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The brave new – but not so new – world of B2B influencer marketing

In the B2B space influencer power means harnessing expertise and building relationships

Tom Stein, Stein IAS and MSQ B2B

Chairman and Chief Growth Officer

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We get caught up in terminology a lot in the world of B2B marketing. There’s always a new buzzword to embrace. There is always a shiny new object to attract us.

It struck me that this is yet again the case when it comes to B2B influencer marketing. My first instinct was that it’s not really ‘a thing’ in B2B. That there’s not a huge amount of appetite for the somewhat superficial world of sneaking brand mentions into a TikTokers’ monologue. In the 49 years that Stein IAS has been going, we’ve not once paid a Kardashian to do anything.   

Influencer marketing is the meat and potatoes of B2B content marketing

Tom Stein, Chairman and Chief Growth Officer of Stein IAS and Chairman of MSQ B2B

But then I thought again about what influencer marketing really means. And of course, it’s something we’ve been doing for years. B2B marketing seeks to leverage influencers all the time. We’ve just called them SMEs – Subject Matter Experts – or ‘Key Opinion Leaders’.

Thinking harder, influencer marketing is the meat and potatoes of B2B content marketing. You seek to include the thinking of individuals who are expert and recognised in a given realm to lend credibility and reach to your key narratives.

Often, these influencers may come from a brand’s customer base. They may be analysts or academics. If you’re running a conference that your customer base is attending, the playbook is to secure very well-known keynote speakers who are aligned with your value proposition. They may want to be paid for the privilege. They may simply want to be on stage to build their own brands. But for sure, they are influencers.

These people are respected – others want to come out and hear them. They’ll provide a halo for what you’re trying to achieve. Their content will be shared widely. It’s influencer marketing – embracing people who endorse your point of view in a manner that’s contextual to your offering.

All that being said, there are some fundamental differences between B2B and B2C in this area that goes way beyond the terminology used to describe it.

Value always beats volume

Perhaps one of the biggest distinctions comes down to the size of a market we’re generally pursuing in B2B. We’re often working in highly specific sectors, targeting finite audiences of decision makers and breakers. We’re seeking to build deeper relationships with these defined customer sets, rather than appealing to the masses. Or decision processes are longer. They’re very high stakes. In these regards, “influence” is very different than it would be for, say, a consumer fashion brand.

In B2B, you’d almost always would rather 5,000 relevant, highly engaged followers than 100,000 or 1 million random fans. It’s not about volume, it’s about value. And while I’m not at all saying B2C marketers don’t care about value, the fact is that you won’t have, for instance, insurance technology influencers who have massive ‘celebrity-level’ followings. But those people will be hugely relevant and more effective to your marketing strategy.

‘Bullshitometers’ are highly attuned

Scope of influence aside, I think the overarching concept of ‘influencers for sale’ feels destructive in a B2B setting. Overtly teeing someone up to sell your product feels superficial at the best of times, but in B2B, customers have a heightened awareness of potential bias and ‘Pay to play”.

People are very sensitive to being gamed in this world. We’re talking about people who are making high stakes decisions – whether they’re small businesses or large enterprises – and they’re accountable for those decisions to board members, investors and the chain of command. They need to be sure there’s substance and real validation in their choices. If a source of influence has even the hint of an “agenda,” it’s harder to show necessary credibility.

Conversely, in the B2C world, I’d go as so far to argue that consumers want to be influenced. They want to be part of a movement, to be involved in something that others are following. Dynamics like FOMO can have sway in B2B, but not nearly the same extent.

A more balanced power dynamic

When bullshit meters are so finely tuned, trust becomes the clear differentiator. The value exchange between brand and ‘influencer’ – and the influencer and the brands’ audience -- needs to be appropriate and acceptable.

That’s why the mechanism of influencer marketing for B2B agencies (and our clients) may feel a little different. It requires convening power. As an agency, you must have the ability to connect with people who could be influential to your clients’ objectives and form ongoing relationships that result in deep engagement and absolute credibility.

You need to make a concerted effort to build peer-to-peer dialogue with those who live at the top of an organisation or industry tree. That’s where the power of relationships and influencer exchange really happens. It may be far less transactional than in a B2C environment and the terminology may be different, but agencies like ours have been doing it and thriving in this space for years. So long as we avoid the growing superficial side of influencer marketing, the more successful we’ll continue to be.

Guest Author

Tom Stein, Stein IAS and MSQ B2B

Chairman and Chief Growth Officer

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Tom Stein is the Chairman and Chief Growth Officer of Stein IAS and Chairman of MSQ B2B

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