The person on Twitter who you should be following is Dan Calladine.
I used to work with him and he is a font of information on marketing, advertising, and technology (and the point at which all three of those things intersect). He consistently sends out the best links and the most critical data points that you need, often (somehow) just at the moment you need it. Like today, when I was writing this column about the ways in which people become influenced in their purchase decisions. Dan just posted a link to some new data about the product-purchase decisions most strongly influenced by digital media.
Not surprisingly, the big online product categories dominate the top of the list: electronics, appliances, books, and music. These are the sorts of purchases that people have always sought out advice on. In fact, the clichés "read any good books lately?" and "what are you listening to these days?" are based entirely on the fact that people are constantly in information-gathering mode.
The sources that people listen to can generally be referred to as "influencers." In fact, that is the core of an entire business (one that I participated in quite deeply for a number of years). But I have long thought that there is a tendency, when considering the nature of influence and influencers, to look a bit too monolithically at the space. Sure, we can use the rule of thumb that one person in 10 tells the others what to buy. But there's a great chance that those nine people think that guy is a blowhard (the Cliff Clavin principle).
Of course, the primary catalyst for including influencer marketing into many advertising plans has been the spread of social media. The "networks" into which we want to place our messages have shifted from the big groupings of broadcast stations owned by global companies (think CBS, NBC, and AOL) to pockets of likeminded people, clustered together on Twitter and Facebook and Google+. The access to the latter networks is through individuals who have been won over and are willing to distribute a message.
But these people are not all the same, and it's time to consider different types of influencers differently and address them uniquely. In my travels through this world, I have found three primary types of influencers: the counselor, the communicator, and the community builder. Here is who they are and how you should connect with them.
The Counselor: Strong and Silent Until Asked
This is the most common type of influencer. Everyone has a specialty. For me (for a while), it was bikes: I rode a lot of bikes and I read a lot of articles about bikes. I knew what kinds of bikes and brands of bikes were right for different uses and people knew that about me. Fairly often, people would ask for my advice on what bike to buy. I was a counselor - I never posted up my opinion or even rated products online. Rather, I was simply a resource that my friends (and their friends) knew was available, when they needed it.
How to connect with counselors: The best way to connect with counselors is to not try too hard. You simply need to put your content out in places where it will be seen by them: on popular blogs, through your own site, and in editorial content. They will find it, because they are seeking this information out. The big challenge for marketers is that the recommendations that counselors make are not public - they get emails (or DMs) and respond back personally. As a marketer, you simply have to trust that your messages are good, your content is high quality, and that you are reaching the right people.
The Communicator: Actively Sharing Opinions
The second most common influencer is the communicator. These are people who not only have a large storehouse of knowledge about a subject but are actively seeking out opportunities to share that knowledge. They are the bloggers and (more commonly) the commenters and raters of products online. They are the people who go to forums and start discussions or immediately head to online review sites the moment they experience a product. For them, the sharing of an experience is part of the experience itself.
How to connect with communicators: The best thing about communicators is that they are so easy to find. Use search tools or buzz monitoring apps to locate the people who are posting frequently on sites and in forums. The way to connect with these people is to have someone from the brand actively participate in forums and on discussion lists. Follow all the protocols of letting the world know that you are an official voice of the brand and invite these people into discussions.
The Community Builder: The Center of the Discussion
The rarest (and therefore most valuable) of the influencer set is the community builder. This is the person who not only has lots of information and likes to share it, but has taken the steps to gather other people around her ideas. Community builders start blogs and launch forums. They become moderators on sites like Reddit. They believe that they can do good by creating and managing spaces that are focused on particular ideas, topics, or causes. They can be the most influential simply because they have the greatest reach and the most visible platforms.
How to connect with community builders: The only real way to do this is to settle in for the long haul. The people who are most successful at connecting with community builders are not marketers, actually, but PR professionals. This is all about generating relationships where the community builder is given information or access to products. The PR people need to know the community builder by name and have them on speed dial. You don't get access to these valuable people by sending a mass email. So, find the ones who you really want to connect with and treat them like, well, people you want a relationship with. Build slowly and always through respect and value.
That's pretty much the sum total of influencer marketing. This is a practice that only has a few rules, but can take up your whole career. Influencers are an important way to market your brand. You need to think of it very much in the same context as your paid media - make reasonable investments and expect positive returns. Use the technology and tools available to you to be efficient and stay focused on what your goals are.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
March 19, 2014