Does the online social influence of others matter to you? If you’re in business, it should

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[tweetmeme]This a guest post from Andrew Gerrard, an associate of Red Cube and business partner over at Article 8. Andrew is a social business consultant and digital strategist and we’ve been discussing the subject of online social influence for some time. Here’s his take on it and a very handy framework for developing an influencer outreach programme.

As individuals, communities and organisations evolve and embrace social as an integral part of their everyday online habits, the nature of what they say and do, and the effect it has on the people around them is increasingly being viewed as a strategically important part of your business planning and activities. Finding the people and organisations within your market that are socially influential online is a natural step for any business if you want to harness the opportunities it offers. Getting the benefits of somebody else’s views hasn’t suddenly appeared overnight; businesses have been using key influencers in their respective markets for a long time, and we are now used to the wide-spread implementation of this online with things like ratings and reviews guides, recommendations and referrals systems, feedback and comments features, and the rise of socially influential online content, individuals and organisations. So encouraging people whose opinions make some difference to talk about, or do, something that benefits your business is now a basic part of any online social business strategy.

But don’t think this is just a simple case of doing a bit of online PR and marcomms with a few online publications and assume that your customers are going to read about you there; this is about finding people who don’t appear on your PR lists but who nevertheless are capable of having a huge impact on your business. So that means finding them, approaching them, and developing a relationship with them, wherever they happen to be. And a key point that is well worth remembering here is that not only are these people in a position to have a potentially significant positive effect on your activities and plans, but they could be an influential adversary that can be turned into an advocate, or when you potentially have to deal with an issue or crisis they may also be able to help save you. Treat them well and they in turn will treat you well.

So here is a framework for developing an influencer outreach programme, designed to help you discover those people who are going to be influential for your business, and build a lasting mutually beneficial relationship with them.

1.  Build your lists

Start by researching your markets for commentators, bloggers, key figure-heads, public speakers, analysts, well-known individuals and sectors etc. etc. Establish the relevancy of each to what you want to achieve so you know who is most likely to help you. Check their tone of voice if you can and how they are likely to respond to your approach. These are real people after all. Identify their preferred outlets and channels for their content and where they are most likely to be engaged, making sure that if they are stronger in some areas than others, then you know which ones. There are plenty of tools such as Technorati, Google, Delicious, Klout etc. to help you find, evaluate and grade potential influencers. Fresh Networks has published a comprehensive, and very useful, influencers report for 2010 and the tools to find them, which you can download here. Online publications in your markets, conference websites and popular blog lists are a great place to start looking. Tag different influencers according to what they talk about as they are not all going to be valuable in the same way. Building different lists of influencers for your different markets as you go is a smart thing to do. And if you use tools to help then you will likely get different results, so try to get a broad picture for each influencer; a heavy Twitter user may not be as widely influential on Facebook, even though they may have a bigger audience there.

2.  Look for niche influencers and sectors

Don’t just target popular broad mass-market individuals and ignore smaller, niche or vertical sectors. Influencers with large audiences may have the reach, but if they don’t engage directly with their audiences on issues that matter to you then they may also be irrelevant. They may also be over-burdened with lots of requests and demands from others to talk about a wide variety of things so they could have a lack of focus for you. On the other hand, influencers that don’t have large audiences, but who are passionate, dedicated and actively engaged in their communities may prove to be more cost-effective and valuable in the long-term. And if an influencer doesn’t respond to you then look for others in the space who will.

3.  Research them

Establish who they are, what they talk about, what kind of content they may produce, how they interact and engage with their audiences, and whether they are likely to understand what you want to achieve and how they can contribute to your efforts. Pay attention to how you can help them and what kind of content they could use, such as written docs., technical specs., multi-media multi-cast content, raw materials and assets, or pre-packaged embedded link code, exclusives etc. Also don’t forget to look for other channels that they use. These could be columns they write, guest-posts on other sites, syndicated or aggregated content, especially on other networks including traditional broadcast or print media outlets.

4.  What do they talk about

Use specific onsite searches and general search tools and sites to establish how relevant they are for you. Check on how often and how recently they discussed or promoted things that are important to you. If they haven’t produced anything appropriate for a while this may indicate that their focus has shifted away from your markets. Conversely, if they start to write more about your markets, pay more attention to them (see 10. maintenance).

5.  Personalise your contact and make it relevant. To them

However you plan to initially approach someone, do try to use their preferred name if you can. It sounds obvious but most of the time you will know who they are, and using a general form of hello will probably annoy them and put them off from listening to you before you’ve even told them about yourself. Where somebody prefers to use a shortened form of their name or a nickname, show them you’re listening by using it. But – personal plea here – please don’t assume that a name like Andrew can be automatically shortened to Andy 😉 When you do contact them mention some aspect of their work, output or efforts, perhaps commenting on a recent blog post of theirs or feeding back on some activity, and leading in to what you then want to talk about. It will give them a point of reference and an introduction to what you then have to offer them.

6.  Be open, honest and transparent

As much as you can. It may not always be possible to always be completely transparent if you want to talk to somebody about confidential, proprietary or publicly unannounced products or services. But if you want them to be an advocate then you need to establish a relationship based on trust on which both they, and you, can rely. If you are uncomfortable telling them something or answering a question they may have, then say so with a reason. They’ll probably respect you more for that than if you try to play politics with them. And whatever you do, don’t lie, cheat, prevaricate, over-complicate or dodge them. Just don’t.

7.  Get to the point

And be brief. Influential people by their very nature may be in demand and will probably not appreciate others who waste their time and energy. Keep your contact personal, short, relevant, engaging, and if it’s appropriate don’t forget to state what you want, how they can help you and what they will potentially get out of it. It’s always a good idea to let them know what the benefit is for them.

8.  Support them

Once you have made contact with someone, got a reply, and have started to develop a relationship with them, ensure that you provide the support they need. This means timely and relevant contact, always appropriate content in the right formats, and if they don’t use a particular channel or publish content like video, then don’t send it to them. But if they do, then make sure it fits with what they produce. Make it easy for them by ensuring that all the work involved in things like formatting, finding links, editing etc. has been done, unless, of course, that is what they want to do. And remember, if they are influential for you, then it’s likely they are also influential for, and influenced by, others in your markets, so be aware of this when you speak to them. Introducing them to some valuable contacts who can also help them may be a great way to develop your relationships and the long-term benefits this will bring.

9.  Recognise the value of the relationship

Influencers will respond much more positively if they can see the value in the relationship that they have with you. So demonstrate this early, and continue to show it often. This does not necessarily have to be presented as a stated benefit or professional objective. It can also be shown in the small things you do to help someone achieve their goals, whatever they may be. This applies in both their professional and personal lives, as some advice or help in something personal for them will create a caring impression. And just as you shouldn’t smother them, at the same time you need to ensure that they too don’t start demanding too much from you, potentially diverting your focus away from what’s important. Further, recognise that sometimes specific influencers may not always want to engage with you, and that you may be better off by talking to others and cultivating mutual relationships with them.

10.  Maintain your lists

This is a key part to any influencer outreach programme as influence is a constantly shifting and active thing. Regular review of your influencer relationships will help you establish who you should pay more attention to and who may drop down your list of priorities.  This is also true as your business needs evolve. A change in business focus; or perhaps the introduction of new products, services or marketing campaigns will require a review of your influencer lists and contacts to ensure they are up-to-date, relevant and being maintained in an appropriate manner.

By maintaining healthy, mutually beneficial, relationships with people and organisations who are both actively interested and engaged in what you’ve got to say; and who have the networks of influence to spread your message, you put yourself in a better position to reap the benefits of everything that social business has to offer.

Andrew Gerrard is a social business consultant and a digital strategist. Find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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