Say the word "influencer" among any social media or marketing crowd, and you're sure to generate a full range of fiercely passionate opinions. Though it may be the topic du jour, influence marketing is hardly a new concept. For decades, marketers have sought to identify and engage the opinion leaders, influencers, and voices who have the ear of their markets. However, in today's social landscape, the role of the influencer has become more important than ever in shaping widespread public impressions and consumer actions.

The Rise of Influencers

Let's rewind to the early days of the Web. Online branding was a relatively simple endeavor. Brands built a website and devised various strategies (from search engine optimization to banner ads) to bring visitors to their sites and marketing materials. Through it all, the brand controlled the experience. The company managed the message. Business leaders determined what was revealed or concealed about their products, company, and customers.

Fast-forward to today. The company website is not the sole source of information—far from it. More than half a billion people are using social networks worldwide. And they're discussing anything and everything from restaurants and cooking tools to "Dancing With the Stars," broadband service, business intelligence software, and Six Sigma certification.

The conversations are not new, but the discussions once limited to a handful of people around the dinner table or watercooler have been unleashed on a global scale. It's happening now on Facebook, Twitter, wikis, and thousands of niche networks. People look to their social graphs—to trusted bloggers and online communities—and they search for topics on Google, Bing, or Twitter based on the issues they're trying to resolve or the information they're trying to find.

As a result, no longer is there one main conduit into the brand experience. Connected consumers don't necessarily visit a brand's homepage or marketing materials for information on buying decisions, technical support, etc. And no longer is there a small group of select A-list reporters responsible for bringing content to audiences.

In this conversation-fueled world, reputation matters. But what counts is not what the brand says about itself, but what others say about the brand. That shift has given voices on the social Web unprecedented influence in shaping perceptions, raising awareness, and driving actions.

A Three-Step Process

So what does all that mean for today's marketer? For starters, the life of the marketing professional isn't as predictable as it once was. You no longer maintain cozy relationships with a handful of A-list members of the media, plan out activities based on a yearly editorial calendar, and hold your contacts in a single Rolodex.

Important conversations are taking place far outside the corporate domain, so it's critical to know where those conversations are taking place, understand which ones are the most important to your brand and industry, and then determine how you're going to engage. It boils down to a three-step process.

1. Listen to your market

The first stage entails listening across the entire Web of social networks, blogs, and online articles to discover who is talking about your company, products, brand, people, and competitors. What are the most influential voices saying?

2. Identify the most important voices (the influencers)

Given the sheer scope of conversations and content today, it's simply not feasible to engage with everyone. Nor is it necessary. Look at the pool of people talking about your brand or market, and determine which ones are the most influential—meaning, which ones are most likely able to spread your message and drive desired outcomes throughout your market.

You can determine that by calculating a variety of factors, including number of readers/followers, frequency of writing, number and frequency of references, interviews, links, and citations, among others.

Those who rank highest are the important voices that others in the market are listening to, learning from, and taking action because of. And their influence is far greater in magnitude than anything you are authoring (your website, press releases, data slicks, and other marketing output).

3. Engage

After narrowing your target list to a manageable number, you can begin the meaningful work—the work that can't be done by technology. That includes building creative outreach campaigns and engaging with each influencer on a personal level.

Armed with a well-honed target list of influencers, you can now dig through each writer's previous work to learn about his or her particular interests and angles, and determine where your news or product fits in.

* * *

Throughout the entire process, remember that those influential voices matter... a lot. Marketing professionals and executives need to understand that those voices are having a tremendous impact on how customers, shareholders, employees, and other audiences make decisions.

Influence is growing outside the confines of the company walls. It's up to you to know where your audiences are, who they're listening to, and what they're saying.

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Gary Lee is the CEO of mBLAST, which provides cloud-based solutions to help PR and marketing professionals better identify and engage with their key influencers.