[GUEST POST] How should AR pros use online channels to increase influence on their target prospects?

This is the third and final post in a series of thought pieces on the role of online channels in influence. The first two articles are here and here. [For more discussion on the role and nature of influence see my blog, Infuse.]

There’s little doubt that online channels are important. I don’t believe that they are the whole story in measuring influence, but they are essential in reaching influencers.

There are two primary uses of online channels in an influencer relations programme:

  1. Tracking what influencers do: online media don’t help identify influencers (I assert), but they are useful in post-identification analysis. What are influencers blogging on, are they Twittering, what webcasts and podcasts are they involved in, and so on. You can use online tools to track what influencers are doing and saying, even what they’re saying about you.
  2. Engaging with influencers. If influencers are blogging and Tweeting, then that’s where you need to be too. If they’re on Facebook and LinkedIn then connect to them there. Comment on their blogs, request guest blog posts, follow them on Twitter. Be where they are.

Of course, if influencers are not online, then there’s no point in you trying to find them and interact with them there. Some influencers eschew online channels for communication, because of the time it diverts from other activities. (Seth Godin claims that he’d lose 6 hours per day if he Tweeted.)

I know some markets (web development, for example) where 100% of the influencer community blogs and uses discussion forums. I also know of tech markets where nearly 0% of influencers use online channels: they live in a face-to-face world. Most tech markets, but not all, have a spread of online- and offline-oriented influencers (and many influencers, of course, are both).

Make sure you know where your influencers are.

[GUEST POST] Measuring online influence

This second post on online influence looks at how one might measure influence using online metrics. It follows on from last week’s post which posed a lot of questions, but few answers. Fair cop.

But first, I think there are a couple of principles of influence to consider:

1. People buy people. Therefore influence measures need to identify individuals. It’s not sufficient to conclude that Gartner (for example) is influential – duh. Vendors need to know (a) who within Gartner is influential, (b) what’s their influence relative to other analyst influencers, and (c) what’s their influence relative to other non-analyst influencers. Influence isn’t distributed equally, either within organisations or throughout the market.

2. Influence is multi-dimensional. Some influencers are subject gurus, some command statutory authority, some are thought leaders and idea planters, some structure the financial elements of procurement, and so on. It’s important to understand why someone is influential, as much as the fact that they are influential.

So. Let’s look at some of the ways influence claims to be measured online:

- Citations – this measures the number of times a source refers back to an originating source. Google PageRank works this way: it rates pages highly if other people link back to it. It’s also how academic research works: a recent paper will refer to previous papers, and the more references a paper gets the more influential it is considered to be. Its strength is its weakness – it will persist in referring back to previously cited sources, even if they become superceded. It also build in something called the Matthew effect, where longevity is favoured over originality.

- Connections – how many outbound links a source has. LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter (following) and other social networks work this way. Count the connections to determine how well connected the person is. It’s also easy to fake, by link swaps, indiscriminate “friending” and so on.

- Subscriptions and readership – Technorati works this way, measuring the number of readers a blog has, and Twitter also publishes this information as followers.

- Noise – references to subjects and/or individual firms. Radian 6, Techrigy, and a bunch of other providers do this, measuring the number of times your firm is mentioned. Some also claim to measure the sentiment of the mention, usually using natural language processing tech.

All of these measures are indicators of online activity, and you can see the usefulness of them, as far as they go. They are, in my view, the equivalent of PR clippings services.

However, none of them measure whether the critical community, decision makers, are remotely influenced by online channels. It’s always necessary to ask: Influence on whom? Do any of these measures accurately assess the impact on real decision makers? In other words, do they measure the likely impact on behaviour of a buyer? Because if they don’t, if they measure a vague notion of industry activity or sentiment, then do they really reflect the ecosystem of influencers that impacts decisions?

More critically, can vendors construct marketing programmes around these measures to improve knowledge, lead generation and useful sales collateral? Because if they can’t, what are these measures useful for?

Tssk – more questions.That last one was rhetorical.

Next week’s post will probably pose more questions about how AR can use online channels to increase influence on their firms’ prospective customers.

[Guest Post] Have online channels changed the nature of influence?

Determining the impact of the growth in online channels such as social media is one of the things that taxes most of us. I’m forever seeing new ‘influencer tracker’ services pop up, and in the world of analyst relations there’s continual discussion on whether and how to engage in online options like blogs, podcasts and social networking.

In response to the explosion of online influencer tracker services – there are over 100 nowadays, and counting – Nick Hayes and I wrote a paper* on how we think they are misleading marketers. The paper led to an invitation to post on the IIAR blog, to hopefully spark some discussion – thanks for the invite, Ludovic.

This first post focuses on whether influence as a concept has changed with the use of online channels. The second will look at how influence can be measured using online metrics. And the third will discuss the implications of online channels for AR and Influencer Relations professionals.

There’s an important context to any debate on influence, online or otherwise. It is that ecosystems of influencers are highly fragmented these days. Most decision makers are influenced by the traditional journalists and analysts, but also by consultants, academics, regulators, financiers, sourcing advisors, procurement professionals and other specialists, as well as peer end users.

Much of the influence exerted by this group has been enabled, in large part, by online channels. This has been an ongoing process for a decade. The web and search engines make it easier for anyone to reach the market, and easier for buyers to find what they’re looking for. Blogs and podcasts increase the reach of anyone inclined to use them. Social media is just the next step in this evolution – there’s no social media revolution going on.

But social media has provided a new channel for those people with the potential to influence, making communication between those people frictionless.  To reach a group of like-minded adopters of a technology you used to have to organise a meeting in a mutually inconvenient location. Nowadays, you organise an unconference or participate in an online forum. It used to take months to organise an event, now it can take hours.

But has the nature of influence changed? Are decision makers influenced in different ways through online channels? You’d think so, given the hype, but as Nate Elliott at Forrester observed, “the huge majority of users influence each other face to face rather than through social online channels.”

It makes sense to understand the attributes of influence – the ability to discuss and persuade, knowledge and experience, willingness to express an opinion, the authority and gravitas with which to communicate that opinion, the opportunity to convey that opinion to the right audience at the right time. And so on.

Some of these attributes are facilitated by online channels, for sure. Others are removed from online impact completely. There’s no doubt that some of the smaller analyst firms, for example, are benefitting from their online presence, in terms of reaching their potential audience through blogging and other social media technologies. But these channels are not creating expertise or authority – simply the means to communicate them.

Can social media create a new kind of influence, by collative the collective wisdom of a connected crowd? After all, there is safety in numbers in doing what the crowd does. We used to have a version of that in the IT industry – no-one ever got fired for buying IBM. Imagine the power of that kind of statement, communicated instantly over the blogosphere. Or would it be immediately challenged and rejected by real users’ experience?

So, are analysts influencing via online channels? How is influence really conveyed by analysts to decision makers? Has it moved mainly to online or is it still by telephone enquiries and face-to-face advice?

*Free registration required, or email me at duncan.brown(at)influencer50.com. Barbara French also contributed to the paper.

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