencers and thought leaders. In particular, we suggested that influencers are generally external content-creators who may be prepared to collaborate for mutual benefit. However, thought leaders are more likely to be internal experts who generate content that directly supports their employers by answering questions and addressing problems that affect customers. 

Perhaps the more interesting question is what is the role of influencers in the reputation landscape? In other words, how can brands work with influencers to improve their reputation? 

A brief look at influencer marketing

At present, most reputation-boosting influencer collaborations tend to be with B2C companies. They are designed to appeal directly to end-users. For example, basketball star LeBron James has a long-time collaboration with Nike that has been credited with significantly improving Nike’s brand image. Selena Gomez’s work as the face of Coach, a luxury fashion brand, was credited as important in the brand’s turnaround. 

In these examples, the brands piggybacked on an influencer’s reputation to build their own. The two main benefits from influencer marketing are endorsement and what is known as ‘social proof’. Endorsements are fairly straightforward: the influencer endorses the brand or product to their followers, and it increases the brand’s visibility (and hopefully sales). Social proof is the idea that we trust other people, including influencers, more than we trust brands. Someone else’s endorsement is therefore a stronger persuader than, say, an advertisement. 

However, influencer marketing can also backfire. YouTube influencer PewDiePie had a long-running and successful collaboration with Disney subsidiary Maker. However, after he uploaded a video containing antisemitic content, Maker dropped him. It is not clear whether the collaboration damaged Maker, but the company was clearly not prepared to take the chance. Association with a problematic figure can be an issue for reputation. 

Influencers in B2B marketing

If most of the main examples of successful influencer marketing are in the B2C world, should B2B companies bother? Some may of course choose not to do so, but it seems likely that influencer marketing could be a powerful tool for B2B too—provided it is done carefully and strategically. However, the activities required, and the likely influencers, will be very different. 

The lessons from B2C suggest that there are several points to bear in mind:

  1. Choose your influencer carefully

The first, and most obvious, is to choose the right influencer. You want someone who is influential with your target customers—which means being absolutely clear about your target market. You also want someone who shares your company values and ethics. This is not going to be a case of scouring YouTube. Instead, you may need more heavyweight influencers such as journalists, broadcasters, or key external thought leaders in the right field. 

  1. Manage the collaboration effectively

The second aspect is to manage the collaboration to provide what you need. In any collaboration, there must be creative space for your influencer, but you need to get the right outcomes too. B2B influencer marketing is likely to need a different kind of collaboration: it will probably be less fun, and more business-focused. It is also much less likely to be about endorsements and more about audience and credibility. For example, you might choose to engage an influential journalist to co-host a podcast or video series exploring a particular topic with one of your own home-grown experts. This could add credibility to your podcast, and also give your expert more exposure to a wider audience. 

  1. Be open and transparent about the relationship

Finally, it is important to be transparent about the relationship with your influencer. If they endorse you in some way via social media (for example, highlighting a joint podcast or video) it is important that they are clear that it was funded by the company, and that the endorsement is not independent. 

Finding the right place

There is definitely a place for influencer marketing in B2B. However, you need to bear in mind that it won’t look quite the same as in B2C. Find the sweet spot, and you could gain significantly. Pick the wrong influencer, or the wrong collaborative effort, and you probably won’t see the benefits.