Does Influencer Marketing Work For B2B?

If the term, “influencer marketing” makes you think of heavily-filtered social media stars selling beauty products or nutritional supplements on Instagram, you’d probably be surprised to know that it’s not only B2C brands that use influencers to promote their products.

In fact, some may say that influencer marketing is even more important for B2B industries since their products and services are typically big-ticket purchases that include many people in the consideration process. And since word-of-mouth marketing influences 99% of all B2B purchases[1], it just makes sense that respected industry thought leaders could wield enormous influence over a company’s purchasing decisions.

Successful brands are finding that their influencer marketing efforts are paying off and helping them to compete better. They’re playing the long game, which means that influencer marketing is always on. They’re also doing the prep work to document how they want influencers to communicate their value propositions and tone of voice, and ensuring that the people they partner with understand the company’s message framework and brand positioning relevant to their target audiences and relative to their competitors.

B2B influencer marketing is not a new concept, but it’s still evolving. And it’s likely that B2B influencer marketing will become more prevalent due to the way COVID-19 protocols advanced the use of digital platforms for B2B selling.

How exactly did the pandemic impact the way companies approach selling, what are current attitudes about B2B influencer marketing, and how should B2B marketers implement an influencer marketing program?

The Pandemic’s Effects on B2B Business Practices

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly upended the daily routines of individuals and businesses throughout the world, forcing millions of people to make adjustments to the way they interacted both personally and professionally.

Lockdowns and the need to remain socially distant propelled the growth of eCommerce for shopping, while educational institutions and companies of all sizes relied on video conferencing software like Zoom to take the place of in-person learning and collaboration.

During this time, businesses that relied on in-person marketing tactics like trade shows or field marketing shifted to digital marketing and remote strategies, probably assuming that it wouldn’t be too long before a return to business as usual. But a year-and-a-half later, many companies see the positive changes that digital communication and marketing have brought to their industries, and they’re unlikely to go back to the way things were. 

In October 2020, the global consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, surveyed business decision-makers about how the pandemic has changed B2B marketing practices. These are some of the findings:[2]

  • Most seller interactions now take place remotely or online, which both sellers and customers prefer.
  • B2B buyers are more comfortable buying online, even when it comes to big-ticket items.
  • Online and remote selling are seen as more effective than in-person techniques – and that includes prospecting as well as warm leads.
  • Eighty-nine percent expect the changes made during the pandemic to become permanent even after things return to normal.

Since the majority of business decision-makers have adapted to a sales environment that doesn’t depend on in-person interactions, they’ll be more receptive to learning about products and making purchasing decisions either online or at remote webinars and events. Industry thought leaders and influencers thrive in these digital marketing environments, and it’s also more attractive – both logistically and financially – for influencers to guide prospects on digital channels.

How Do B2B Buyers Feel About Influencer Marketing?

Even before COVID-19, business buyers were growing more accustomed to doing their product research online. In 2019, B2B buyers were asked how their content preferences had changed over the past year.[3] Nearly three-quarters said they had less time to read a piece of content and perform research on their own before talking to a salesperson, and they indicated they’d prefer to see credible content from trusted industry thought leaders.

But any content marketer who is planning B2B content creation should note that 96% were turned off by seeing strong sales messages in content.[3] An effective B2B influencer should be able to communicate brand messages and brand positioning in the marketplace without sounding like a paid shill for the company.

How Do Business Leaders Feel About B2B Influencer Marketing?

In August 2020, hundreds of the top B2B marketers were asked to give their opinions about using influencer marketing for their businesses. 

Overwhelmingly, those surveyed said they consider the influencer marketing efforts they’re using to be either moderately or very successful. And they’re not just relying on influencers to increase awareness of their brands and products. Sixty-nine percent are working with influencers for lead generation.

The marketers said they believe B2B influencer marketing gives them a competitive advantage. They recognize that their prospective customers rely on industry expertise to guide them in their decision-making, so a partnership with respected thought leaders lends credibility to their firms and helps them convert prospects into buyers. Here’s more data from the report:[4]

  • Seventy-four percent feel that their influencer marketing efforts improve how prospects and customers experience the brand.
  • Sixty percent of companies that use an always-on approach to influencer marketing say their results are very successful. Only 5% of companies that use a campaign approach are happy with their results.

Best Practices for B2B Influencer Marketing

Given that purchasing business products and services involves a number of stakeholders, B2B influencer marketing will be more complex than B2C efforts. As reported in the 2020 survey, business marketers who used an always-on program had considerably more success than those who used the campaign approach. 

Many B2C products don’t require a big investment or a large commitment, so B2C marketers can get away running brief influencer marketing campaigns to meet their goals. B2B influencer efforts will take longer to see results because of the complexity of the sales process.

The first step in crafting an influencer marketing campaign is to outline your objectives and set KPIs that you can periodically evaluate with marketing analytics. 

Then create a marketing strategy document that identifies your brand identity, brand voice, brand promise, and any key messaging points you want your brand ambassador to communicate with the effort. You may even want to provide brand messaging examples. 

This exercise not only helps your team come to an agreement as to the type of brand messaging that resonates with prospects and is relevant to your audiences, but it will also later serve as a content brief for your influencers.

After you confirm what you want to accomplish with B2B influencer marketing and have a system in place to evaluate results, use the following tips to increase your chances of B2B influencer marketing success.

Consider Targeting Specific Accounts

Bringing in one or two major accounts can have a big impact on your company’s bottom line, and account-based marketing is often a more efficient way to meet your goals than to market to a broader audience that may not include attractive prospects. With account-based influencer marketing, you can customize your message to make it relevant to specific companies’ needs.

Spend some time identifying the customers who can most benefit from your products and plan to use influencers to market to those target audiences.

Look for Influencers Who are Insiders

Rather than casting a wide net, look close to home to compile a list of current customers, partners, respected leaders who speak highly of your brand, and even your employees. The most authentic B2B brand ambassadors are those who already use and love your products, so start building a list of the people you know rather than assuming you have to find an impartial advocate from the outside.

Consider Who Influences Your Current or Prospective Customers

Start by identifying your audience and then research to find out which thought leaders are highly regarded among current or potential customers. It will be easier to build a connection with your brand if you partner with people whom your prospects already trust.

Look Beyond Social Media

Not all thought leaders spend a lot of time online. Many are busy writing books, speaking, or conducting research. Many influencer marketing platforms use tools to identify potential influencers based on their social media “status,” so don’t rely only on these tools to find the best match for your brand.

Educate Your Influencers and Then Give Them Some Creative Freedom

Of course, you’ll want your influencers to be extremely knowledgeable about your company and the products you offer. Provide information relevant to brand strategy, message framework, messaging strategy, and tone of voice.

But your prospects don’t want to read or hear a canned sales message. Influencer marketing works because potential customers value and respect influencers’ knowledge and opinion apart from your brand. 

Give your content writers a break from crafting your brand message and let your influencers discover ways to tell your brand story in a way that’s authentic and will deliver brand messaging that resonates with your prospects. Then you can intervene to ensure they’re effectively communicating your value propositions, and including your most salient selling points.

Screen for Influencer Conflicts

You may think you’ve found your perfect influencer match, but if that thought leader has an existing relationship with a competitor or already partners with organizations that don’t align with your mission statement, it would be a mistake to form an association with that person.

Take Advantage of B2B Influencer Marketing For Your Brand

Marketing budgets as a percent of total revenue have dropped precipitously in 2021, and are currently at their lowest recorded level.[5] Companies need to find the most efficient ways to promote their products as advertising costs continue to rise.

Since word of mouth marketing is so effective for B2B selling, it’s worthwhile to consider a B2B influencer marketing program that relies on the thought leaders who are the best fit for your brand and products. Successful brands are those that vet potential influencers thoroughly, give them creative freedom, and run an always-on program that targets their most attractive prospects.