Roundtable: The Global Rise Of B2B Influence

Apr 23, 2024
Roundtable: The Global Rise Of B2B Influence

PRovoke Media partnered with Ogilvy PR to discuss why influencer marketing is one of the B2B world's fastest-growing communications priorities.

The world of influencer marketing is nothing new to marketing and communications leaders, but much of its impact has been viewed through the prism of consumer engagement. In the B2B sector, the rise of influencers has been a less celebrated phenomenon but is no less relevant, particularly when you consider the rapid growth of LinkedIn. 

Recent research from Ogilvy suggests that B2B influence has reached a global tipping point, with brands now beginning to realise the untapped opportunity it now presents. Ogilvy’s research reveals that 75% of B2B marketers are now actively employing influencer marketing, with 93% planning to increase their spend after positive results. 

But the study also reveals that most CMOs are barely scratching the surface of influencer marketing’s potential, despite its status as one of the industry’s most rapidly growing priorities. To examine these trends in greater detail, PRovoke Media partnered with Ogilvy to convene a Roundtable of B2B marketing and communications leaders from across the world. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 


James Baldwin, head of influence Asia, Ogilvy Asia

Carolyn Camoens, director, APAC communications, Zendesk

Miki Hirasawa Ashton, global manager, sustainability engagement, public affairs, 3M

Abhinav Kumar, global CMO, Tata Consultancy Services

Keith Morrison, director, regional marketing and communications, APAC, EMEA, LATAM, Black & Veatch

Arun Sudhaman, editor—in—chief, PRovoke Media (moderator)

The changing nature of B2B influence

Perhaps the obvious place to start the discussion was to define what we mean by B2B influencers. In the consumer world, an influencer is often easier to spot, but our B2B participants demonstrated considerable diversity in their answers – beyond the ubiquitous LinkedIn thought leader. 

James Baldwin (JB): I think business influence isn't new. I think businesses have been utilizing it for years. The evolution of that has developed since social has played a much bigger role and it has evolved in a couple of ways. The first is scale, platforms have given us this huge accessibility to new types of influences, and new types of authority. Typically in the old world, B2B influence used to be a hyper local exercise when either it was a one to one introduction or potentially small gatherings like a talk or a meeting where your audience might be up to 100 people. Whereas digital platforms give you massive accessibility, but also give you a much more specific choice of influencers. Businesses are so specific now in partnering with experts that have a very nuanced and targeted audience. It has evolved from that small target audience to a much more mass audience. 

Abhinav Kumar (AK): If you look at the business we are in, which is in the technology, consulting and services business, it's a very large and complex business. We have $30bn in revenues. We have 604k employees in 55 countries across the world. It's a massive, well spread out business. But from a point of view, it's a relatively simple business. We work with a 1,400 customers across the world. They're all enterprise customers. You know, I often joke that you take out a Fortune 500 list — I pin it to my wall and throw darts at the dartboard, I'm going to hit a client! There’s 1,400 we work with, and maybe there's another thousand whom we don't work with and we'd love to work with. In each company, there's seven or eight people who have an effective role in the buying decision. Whether in renewing the business, which we do with them, or in considering us for new business. So if you do the math, there are 20,000 people across the world who effectively hold the destiny of our company in their hands.

We've been in the influence game from the onset. If you look at what works in the buying process with these enterprise customers we work with, they're usually very senior level executives ‑ the chief information officer, chief technology officer, many places the CEO is involved, definitely the CFO in terms of looking at returns on their investments and technology. Using influence in terms of references is really vital, because whenever one of these clients makes a decision to work with us, it's significant work, it's strategic work in many cases. A large part of it is them talking to someone we previously worked with. Using the influence of our previous clients and references, talking to those who track this industry, there are a lot of analyst firms here. Firms like Gartner, Forrester, IDC etc ‑ they've been the traditional influencers. We've looked to see who influences these C—levels — inside the business world, somebody's reference point was very important. Often they look up to political leaders ‑ it often helps to get regulators and others in the room, too. But on the running property side, as humans, there's a very different range of people who they look up to. We signed on with Des Linden, who's a very accomplished athlete in the US ‑ she was the winner of the Boston Marathon. 

Keith Morrison (KM): It's still a maturing sector, but certainly we are in the game of influence. The buying center is essentially becoming more complex. In the past, I think there was a more concentrated buyer center. I look at my company where our salespeople have evolved quite a lot. They used to be very relationship—based selling, and we're trying to kind of evolve that in different ways using digital technologies. We work with a technology evangelist from a paid influencer point of view who is going to key industry conferences and he'll interview a few of our people through his network. We're also looking at other things like advisory boards. You test your strategies with other CEOs, but also then get inputs and insights on their businesses as well. It's quite a small world and it gets niche quite quickly, and it is quite interconnected. So how do you crack that? It's difficult. 

JB: What you'll notice is influence is typically looked at on a scale of micro to mid to macro to celebrity. That's not how we see it. Around every decision maker, you have different types of influences on their decision. A policymaker is an authority in making sure that you're doing things right. But businesses are going to tell you about your operational side, technical people are going to tell you how to implement it. You need all of these around one decision maker. Working with influencers shouldn't just be, pick one and create some content with that person. Create a bank of talent that can answer all these different questions for one single decision maker. 

Miki Hirasawa Ashton (MHA): 3M is a very diversified company. We used to have healthcare — we just spun it off a few weeks ago. But actually, we used influencer marketing for B2B heavily on healthcare. That's one of the things that is easy. Why? Because it's around patient care, and patient care needs to have more people involvement, even with the doctors or the clinicians that we work with. It was always a bit trickier in the industrial B2B context, to be honest. And that was a major issue when were actually trying to get buy in to use social media influencers in the past. For us, influencers are just paid influential voices to promote, to advocate products and solutions. In the B2B context, we rely probably more on consultants or more subject matter experts. It is curious to see that everybody wants to actually increase their spend in B2B influencer marketing. I was reading in HubSpot that the market is valued at $14 billion for 2023, and they estimate that would be increasing this year.

I feel that a B2B influencer is done better by leveraging employee advocacy. I think if you want to have an authentic voice, a better voice, I would rather an agency focus on the people. Our R&D people are like mini rising stars that can actually engage stronger with their network. The quality of their network, but also the relevance of the network we're trying to reach out to — what we call the rise of micro influencers. It empowers the employee at a time where we actually restructure a lot. It actually creates more authenticity in the brand voice. We figured that nobody else but us could actually explain our product better, but we needed to kind of empower those people who can talk about it in a more public way. 

AK: We probably have a new term for it — the internal influencers. Our internal communications team has a list of our own colleagues who have an outsize following inside the company. Being a company with a pretty large employee base, they regularly tap these people when there's a message to be played out inside. Not on internal company Internet or whatever, but even on outside channels like LinkedIn. We have a colleague who, for example, is a bit of a renaissance man — he does research on food and he talks about cooking, also he’s a musician, so he’s very active. He's a bit of a TikTok influencer in that sense, he's very active on Instagram. They figured out that a large percentage of our company, something like 4—5% of our workforce, actually follows this one person. So they've been effectively tapping him from time to time. I think that's an interesting concept you brought on about using internal influencers as well, especially in the age of the talent wars and the recent great resignation. 

Carolyn Camoens (CC): I think what's really interesting is that the influence landscape is just such a broad and diverse one. Often, whether we're on the consulting side of things or whether we're internal and we're advising our stakeholders internally, there always seems to be this desire to find the silver bullet. Very few companies invested in understanding where their audience was, to really understand how to engage. I think there was this idea that if a platform was big, that's where you needed to be, without thinking also about whether that was where your audience was. Then the other question was about volume over value. Whether it was better to be engaging an influencer that was engaging 10 of the most important people that you needed to reach, rather than hundreds and thousands of people who might not necessarily have any impact. I think those things have shifted over time.

One of the shifts I've seen that's really interesting, though, is how people moving out of media have then established their own channels, which in the past would have looked like a blog, but are now legit publications. An ex—journalist who is now the editor of their own publication — one person creating content for that whole production. That has changed the way we engage as well, because that one person cannot create all of the content. There are many ways in which we can work with them, and that's made the whole influencer engagement model just completely change and be dynamic.

In Japan, for example, we have people involved in the decision—making process of vendors that we work with who are almost like referral agencies. I go to them, they give us a bunch of information on whether or not that potential vendor is credible. That is somebody who is not in media, not in your traditional kind of sphere of influence that you would typically look at, but who is fundamental to decision making. Once a quarter, I make sure that they have updated information because these are people that are helping my potential customers essentially make the right decisions. 

Relevance & resonance

Our participants pointed to a broad range of B2B influencers – from client referrals, to CEO advisory boards, popular employees, analysts, independent journalists and even runners. That underlines the ways in which B2B influence is evolving fast. But if the influencer landscape is evolving at such a dizzying pace, it poses challenges in terms of the criteria that businesses use to identify and select the right influencers for their efforts.

For one thing, as our participants noted, global companies remain somewhat fixated with the notion that one influencer might resonate with all of their audiences. For another, the risks involved in bringing in an influencer that doesn’t align with the brand are substantial.   

MHA: I personally find it extremely challenging to find a good influencer. First, to find an influencer that would be ethical and compliant with our sourcing policy. We go through quite a long exercise of actually vetting every single supplier that we have. And an influencer is definitely a supplier. The second thing is it is extremely difficult to manage the influencer. We have actually witnessed the influencer who just bails out. It is very difficult without an agency. There is a critical need to have that consistent voice. It is impossible to have one internal marketer trying to actually control all of this. I think it is far easier and far more efficient to use a proper agency that can actually monitor the activity of the influencer.

One of the things that I definitely look into when I look into the influencer is the proven track record within the industry — the deeply engaged audience. How much engagement did they get? One of the things that is very important for me, is there's not a one size fits all kind of influencer. I think we really forget about the local resonance of the influencer. We tend to select an influencer that we think can actually talk across all countries. It just doesn't work. We have more centralized marketers today, and that local relevance is kind of forgotten. So, yes, it is around alignment with your values and your objectives, but it is also about the relevance within the context that you are in. 

AK: When you're looking at an influencer, there are two fundamental points of value. The first is their endorsement value. The authority of their voice, which lends credibility to your product or your cause or whatever you're engaging them for. That's one thing. The other thing is, of course, their reach — both the size of their reach and their ability to tap into new audiences, which you as an organization may not yet have reach with.

But also within this whole thing is an evaluation of the risk. If you're engaging with an influencer, you are in a sense, bringing them under your brand umbrella. Before we engage anyone, we do a full evaluation of that influencer and the risk they could potentially pose. Are they erratic with their voice? Apart from this cause, which they may be strong on, are there other causes they're representing, which may be out of harmony with our own brand? That is absolutely crucial. At times, when companies jump in and engage influencers, just looking at the size of their reach, that's when things can often go wrong. The examples are replete — probably the largest one over the last year was AB InBev. You have to take a very considered decision — much more in B2B than in B2C, where you already work with a range of brand ambassadors, and you're used to doing this on a natural level in that assessment. B2B companies are getting into this game. You can easily also get it quite wrong. 

KM: We're very eager to learn, we're eager to experiment, but it's step by step on how you engage with this new set of vendors. In terms of the risk that they bring into your brand. There's a lot of upside in terms of amplification. There's risks [in terms of employee advocacy], too, but at least they're already part of your organization. I think the challenge is the point that Miki brought up in terms of relevance. You can amplify, then you have to zoom back in. You’ve got to be very relevant very quickly. We can go to an ex journalist or a tech evangelist and amplify. But is that amplification really improving the stickiness and engagement of the message that will lead to business? From further down the funnel, getting to the buying decision, it's harder to see that connection and then harder to justify budget spend towards an influencer to lead to sales, when there's probably other ways that we could be amplifying the brand and amplifying our message that are more understood and easier to execute. 

CC: I think getting the buy in internally is a big part of it, because I think there's not a lot of people within the organization that will understand stakeholder engagement in the way that those of us that practise it every day do. And so there's always this caution about people whose narratives we can't manage. That is a big part of being able to manage an effective program as well, and who you engage as an influencer, because you have to satisfy everyone internally before you do this, that it isn't going to go pear shaped at some point. You have to have the stomach for that level of dynamism before you even engage at all. 

JB: The first thing I would say is you start with strategy and brand alignment. A lot of people start with influencers. A lot of people start with looking down their fees and seeing who they like or who they follow. That's not the right place to start. You have to think brand strategy first and brand alignment. Yes, we can partner with influencers that we haven't partnered with yet or are not customers. That plays a role. But the reputation and the credibility of what they're saying is so much stronger when they already know your business and have worked with you. Proven track record of success, consistency of messaging in the space. A lot of those things are subjective. Is their voice credible?

What we advise and help brands with is creating a consistent scoring system, so you can assess the overall strength of an influencer. But secondly, most importantly, everything needs to be rooted in data and vetting. Before we do all this, we conduct audience and social listening analysis. What do our audience want to hear about that isn't saturated ‑ aligning an influencer's authentic point of view with our targeted messaging. We then go down into the final level, which is assessing the network maps — ensuring that we know the influencer that we're working with is partnered or is connected to that optimum decision maker.

It's making sure that you don't just give them a task and let them run wild. You assess what they're doing day to day. You analyze that conversation, you advise them on how to communicate — are they open to that? And then the final thing is long term partnerships – which just add so much more credibility to what we're doing. Our audience is way too smart to just accept an influencer for what they're saying. If it's a one—off partnership, they can see through that. They see they're being paid for it, and it reduces credibility. 

CC: I'd like to ask a question there, James. Please correct me if I'm wrong, I'd genuinely like to know whether audiences still have a bias against content that appears to have been paid for.

JB: I think this is one of the big differences between B2B and B2C. In the B2C space, we're all used to influencers on our social channels, holding up a product and saying how much they love this toothpaste. However, if you're partnering with the right people, the thought leaders, the key opinion leaders (KOLs) that you're working with, their whole reputation and their whole business success rides on what they say and rides on them having credibility in their voice. I think that alone is a reassurance for most people in the B2B space that what they're saying is credible. There's that added reassurance that particularly with the stronger influencers, their network has been following them for months, years, decades, sometimes. So they can trust in the voice that what they're saying is true, but they will notice if that varies from their natural content. I think people do trust the voice, but they're very quick to call out anything that's not true. 

MHA: What is your take on AI powered influencer marketing? Is this a technology that you think is too early or is it something that you have actually already implemented? 

JB: I think it will become more and more part of what we're doing. One, the selection process can be automated, putting those criteria in place that can automatically align and give us a brand value or brand score. Virtual influencers — not a lot of people understand them or even believe in them right now, but there are certain cases. We have a big healthcare client that focuses on vaccines and diseases, particularly in Asia—Pacific. A lot of these conversations are a little bit taboo, difficult to speak about. We have cases where we've built virtual influencers and AI influencers to be able to communicate with our audience in a way that they don't want to communicate with real people. One thing worth mentioning as well is the other side of the benefits of AI influence. 40% of people now can't tell an AI image versus a real image. So we launched the AI Accountability Act to encourage brands and agencies to disclose when AI is being used to make sure that we maintain that sense of what's real, which is a really important part of that AI conversation. 

Metrics & ROI

In various ways, the Roundtable participants had already indicated the importance of ROI metrics to their influencer decisions. Morrison, for example, previously asked whether influencer outreach was driving buying decisions, while Camoens had described the difficulties involved in securing internal buy—in. Understanding the best ways to measure to B2B influencer activity, accordingly, turned into a crucial part of the discussion – particularly in terms of looking across the whole marketing funnel. 

KM: My first thought would be to go back to basics. What's the strategy and what are you trying to do? If you are trying to use B2B influencers to amplify or grow your brand, increase your reach to new audiences, then you apply the metrics to that. I would question whether other tactics are  maybe more proven and more effective. The real value in working in B2B marketing is that, ultimately, we're trying to drive sales. It's harder to show that line to sales. A lot of that comes through the source of your lead and how that's guided through your CRM system. 

JB: This was a big part of the research that we did. Influence is typically thought of as awareness, top of funnel. Whereas of the CMOs that we interviewed and surveyed, 50% actually said they were using influencers for that mid—funnel relationship—building stage because of the authentic human relationship you can build. And then another 50% said they're using influencers for that final ROI sales funnel stage. Another thing was that ROI is now more visible through influencer marketing than it's ever been. 43% of people surveyed said that the main benefit that they got from influencer marketing was warmer leads or an increased volume of leads as the biggest success factor. 

AK: I think when you look at influencer marketing and communications, I don't believe it needs a different set of KPI measures. That's how we see it. It's a tactic or it's a channel which you use, but the returns you're going to get for it need to feed into what are your standard KPIs and in terms of whatever your objectives are as a business. In B2B, it's complex because buying cycles are long, there's multiple touches which go on inside the buying cycle. It's a question of attribution — one piece of communication, one product brochure, one meeting with a customer at an event is not what led to the sale. In our business, between connecting with a potential new customer through whatever channel they came in, through web or social or a quick meeting or whatever, until then doing business with us, often there are 13 or 14 touch points. For us, if the influencer is one of these touch points, it just flows into the attribution model which we are using. We may not measure it very differently. 

MHA: It's really around the strategy that you're trying to achieve at which place in the funnel. What are you trying to achieve and what kind of conversion are you trying to do? What James was saying around you actually select your influencer based on your strategy really resonated. When you actually talk at a business level, which is more sales orientated, I think the metrics will be the normal B2B KPI. What is your lead to sales? What is your return on marketing investment? I think it really depends on who you talk to. We use something called the earned media value. And, of course, one of the things that is underrated is the engagement rate. 

CC: One of the challenges from all of this is to build the appetite internally for diverse and dynamic metrics. If we are going to adopt a model that looks at things more from a campaign centric perspective, then we are not going to have the same metrics every single time. For the decision makers and the purse keepers, that's not always something that's easy for them to wrap their heads around or accept. On top of that, what are we looking at? I think about an instance where Microsoft unveiled Satya as the new CEO, they had an employee just walk through the campus with him, asking him questions about who he was. That's something that's very difficult to put a finger on and say, if he had done Forbes, how would that have stacked up? These are not apples to apples comparisons. But that was an incredibly powerful way to introduce a CEO.

AK: I think we might be at the Nike moment for influencers. The Nike point of everyone's an athlete, everyone's an influencer.

Concluding advice

The discussion concluded with each participant offering their closing piece of advice when it comes to B2B influencer marketing. 

CC: It’s about using these partnerships to do what you can't — whethe because you don't have the resources or you're in whatever way constrained. This is where working with an influencer who might bring some great thinking into the different ways in which content can be shaped, formed, delivered. These are the ways that we get the best value out of those relationships, which is just to use them to do the things that you can't. 

KM: For me, it's rethink B2B influence and what it does, but be very careful on making sure you're planning and asking why you were doing it in order to find new ways to unlock better business outcomes. 

MHA: I'm quite partial to micro influencers. I would say, don't neglect your current customer base, because sometimes your best influencer might just exist within your happy customer poll. You can look at brand advocates. When I see someone with 30,000 followers on LinkedIn, I always find it quite impressive. I don't know the value of all that network connection, but I think it's quite influential. Also, I would say, don't exclude the idea of building your own stars and prioritize long term relationships. At 3M, we have something called America’s Top Scientists, which is a competition where our scientists mentor young future scientists. One of them actually became a Time magazine 2020 kid of the year. Her name is Gitanjali Rao. When you actually build your own influencers, they also become already bought into your brand. Your contact with your influencer doesn't end on the day you actually finalize a sale or whatever you wanted to achieve with them, but it evolved a long way as the person also evolves. 

AK: There’s probably a three step process businesses need to go through. The first step is sort of have the clarity on what you want to achieve with it. Use this to achieve what you can't do yourself otherwise. Be very clear on what's your business objective. The second step is to really do that hard work on knowing your audience and doing that research on what really influences them or what do they look up to. Based on which you'll be able to produce a list of people who meet that criteria. And then the third step is then a proper vetting of these to see who influences your audiences, how many of them meet that filter of the brand alignment with your organization. And the last piece is of course, if you're making that investment, you need to justify that investment. 

JB: The first thing I would say is that influence can play a role at every stage of the funnel, from awareness to relationship building, down to sales. And even after the sales have happened. Influencers play a really important role in helping our clients understand our products more. Especially in B2B, where products can always be complex, influencers play a role in that retention revenue as well. So, think all the way through the funnel. The second thing is, think bigger than content. It's really easy to think about influencers as content generators for social media, but integration is a huge value. Think about different ways that you can utilise them – it could be bringing them to a sales meeting to impress a prospective client or bringing them to your R&D workshops so that industry experience can benefit the products or services that you're building. Have them come talk to your employees to motivate them or educate them. Think about those value added benefits that will add more brand advocacy than any short term sale. The final thing is the point around employee advocacy. It was probably the single biggest thing that CMOs mentioned that was undervalued or underutilized. There's an amazing stat from LinkedIn that says your combined network of all of your employees is on average, 10x than your brand audience itself. If you're not using that huge untapped network, you're missing a massive opportunity that is largely free if you understand how to communicate through your employees. 

Source: provokemedia