(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Bernard Marr, 49, who has degrees in business, engineering, and information technology, is interested in topics such as artificial intelligence and digital transformation. In his online videos about the future of technology and business strategy, the gray-haired consultant and author usually wears a black suit jacket and black T-shirt to offer his take on top industry trends with a calm, instructive delivery. It’s not your typical influencer performance.
And yet 2 million people follow Marr on social media, and he’s attracted big brands looking to drive sales by partnering on his posts, including International Business Machines, Microsoft, and Alphabet’s Google. “It’s always been companies coming to me saying, ‘Do you want to work together? We’ve got these interesting stories to share, and you’ve got an audience,’” says Marr, whose social media content creation takes up a third of his working hours and contributes as much as half of his income.
Marr is part of a small but growing segment of the marketing world known as business-to-business influencing. Most people are familiar with the army of young influencers making viral videos on TikTok and Instagram for brands looking to reach consumers, predominantly in beauty, fashion, travel, and food, but also in finance and pets. Now, enterprise businesses that sell to other companies are tapping into the trend by working with influencers like Marr. “These conversations are happening anyways, right?” says Rahul Titus, global head of influence at WPP Plc’s Ogilvy agency. “You might not be starting or instigating these conversations, but your buyers are on Reddit and LinkedIn and all these social media platforms.”
Ogilvy’s public-relations branch is building a B2B influence specialist team, with the expectation that as much as one-fifth of its hundreds-strong influence group could eventually be focused on such work. B2B contracts can be 10% to 20% more expensive than a typical consumer brand influence deal, Titus says. The idea with B2B influencer marketing is not to generate immediate sales, he says, but to nudge the key executives who manage business spending in the direction of certain products, because businesses are much less likely than individual consumers to make impulse purchases.
Telecommunications companies Vodafone Group Plc and Samsung Electronics Co. are working with Ogilvy to sell their business plans through influencers such as Sharmadean Reid. The founder of multiple beauty businesses, Reid represents brands through her work judging competitions and speaking on panels about female entrepreneurship and education. She says what she offers Samsung and other B2B influencer clients is access to a unique network. “My audience isn’t just normal consumers, my audience is made up of a lot of entrepreneurs and their businesses,” Reid says. “I can’t recall the last time I had to create content for any of my clients. They just want me aligned with the brand.”
While channels for B2B marketing can include anything from in-person appearances at conferences to Twitter posts, the key forum is LinkedIn. The Microsoft Corp.-owned social network has attracted more creators by bolstering its staff who work with them, says Ben Jeffries, chief executive officer of Influencer, which links brands with online personalities. “You’ve got creatives taking LinkedIn more seriously,” Jeffries says. B2B influence has taken off in the past year, he says, estimating it has roughly tripled as a proportion of brand spending on influencers.LinkedIn says it had more than 144,000 members with “creator” in their job title as of December 2021, up 16% from the previous year. It’s been focused on helping creators share stories and engage with audiences, and, as of July, more than 11 million members had turned on creator mode—a program the company started offering in March 2021 that allows a member to be identified as a content-producing authority with particular expertise. LinkedIn is also encouraging influence work by enabling newsletters and now has more than 18,000 people regularly publishing on the platform, including prominent businesspeople Melinda Gates, Ariana Huffington, and Richard Branson.
To be sure, B2B influencer campaigns still account for a minuscule proportion of the vast sums spent on influencer marketing—potentially generating $11.7 billion in revenue by the end of this year, according to one estimate—which is itself just a tiny slice of the conventional advertising market. Media owners netted about $776 billion in total advertising revenue last year, according to WPP’s media buying unit GroupM. Many agencies are holding off on appointing specialist teams, waiting for the market to develop further. B2B marketing is also more complicated than consumer influencer campaigns, with a smaller pool of possible talent who have the credentials and knowledge to pitch to business people effectively. And it can be harder to connect with audiences when some products, such as insurance, can’t be held in the influencer’s hands like a tube of lipstick.
Still, many traditional enterprise marketers are getting in on the trend. Ryan Bares, IBM’s global social influencer marketing lead, says that when he joined the company in 2016, there was hardly an influencer program at all. Now it’s a key component of the marketing strategy, he says. One recent campaign leveraged influencers to raise awareness around an IBM cloud computing platform—not quite the stuff of TikTok dance videos. “They’re not there to sell the mainframe, they’re there to talk about the topics around the mainframe—that might be cloud computing, that might be security,” says Bares, who says his budget has increased about 15% annually for the past few years. While the purchasing process for B2B decisions can be amorphous, advanced metrics like how often viewers click on posts give brands confidence that the strategy is paying off. “We’ve been able to show that influencers can drive results.”
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