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Social Media Influence: What Is It Really? (And Why Care?)

by Verónica Jarski  |  
October 4, 2012

The B2B Forum starts today! As a sneak peek at today's B2B goodness, I interviewed Alan Belniak, one of the presenters at the B2B Forum, about social media influence. (Here are the details and agenda of the B2B presentations. 

Belniak, global director of social media at PTC, and Paul Gillin, a B2B social marketing strategist, will be discussing social media influence at the B2B Forum in Boston. Their session is at 9 a.m. on Oct. 4.

MarketingProfs: What’s the best description of social media influence?
Alan Belniak: Influence in general, I think, is the mystical force that can compel or cause someone to do or not do something they might not otherwise would have done and specifically at your request. Take, for example, a typical consumer purchase of a TV. There are lots of options for information, including technical specifications from the manufacturer, online reviews from trustworthy (and not-so-trustworthy sites), personal recommendations, actual word of mouth… Much of this goes into a purchase decision. Ultimately, there is one thing that activates the decision. That is influence.

Translating that to the social media world, it’s not that much different, except that a consumer (our TV friend here, or your typical B2B working professional) is likely bombarded with a lot more information. But in much the same way, she ultimately makes a decision after taking in lots of information. One or two sources were more compelling than others. Ergo, the author or authors of those sources are the modern-day, social/digital media influencers.

MarketingProfs: Why does social media influence matter?
AB: Aside from TV technical specifications, many buyers are not going to a vendor or company website first to learn more. Sure, in some cases, but I don’t think that’s the norm. In fact, they are probably searching on their business problem or malady, and looking at page one of the search results. A specific company might rank highly in those pages, but I think many others go to other sites to learn more before going to a vendor site. What does this mean? It means that as good as you are at telling your story, you really need the story to be so good that others tell it for you and tell it the way you want them to. That’s a very challenging task since anyone can pretty much say anything on the web. If you can get a prospect to understand truly what you do, what you fix, how you fix it, and why you are a good choice before they ever land on your site, then you’ve done a good job at having the "influencers" tell your story for you, in a much more believable way.

MarketingProfs: What is the biggest criticism that you’ve heard about social media influence… and how do you answer that criticism?
AB: One of my significant criticisms as it relates to "social media influence" is that it can be measured tritely with a single integer, between 0 and 100. The thing is, these online measures are one of many ways to help understand someone’s online influence. But they are not the only way. In fact, many of these tools are dependent on which networks one willingly connects into them to "let" them determine one’s online influence. If one purposely omits a network, then it shows that the system can be gamed. I think these tools and measures serve a purpose, but they should be part of a holistic review, and not be used singly.

MarketingProfs: What’s one of your favorite examples of social media influence and what can come from it?
AB: Here are two.

The first is probably more well-known---United Breaks Guitars. If you are unfamiliar, you can read more about it via the United Breaks Guitars Wikipedia entry. In a nutshell, musician Dave Carroll was flying on United Airlines. He claimed his expensive guitar was mishandled and ultimately damaged. He registered a complaint with United Airlines, and it fell on deaf ears. After many exchanges later, Dave ended up recording a song about it called "United Breaks Guitars."  The song was posted onto the social web and garnered lots of views and shares (essentially going viral). This finally got United Airlines’ attention, but not after a fair amount of PR damage. The take-away here is that if you’ve got a good message and a platform (he is a creative person by nature, and he uses music as his platform), then a brand (United Airlines, in this case) needs to consider this as a new influencer in this day and age.

The second is an approach I like that I followed a little while ago. In August 2011, Windows launched a new smartphone, right in the middle of the iPhone/Android frenzy. Windows needed to get on the minds of those in tech to establish itself as a viable contender. So, it identified a few online influencers . One of them was Molly Wood, a then-CNET Buzz Out Loud co-host. Buzz Out Loud at the time was a daily podcast geared to a digitally- and socially-savvy technical crowd. A Microsoft representative contacted Molly Wood and issued her a Windows 7 Phone Challenge: Try out the Windows Phone 7 for two weeks; if you don’t agree that it rivals (or beats) your iPhone experience, then Microsoft would donate $1,000 to a charity of Molly’s choice.

What I liked about this approach is that they found someone who wields a fair amount of influence with a digital and technical crowd (the ideal customer for early Windows 7 Phone adopters), and someone who has an established platform already. In addition, Molly is a frequent and prolific writer, so Microsoft could almost guarantee that she’d blog/share about it---precisely what they were seeking.

MarketingProfs: Thanks so much for your insight into social media influence, Alan!

Want to learn more about social media influence? Find out how it works in the world of B2B marketing by attending our B2B Forum in Boston today!

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Veronica Jarski is the Opinions editor and a senior writer at MarketingProfs. She can be reached at

Twitter: @Veronica_Jarski

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