Analyst relations professionals increasingly find themselves discussing influencer relations. Don Bulmer uses a nice definition: a systematic way to identify, measure and build bridges with influential people who impact customer perception. SAP’s useful taxonomy breaks this down into clear categories such as customer communities, IT Influencers (such as Industry analysts, developer community, consultants, and bloggers); Universities; Business Influencers (thought leaders); and top SAP partners. It’s a model that most firms would wisely try to emulate.
What’s interesting is that some influencers are missing from this taxonomy: journalists, the vendor’s employees and alumni, the investment community, policy makers, competitors and individual end-users (most of whom do not participate in user groups or other communities). Taken together, these missing influencers have a substantial impact on the firms market. Their absence gives a clue about the origin of influencer relations.
Influencer relations maps on to the ‘white space’ in most vendors’ public relations programs. Public relations conceptually relates to the whole public: all these audiences fit inside public relations. However, in most companies “public relations” means media relations and little else. Investor relations is siloed in the CFO’s office. Internal communications, which is vital for public reputation, is often part of the human resources function. Public affairs is often in another silo, and its regulatory axis mean it comes under the general counsel’s control.
What is called influencer relations is often, in many firm, the left-overs — a disjointed and Balkanised archipelago of neglected audiences looking for an internal champion to take them on. It’s a huge challenge for organisations, and the leadership of influencer relations is one fraught with risks. In particular, there’s a risk that influencer relations will discredit itself by claiming that existing influencers on enterprise ICT spending, like analysts and journalists, have been surpassed by bloggers, which is a claim that no data seem to support.
From a strategic point of view, the key issues are identification and evaluation. Don has performed a huge service for our community in sharing the results of an SAP study in which 500 US decision makers in its market. This 2006 study shows that the key influencers on firms with 2500 or more employees are peers, customers, consultants and industry analysts. Bloggers came last out of 23 groups of influencers, lower than law firms, accountants and academics.
However, there’s more to the problem of influencer relations than these data suggest. While SAP’s prospective customers report academics as being of low influencer, the firm itself takes a more strategic view, and argues that universities have infinite impact on the firm’s revenues. How can we deal with this dissonance? And how can we act on the insight that research generates?
Lighthouse bases itself on action research, a form of iterative and reflective inquiry which enables practice. Our view is that understanding influence on clients is an iterative and reflective process in which professionals in an organisation develop a common view of their tasks on which they can agree to act. Data are fundamental for that process, but the process of bringing the insight to life is one in which the insights of the data are continually mediated through the organisation. For example, data might suggest that there’s little basis for B2B firms to prioritise the media, or for private firms to speak to equity analysts, or for AR professionals to try to influence vendor-funded analysts. However, current practise is strongly rooted in organisations. Data about the external world need to be integrated and collectively interpreted in order to develop deep insight.
For that reason, our view is that organisations need integrated communications: that influencer communications, analyst relations and media outreach should be seen as aspects of one challenge. Writing about influencer relations back in 2005 we explained that investors, journalists and analysts are key influencers. We think an influencer relations strategy based on left-overs will struggle to build an understanding of the influencer landscape that will deeply convince other communications professionals.
While that integrated strategic overview is necessary, that does not mean that these very different influencers can be addressed effectively with one communications programme. In 2005, when “influencer relations” was often used to mean consultant and analyst relations, we argued that one could not expect to be successful if you added management consultants into an analyst relations programme, simply renaming it “influencer relations” and using the same techniques. SAP and most other firms conducting vendors relations, of course, understand this. Their outreach to academics is different from their communications with bloggers and their relationships with analysts. Cows and cabbages need different foods from the same farmer.