The Only Influencer Program You Will Ever Need

3 Oct

Last week I participated in a #CMGR tweet chat (a tweet chat for community management professionals). When I do find time to participate, it’s always a real treat, and so it’s one of my top tweetchats that I try to attend. Last week we talked about influencer programs. As a community “purist”, I’ve always felt a little torn about influencer programs, and a little uneasy about the term “influencer”. When I think of what an influencer is in social media circles (vs. what an influencer really is), my mind conjures at times unsavory images. Here are my feelings on the subject of influence and influencer campaigns.

What’s influence anyway? Here’s where I could take a cheap shot at current measures of online influence, which would get me some traffic and clicks. I’m not going to do that because that would make me a social media d-bag. All I’m going to say is that what we see online is only one teeny-tiny part of actual influence. Actual influence is a composite and complex notion that has to include online, offline and everything in between. In the context of online influence, what we should be concerned about is driving either awareness or action (click, participation, engagement, purchase). The ability to link these in a meaningful way still does not exist; or maybe I just don’t know it — if so, just leave me a comment here. The analytics market is still in its infancy, and I’m pretty confident in making that statement.

Let’s say you were able to identify your influencers — hopefully you looked at qualitative and quantitative measures, across several tools (one of which should be your “gut” and your knowledge of your own industry). Here are some thoughts to keep in mind…

Your customers are your influencers: I  know, I know, online influence and advocacy are totally different concepts. But are they really? At the end of the day, those are the people who vote with their wallet or their behavior. Those are the people who tell their peers, colleagues (for B2B products) and friends and family (for B2C products) about your product. Those are the people who will tweet and blog about you, fill out review sites. As such, it’s probably a good idea to listen to them. Bloggers and members of the press are also influencers, but your relationship with them is going to be different. While bloggers, press and analysts move the needle for awareness and trial, your customers will move other customers to action, purchase and renewal. It’s imperative that you have a solid relationship with this group of influencers, and the best way to do so is to have a solid product, send them impactful news and early previews of the product, and again – shocker! – ask them what they think and take their feedback seriously. I’ll tell you this: if you have made advocates out of your customers, “industry” will follow.

The only influencer program you will need: If your customers are your influencers, then you should ask yourself what they want from you and delight them by giving it to them in spades. They want to get their job done, and it’s your ability to help them do that that will determine their affinity and championship. The second thing that will strengthen brand championship is having direct input int your business. Obviously, you aren’t going to include every suggestion in your roadmap, and you should set expectations appropriately. However, it makes sense to institutionalize how you listen to your customers and their underlying problems (if your product isn’t solving a problem, you have bigger problems). At Yammer, for example, we have a private customer community and an advisory board, who have a direct line to company executives in structured and unstructured ways for feedback and collaboration. And yes, investing in transparent and collaborative relationships with your customer community can be a competitive advantage — you just have to be ready to invest in it. Pardon me as I get on my little soapbox for a few minutes, but I love what our customer champion Diane Gaines said about our customer community (quoting with her permission of course):

“…my point is about the unique way in which availability and transparency are created using the [Yammer Customer Community] as a medium. I can’t think of any other vendors I hang out with all day—that might not be perceived as “value” from business leaders, but it creates a loyalty I don’t have to anyone else; thus, a competitive advantage for Yammer.”

Fix your fundamentals first, send gifts second: Your customers don’t want stickers or shiny objects if you aren’t meeting the bare basics from above. But if your customers derive value from your product in solving actual problems they have — sure, you can send your key customers gifts. In fact, for those customers who go above and beyond in their contributions in the community, you should have some kind of recognition program. If you have a customer community, you can easily observe extraordinary contributions.

When’s the right time? If you define an influencer program as the one giving your customers the best customer experience, the best time to start an influencer program is on Day One :) To connect with the press and bloggers, make sure your product is ready for big-time; otherwise you will blow your trust with that important group of people.

To conclude…

Although it may seem this way, I’m not cynical towards traditional influencer programs; there is a ton of value in them. You may use social analytics to help you find people who have an impact on others in a certain topic — people who get others to act — to seed your product to spread awareness and gather feedback. You may share something special with them, due to their expertise in a certain area. However, to truly capture their attention and move them to advocacy, make sure you spend the time listening and internalizing that feedback. To throw free stuff at people and not care about what they say will surely sabotage your efforts. To really have an enduring relationship of mutual influence takes time and effort, and a real commitment to listening and learning. Influencer programs may capture initial attention, but it takes true advocacy to keep it.

Photo credit: Sean MacEntee