All people hunger for interpersonal contact. If they can't get it in person, they'll go to the next best thing—which, in the current pandemic, means social media.

Businesspeople, along with the general population, are using social media more than ever: 40% of the US is spending more time on social media than before the COVID-19 outbreak, according to the latest GlobalWebIndex data.

A shift has also occurred among influencers and their impact—including those in the B2B arena. At first, some influencers were mishandling their reactions to the pandemic, causing companies to reconsider whether it made sense to be working with them. Now that we're several months in, however, we're experiencing a kind of equalization in influencer activity, and we're learning how to integrate influencer marketing into a larger sales program.

In marketing, equalization now involves a more measured, safer, more creative and well-informed partnership with influencers that, in many ways, make more sense for the B2B community.

The Importance of Alignment

Working with influencers during this period actually makes a great deal of sense. Influencers build trust for a company, and that's even truer with B2B influencers, who, in many cases, have an advantage over their B2C counterparts. When a business influencer talks about a new machine or platform, social media followers tend to believe them more readily. That kind of credibility can add significant value to the sales process.

But influencers deliver other benefits. Activity from blogs, site visits, and videos can be easily analyzed; marketers can review engagement rates, clicks, and conversions, as well as comments and sentiment, to sharpen their campaigns. Influencers often have highly targeted audiences, giving marketers the ability to widen their own customer base; moreover, influencer mentions will drive a company's SEO rankings.

Still, during COVID-19, there are several guardrails to consider. Chief among them is the importance of working with influencers who will create messages that are appropriate and safe for the business. Any message, whether to consumers or business customers, has the ability to cross over easily into a broader social and societal context. Marketers must choose and work with influencers who understand the company's attributes and values, and can reinforce them accordingly.

Steps to Success

Because decision-makers are getting more of their information online than ever before, B2B marketers can gain a lot from a robust influencer effort. Here a few keys to making the most of influencer marketing during COVID-19.

Lean into your product category. Don't concede that your industry or sales effort may be at a disadvantage because of the pandemic. Every category has opportunities—travel, hospitality, even trade conferences. With more people working from home, there is immense interest in staying up-to-date. Marketers and influencers should look for ways to be more creative and authentic in how they produce content. Polished studio presentations are being replaced by videos shot on smartphones, and people are looking for new solutions and fresh perspectives.

It's time to ask your influencer, "How can we build something together? What stories can we tell and what steps can we take to be real and genuine with our followers at this time?"

Reflect and research. To be successful, marketers need to reflect on whom and what they represent. That should drive your influencer decisions at every turn, from whom to partner with to what campaigns you conduct. Once a company makes the decision to do influencer marketing, it needs to apply research and rigor to validate the partnership. Ensure your values align. It's not necessary to do a deep dive into everything an influencer has ever said, but confirm that the things they care about and believe in make sense with what your company is trying to do.

Be agile. In the current environment, sentiment is always changing. The way your customers feel this week isn't how they felt two weeks ago or three months ago. You must therefore listen and measure sentiment more than ever, to make sure that content and messaging are closely aligned with what people are thinking.

Customer impact also varies greatly across the country. What might feel appropriate to say to someone in the Northeast might not be appropriate to say somewhere else. Once again, strong influencers who know their audiences will help ensure that communication is relevant and well received.

Use social listening tools to monitor conversations, look at topics by hashtag, and follow what people are talking about. Then you can fine-tune your campaign messaging based on that feedback.

A Valuable Partnership

The ultimate value of influencers to B2B marketers is their involvement. Influencers allow companies to connect with new and existing customers in a researched, measured way. They accentuate product or service advantages several levels ahead, in the eyes of followers. Prospects will pay more attention to an influencer than they will to advertising.

A pandemic might not seem like the right time to expand into influencer marketing, especially when the economic landscape is increasingly confusing. Yet there is incredible equity to be gained by speaking with authenticity and sincerity when people need input and reassurance. Working with influencers can pay huge dividends—not only during these chaotic months but also into the far future.

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image of Carter Hallett

Carter Hallett is a digital marketing strategist with national digital agency R2integrated. She has 15 years of experience in overseeing both traditional and digital marketing strategies, working with both B2B and B2C clients.

LinkedIn: Carter Hallett