I was interviewing a Belgian CEO recently when I was struck by something he said about his updated website. “What we are doing now is creating content,” he said, “and by creating content, we are getting more leads and we are getting more known as a thought leader. And that’s the only strategy that that has worked. We tried a lot of things, but creating content remains the only good one.”
As an industry we’ve come a long way from the early 1990s, when creating content that would help any buyer in a category make a better decision without being promotional of a brand was viewed as curious or even contradictory to good marketing. The reaction used to remind me of a colleague who liked to say that drivers in Boston don’t use their turn signal to shift lanes because that would be “sharing information with the enemy.”
Why influencer communities are hot – and so difficult
Thought leadership lies at the core of the B2B marketing mix, and the latest wrinkle is the influencer community. These web-based communities are like user groups on steroids. By gathering a desirable audience – say CIOs or biotech executives – and giving them a platform to interact and discuss topics that are important to their success, the brand sponsoring the community becomes more strongly associated with the leading edge of a field and the sometimes rarefied conversations that inform a particular vertical market or corporate role.
Though the idea of an influencer community is simple, the execution can be tough sledding. They are what I call a slow burn: even after you’ve assembled some influencers and provided them with some interesting topics, success isn’t assured. You’ve got to create a vibrant community, draw readers and draw them back regularly, encourage interaction, tweak web design to optimize visits, and often ghost-write content on participants’ behalf. Allowing an influencer community to grow wings and rise to prominence and influence can take years. Which in the vocabulary of some CMOs equates to an eternity.
All the while, it’s essential to take a hands-off approach to any kind of promotional marketing. I’ve de-bookmarked many influencer sites as soon as the sheep’s clothing of thought leadership fell to reveal the product marketing wolf beneath. As the jazz bandleader Lester Lanin used to say of debutantes, BtoB buyers can smell a marketing shill a mile away.
One brand off to a strong start in the influencer community game is Tableau, the data visualization and analytics powerhouse that recently became part of Salesforce. Their Data Leadership Collaborative, or DLC, launched in the Spring of 2020, is a community focused on “bringing together leaders and change agents to share advice, experiences and inspiration, helping organizations advance together to create their own data culture.” Data culture is a hot topic in organizational circles these days, as everyone tries to get a handle on the oceans of data we are served up on a daily basis and use it to improve decision-making.
Here are a few of the things the DLC gets right:
It’s easy to get around. Stories are divided into Data Culture, Practice, Impact, and Leadership. You can also scroll through a carousel of recent content on the homepage.
The community has an impressive advisory board of data executives that crosses for-profit (Verizon, Oracle, Expedia Group), not-for-profit (National Health Service) and educational organizations (Data Literacy, Vanderbilt University, and Columbia). Contributors hail from the U.S., Japan, Australia, the U.K. and Singapore, to name a few countries.
The articles are brief, educational and focus on best practices. A few recent titles include “The New Vendor Contract: Three Ways to Redefine Software Partnerships for Mutual Benefit,” “7 Ways to Win the Talent War in 2022,” and “Why Data Ethics Isn’t Going Away.”
Interaction is built in. Periodically the DLC holds Braindates, which recall university office hours with a professor. You can sign up to discuss a topic with a data expert as part of a small group for 45 minutes, or one-on-one for 30 minutes, secure in the knowledge that your conversation will be confidential and interesting.
There’s a simple email newsletter sign-up. If you can’t come to the content as an inbound visitor, the DLC makes it easy for content to come to you once a quarter.
Though the DLC is off to an impressive start, it’s critical for any marketer pursuing thought leadership via influencers to remember that once committed to, the influencer community requires budget, staffing, and most of all, realism.
A highly successful influencer community, Red Hat’s Enterpriser’s Project, was in business for several years before the company started noticing that a third of its highest-profile leads were visiting the site regularly. During that same year a business professor placed the site on her MBA recommended reading list for students who wanted to understand the psychographics of the CIO. Today, in its eighth year, it’s so successful that contributors vie to get published on the community site. That’s the kind of thought leadership you can’t buy at any price.