I'm presuming that you've read Chapter 1 a.k.a. the first post on this. If not, here's the link. Go do that now. If you're reading this in the book form, I know you've read it because this says Chapter 2 and who reads Chapter 2 before Chapter 1?
Do you even need a program? Why? Why not? How do you structure that program? Or, at least, who does it well?
As I mentioned in Chapter 1, what makes the whole thing sad and a little maddening perhaps is that it's a game.
Maybe you wonder why I would say that?
The best of all possible worlds says that companies should be able to stand on the merits of the quality of their offering to the potential customers that they are attempting to lure. If that were true, it would eliminate the need to chat with any influencer or the twenty that you do have to chat up. (Aside: By the way, it would also eliminate the apparent need that several of the technologies companies have to snarkily denigrate their competition in childish and distinctly unoriginal ways.) The value of the product to the persons seeking a specific business outcome from that product would decide the winners of the competition.
But, we don't live in the best of all possible worlds - or do we? I won't get into the existential conversation that is suggested by this; that's Spinoza's bailiwick, but I will say that we live in a world, instead, where companies do have to deal with influencers.
You have to because:
That's a lot of relatively powerful reasons. Let's see what each of them means.
But they also call me, and Constellation Research and Denis Pombriant and...you get the picture. It's a bit random at times who they choose and a bit perplexing why, but they make the calls.
Don't forget the more informal channels too. For example, I speak at a conference. I will inevitably get somebody from a company with a proposal out for some CRM related or social technology, asking me about the finalists or about a company they are considering as their choice. With caveats about the generality of my answer, I'll give them an idea of what I think, if I can. Sometimes, that leads to a more formal (and occasionally deep enough to be paid) discussion with the team that's making the decision.
The other area where customers look to influencers is in their writing. If I or someone else write an opinion piece about a technology company and their product it is read. For example, literally, every day (I would guess) Naomi Bloom, a world class leading HR analyst/influencer/consultant who is also a member of the Enterprise Irregulars, will get queries in an email from some customer who read something that she wrote about a company of interest to them - and as often as makes sense - she responds.
This is by no means the only avenue that investors and potential other shareholders reach out through. They do it via emails, and meetings at conferences among other places. This happens frequently to all influencers with a public presence. The independent influencers tend to get the bulk of these informal kinds of queries. They seem more approachable than the institutionals though it's truly not the case. As always, it is a matter of personality when it comes to approachability, not typecasting.
Let me put it to you this way. You have a choice of two companies, both of whom fit your criteria well for whatever it is you need to talk about. With Choice #1 they are great and you know them well and like them. Choice #2 equally great but you don't know them. Either of them would be a great choice to mention. Which one would you mention?
That is correct sir or ma'am. The one you know. Why not? There is no reason not to if they are of equal value otherwise.
That said, if the influencer has a paid relationship to the company that they mention, they do need to say that more often than not. There are even circumstances where paying the influencer to do something will actually prevent them from mentioning you in something. My policy (and this just mine, not necessarily someone else's) is that when I write a contracted white paper for some company, they understand from the beginning that this is a thought leadership piece and that they will NOT be mentioned in the document at all. But then again, nor will their competitors. However, what I will promise is that it will be aligned appropriately to messaging that we both can agree on. But the key here is both. Not one or the other.
With that example, I leave it to you to weigh the value of paying influencers to do something. That's not for me to do. But regardless of that, there is enormous value in knowing influencers - establishing some sort of bond. If you don't see that, stop reading this now and go read "Fifty Shades of Grey." There is a certain irony in the title, though not in the content.
On the virtual side, you just have to refer to what I said earlier about the organized groups, like the Enterprise Irregulars (EI) and the Accidental Social CRM Community (AC). But it goes well beyond that. There are constant email exchanges. There are other back channels from some of the firms. Many influencers sit on the boards of other influencer groups (for example, Esteban Kolsky and I both sit on the Board of Advisors of Constellation Research). Some of the younger influencers are mentored by the older influencers (sigh) even though the younger influencers may have substantially more of a digital presence. The implication there is that the younger influencers are influenced by what the older influencers say. (I hope. J). There are daily email exchanges. There are daily direct messages (DMs) on Twitter.
There are temporary partnerships that can be as simple as project collaboration - for example a recent collaboration between Esteban Kolsky (independent influencer) and Mitch Lieberman (vendor influencer) for a Customer Service research project.
It can be a temporary institution such as CRM Idol which in 2012 had 9 primary judges all influencers and 71 extended judges - all influencers from multiple domains - vendors, media, institutional influencers, practitioner, boutique influencers, independent influencers and those elusive influencers who influence other influencers - all of whom came together for a specific purpose - to support small emerging technology companies in an annual contest that puts them on an international stage - which influencers in combination have the power to do.
It can be more permanent too - as simple as Brent Leary and I who have been doing what we call the CRM Playaz for about 4 years now - a satirical look at events in the world of CRM and technology - that has thousands of listeners/watchers. To give you a picturesque example of how that works, here is a story I personally loved.
I was in Kiev Ukraine, speaking to 300 people who were employees of BPMOnline, the EMEA winner of CRM Idol in 2011. After giving a speech to them, the first question I was asked by one of the employees was, "when are you and Brent Leary going to do the next episode of CRM Playaz?"
That's what I'm talkin' about.
See how it all works?
Not quite, huh? Let me give you the glue.
Add that one other element that I mentioned in Chapter 1 and you get an idea (and only a somewhat fuzzy idea at that) at the intricacy of the influencer networks and how they chat and talk and interact all the time.
That other element? Influencers gossip. That one. They are constantly in situations where they interact with each other and compare notes - in both real and virtual environments. Plus they choose each day to interact with some of the clan. So there are passive and proactive situations that they are involved with.
So think about why your relationship to influencers might have an impact (depending on choosing the right ones - do your own social network analysis - we'll talk about that in a later chapter) far beyond that individual.
Here's the thing. Each of the influencers as I mentioned get asked a number of times in a given day if they would be willing to take a demo. Usually, what the demo requester asks is for feedback when you take the demo, on what you think of whatever it is they are showing you. While most of the influencers are polite enough to provide some feedback, be aware of a few things, if you're one of these requestors. Starting a relationship by asking them to take a demo and provide free feedback - meaning about $1000 worth of their paid time for free - is not the best way to do things. Though again, it's okay to ask. Also, the feedback you'll get is somewhat generic since you couldn't possibly be providing enough information in one hour of time to get some deeply cogent information from the influencer - though its often surprisingly good. That said, if you don't ask for feedback, since you are dealing with a gregarious lot, you'll often get it anyway.
Again, doesn't hurt to ask, but realize that this is one of the ways that influencers make a living.
Even if you have a relationship and are freely getting advice when you ask, don't overdo it. This is how the folks you're asking for advice make a living. For example, there is one company that I genuinely adore and love the people I deal with. For about 3-4 years, I've given them free advice because I do that and much of the level of the advice, because I know the company so well is what I would normally charge for. However, I don't charge them and wouldn't ask. The thing is that they seem so comfortable with this "arrangement" to never even offer a token gesture.
I'm not resentful about this but I do know I'm reaching a point where I'm going to have to start saying "no" even though my personal relationship with some of the key people at this company is through the roof great. I've never had an indication that they were even thinking about something despite the many hours that they've had of free advice. They aren't a charity so there is a limit to pro bono from me because neither am I. There has to be.
What I'm saying is no matter what the situation - no relationship, close relationship, be mindful of the fact that the person whose advice you are asking has to earn a living too - respect it. Don't kowtow to it. Often it's a matter of a gesture of thanks, not necessarily a paid contract. It depends on the person. If you're dealing with the institutional or the boutique firms, you'll be less likely to get away with the free advice for too long. Though the influencers there are perfectly happy to do pro bono work when it suits them.
If you're paying for advice, listen to it.
That might seem obvious, but it isn't. Influencers who are consulting with you are partnering with you to figure out the best course of action based on what you've engaged them for. I can't tell you the countless times I've had discussions with influencers who are frustrated because the advice they gave
But another piece of advice:
Don't be uncritical just because you are paying for it.
You have every right (and even a responsibility) to challenge the influencer who is providing you with advice. Your challenges of what they are saying might range from "that makes no sense given our mission/vision" to "it doesn't feel right" to "we want to move in a different direction than that." When it boils down to it, you've hired them; they haven't hired you. You need them to give you a perspective and a plan that can work or minimally suggestions that you can consider that come from a fresh perspective (theirs).
But if you agree with them, then work hard to do what they suggest. The advice doesn't come from a vacuum and if its advice you can get behind - make sure that you have the internal resources to execute on that advice. If you are limited in your resources for one reason or another and you know that when you are having the conversations with the consultant/influencer - for god's sakes, tell them! That way they can brainstorm with you on how to get it implemented or whether the plan will need adjustment. A plan in theory isn't what you're aiming at here. A plan in action is. So treat the influencer as your partners/fellow conspirator. They're under NDA anyway and likely to know the corporate politics that you're dealing with - if they've done their homework. So be straight so it can get done.
Make sure that you have an idea of what you want from them - There is this strategy that a lot of companies practice which is to retain influencers to "be around" to answer questions and advise whenever needed within certain limits. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the strategy, what seems to inevitably happen with this one is that you pay the influencers for a full year in some proscribed way and then forget to use them all that much. So that the value you receive is not near the price you pay. Its great for influencers in one regard. We get paid whether you use us or not. The nature of a retainer. But it's not so good in that we should be used, if you're paying. Some companies are good at that. Some aren't.
So rather than worry about use - whatever format you use to pay an influencer/consultant - e.g. deliverables, retainer - make sure that you have a clear and distinct knowledge of what you are going to use the particular person for. Having them around for some vague future use is not all that great a strategy for you.
Make sure they are the experts that you want - Forget whether they represent Gartner, Constellation or some independent. Does this person have the expertise you need to answer your identified questions? Maybe it's a partner strategy? Or a product development requirement? Or an approach to getting on to the Gartner Magic Quadrant or Forrester Wave? Or a messaging issue? Or a thought leadership/mindshare plan? Whatever. Ask the questions. Find the experts. Hire the experts. Get the answers. Implement the answers. If it comes from Gartner and an independent or two, then it does. Bring the horsepower you need to get results together and go for it.
Should you engage Gartner/Forrester because you have to? - Let's make something clear. You don't have to do anything you don't want to. Gartner and Forrester are the 800 and 400 pound gorillas respectively, but what makes them useful to you is that they do get a lot of customer queries and top of mind companies who are most often their clients do get referred. Second, they have some top-notch experts like Michael Maoz at Gartner and Bill Band at Forrester who can give you great advice. Companies feel compelled to deal with Gartner and Forrester but that's nonsense. I am not a fan of some of their leadership but I am a huge fan of some of their analysts. Use them if you need to, not because you need to. Be brave.
Their combined Waggoner Edstrom and Microsoft staff team work together exceptionally well and without friction. Both sides of the team are generally well like by the influencers. The Microsoft team changes a lot due to internal promotions or lateral moves, but the Waggoner Edstrom team has been pretty consistent with a few moves now and then. Waggoner Edstrom make sure that the influencers are frequently briefed and have a consistent point of contact, where the Microsoft staff provides the access to the domain (CRM in my case) senior management when necessary to get ahold of. It's not really as neat as I'm making it. Waggoner Edstrom provides management access too and Microsoft staffers keep the influencers briefed. But it falls that way the slim majority of the time.
They have perhaps the most highly structured and relatively complete program for keeping influencers updated with:
They also make sure that the influencers are treated as individuals who matter to them one way or the other. They are arguably the most generous when it comes to making sure that expenses are covered for conferences and that the influencers are individually tended to.
Now, note something. The way I just described the two was as influencers, not people instrumental in an influencer/analyst relations program. The idea of a peer running a program or at least participating in an influencer program is not a bad one (see Chris Bucholtz at SugarCRM for a similar, but not identical, idea)- and in fact - goes a long way to satisfy the comfort zones that are necessary when it comes to engaging and maintaining relationships with influencers. The more comfortable the influencers feel, the more likely they are to speak well of the company when it's merited and to not speak badly of the company - sometimes even when its merited. These are no small things when considering the who of a program, not just the what.
But what salesforce.com has also done is bring in influencers as hires to other positions - outside the program. For example, they have former AMR/Gartner analyst Bruce Richardson as a VP of Strategy; Charlie Isaacs, a vendor influencer who is now a VP of Strategy at ServiceCloud; Dave Kellogg as the SVP/GM of ServiceCloud. Again, this provides a strange but interesting level of comfort. It reflects/implies a trust in the talents and skills of influencers beyond their ability to talk to customers, investors etc. In other words, it says "we think you have value to provide, you aren't just people we are forced to talk to." Or, at least I think it indicates that - though I have no idea if salesforce is conscious of that or not.
Finally, what salesforce has done beyond the people running the program is have a really accomplished on-the-ground team - people like Carolina Grimm. They are not only articulate and personable, but they damn well know what they are doing and know how to balance the needs of salesforce.com with the often let's-just-call-it "highly demanding" requirements of influencers (more on that later).
What makes what Mei Li doing so valuable and almost unique is that they don't have the somewhat narrowly defined view that you get from a lot of the influencer programs. They understand that:
Consequently, when you go to a NetSuite event, you'll see a remarkable mix of traditional media (e.g. reporters from say, the San Francisco Chronicle); international media (influencer freelancer journalists influential in the U.K.) and the digerati (Brian Solis, Ray Wang, and all of the above - social and traditional CRM).
As obvious as this may sound, this approach is not the norm. Most programs place spectacularly heavy emphasis on the digerati rather than the traditional and with the exception of European rock stars like Dennis Howlett who have a substantial presence in the United States, on American influencers. Not NetSuite.
Perhaps even more important (and this theme tends to run throughout the best programs) is the relationship that Mei Li has with the influencers. She has made them friends who would run through walls for her (among them, me). She has established relationships that are amazing and incredibly personal.
I was at one of the early dinners that she held for influencers - always mixing the crowds by the way - no separation between journalists and analysts at all - and there was this hard bitten San Francisco Chronicle reporter who was cynically wailing on technology and companies in the industry. It was a rather nasty diatribe and was being carried out to all who would listen prior to Mei's arrival. About 10 minutes into his rant, Mei walked in. He turned to mush and wrapped himself around her finger. She had that effect on this otherwise harsh dude.
The other thing that Mei and NetSuite do well is treat all this with a somewhat wicked sense of humor in a rather posh (as my British compadres say) way. They provide goodie bags, bling things, swag bags, to the influencers that have essentially great chocolates and something particularly unusual - latest was a Lytro camera. While this doesn't sway the influencers opinions it doesn't hurt to be treated well either. It doesn't extend to just the influencers either. They have a high-end outlook with a lot of class also - and that wicked humor. For example, many years ago, they held a large VIP dinner with about 150 in attendance. This was when Steve Cakebread was the CFO of saleforce.com. The prevailing story at the time (not sure it was true but it was the story) was that salesforce.com wouldn't serve the excellent Cakebread Cellars wine due to a perceived conflict of interest since that was Steve Cakebread's family. It's also a pricey California wine. That dinner? Choice of Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc (I think - could have been a Chardonnay) or Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. The joke is obvious, but it is also a superb wine. This is a company that applies its high-end instincts (most of the time using their customers' upscale goods) to its influencer program due to Mei Li's considerable clout and the personal regard with which she's held. She is arguably the most beloved person in the technology company corporate communications world with a program that keeps influencers close and fully integrated with the company.
Not hard. There are reasons to engage influencers and there are best practices out there when it comes to doing so. This chapter covered the reasons and the best practices that do exist - at least in part.
Remember something though. What I outline here are programs that are specific to companies with specific purposes for the programs, specific results they are looking for and specific people who are running the programs - and thus, each is tailored to optimize the talents and objectives that are at hand for them. So they might not have the perfect program for you. But pay attention to the general lessons learned from each because they may apply and you can use any combination of them you want to in establishing your own program. But hopefully, you're doing that because you're already convinced that you're going to have to involve influencers in your corporate life.
Okay. On to Chapter 3. There's still a lot to cover and miles to go before I sleep, as a famous poet laureate of the U.S. once said.