Our research into the technology buying cycle continues to highlight how important buyers view influencers at all stage of their buying process. Whether an influencer comes from academia, the analyst community, associations, government, or the blogosphere, if customers trust them, then they highly value their advise and insight (Gartner clients-check out research that published recently “Tech Go-to-Market: Trust Drives the B2B Technology Buying Cycle“). Tech providers that ignore, or discount this impact, often struggle to get traction. I’ve got some new research that will publish shortly about the importance of influencer engagement (Gartner clients-look for it before the end of the month), but wanted to share some thoughts on some of the keys to successful influencer engagement.
I used the term “weakness” in the title, but more as a metaphor. By weakness, I really mean a willingness to demonstrate an openness to listening to the opinions and ideas of others, asking questions where you don’t understand, and acknowledgement of areas where you and your business want to improve. It is really about being open to ideas v. viewing every interaction as a situation where you most prove that you (or your product or company) are the greatest thing since sliced bread.
When you engage with any influencer, if you come to them with a “we are perfect” and they need to know it (and better be telling all their clients it), you are likely to be very, very disappointed. It’s like the saying that “if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room” (or in the lobby of a hotel in New Orleans as dawn is breaking—but that is another story best told face to face–right Alix (my daughter?).
Influencers get to be influencers through experience and insight. They observe, act, and engage with lots of people in the market where their expertise lies. They don’t blindly follow the advice of 1 person or take what anyone says at face value without proof (and neither should you, of course). If you want to engage and build support with an influencer, you have to acknowledge that. Interactions where you try, intentionally or unintentionally, to prove that you are “smarter than them” or that “they just don’t understand” don’t go over well. It would probably be better not to even have that discussion.
So what can you do instead (Note for Gartner clients: this is also a great approach for effective inquiries). I’d suggest you try some of these suggestions:
1. Do your homework – Research the influencer and learn their point of view. Read their research and blogs, listen to their speeches and presentations. Ask others their opinion on the influencer.
2. Acknowledge their Point of View – When you get to engage with them, acknowledge their point of view, showing that you are prepared. Ask them questions about it–how did they form their opinion? Do they see changes coming? etc.
3. Connect your world to theirs – From there, establish a connection of how you, your product or service aligns, or diverges, with their point of view and why. It might do a little of both (align and diverge) and that is fine. Don’t be arrogant about divergence, just acknowledge it is different and talk about why –ideally using customer stories to illustrate the value of divergence.
4. Ask appropriate questions – Most influencers love to share insights (that is how they got to be influencers). So ask them questions that are relevant to their expertise. But make sure they are questions that connect with their POV and expertise. For example, a broad question like “How do we improve our messaging?” may be too broad (unless better messaging is a specific focus area for them–it is for me), but “Do you think our message communicates the pains and opportunities for improvement that your CIO clients experience?” might be better. Or, be even more specific “Are you seeing a shift in spending priorities in your client base and what would you recommend we do to capitalize on that to help clients be more successful?” The best questions will be framed around their areas of research and leave the door open for expanded discussions and followup.
5. Consider exposing weakness. If you are facing an issue, it’s rarely a good idea to hide it from an influencer. If it is big enough, they’ll likely discover it on their own through their network. It is better to be open about it and ask for guidance to address it (remember, influencers love giving advice). For example, “We have a great new product but customers don’t seem to understand the value, can you help us figure out if it is what we are saying or if we are targeting the wrong customers?” By exposing weakness, you are allowing the influencer into your real world. I’ve rarely–maybe even never–see an influencer use an “exposed weakness” that comes from a vendor against them. But if it is one that a vendor tries to hide, the negative imact can be magnified.
6. Let your customers tell your story. While you are listening and learning, if you truly want to build influencer trust, don’t spend you time telling them how great you are, let your customers do the talking for you. In some cases, this can be done by connecting your customers with the influencers. In others, it might just be you telling a lot of customer stories. In the world of influencers, customer success matters most.
Those are some general tips, but the key thing to remember is this. You gain influencers trust by listening to them, connecting to their perspective, and demonstrating that you can be trusted through the stories of your customers. As you gain trust, you are in a better position to shift their position (if that is the goal) or simply improve their understanding of your value.
Treat interactions as an opportunity for a two-way learning experience. We can always learn—from anyone. An openness to learning and a willingness to acknowledge other’s points of view make s you stronger. Listen, learn, absorb, and synthesize. In some cases, you’ll discard the advice–and that is fine. You know the context of your business better than anyone else. But in other cases, you’ll get a nugget of insight, that will have an impact, in some cases a big impact on your business. If you use the advice of an influencer, and it helps, be sure to let them know (frankly, let them know if it doesn’t work, together you might find an alternative solution or it could shift the influencer’s position).
Conversely, if you find an influencer that does not seem to be open to learning new things, they likely won’t be influential for long. Shifting opinions and learning takes time. We all often reject new ideas on first hearing them, but you probably can assess an openness to at least considering new things. Consider Geoffrey Moore, considered by many (including me) to be one of the world’s leading authorities on innovative technology marketing/business. He is effectively crowdsourcing ideas for his next book via LinkedIn. He wants to learn. This weakness from Geoff (“I need more ideas”) strengthens his position as an influencer we can trust.
If you want to gain influencer support, you have to bring them into your world with openness about not just what makes you great, but about the challenges you are seeing. Simply taking an approach where you strategy for influencer engagement is to only interact when you have something new to tell them doesn’t work. This is not public relations.
Influencers are everywhere. Use them to learn (heck, be open to learning from anyone). Share stories to help them both validate and expand their view point. Make an objective of engagement to be a two-way learning experience. Share success and challenges. I’m confident you’ll find that they’ll share some of your stories with their audience, expanding awareness of you and trust in your business.
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