Sophisticated marketers have long recognized the importance of third-party influencers to consumer purchases. Companies that sell their products through distributors, dealers, channel partners or other businesses devote significant sales and marketing resources to influence these businesses because they drive consumer sales. It's called Business-to-Business-to-Consumer marketing, or B-to-B-to-C.
Consider the case of a specialty pet food manufacturer. They recognize the influential role veterinarians play in the purchasing decisions of pet owners and focus their marketing program accordingly. They provide veterinarians with extensive product information including sample packs, and institute sales credit programs and other incentives. To support these efforts with consumers, they distribute coupons and discounts redeemable only at the pet owner's veterinarian.
Now the dynamics have changed and companies must also consider the consumers' outside influencers.
1. Consumers are exposed to multiple purchase influencers. It used to be that product insights and competitive comparisons—the core information that influences consumer purchases—were available only within industry networks. To tap that information, consumers had to go to a dealer or distributor.
Now consumers can go online to find expert reviews of the pros and cons of competing products. They learn from the experiences of countless others who have bought before them. And they can poll their trusted friends, and their friends' friends, for their opinions and experiences. They can marshal these resources for virtually any consumer purchase, at any time of the day or night, from anywhere they happen to be.
Take the example of the pet food marketer. Certainly the advice of veterinarians still carries weight with pet owners. Five years ago, however, that advice might have been the only recommendation a dog owner would trust. Today that same owner can visit innumerable websites—and probably multiple Facebook groups—devoted not only to the care and feeding of dogs in general but to their specific breed. If their pet has a medical condition, the owner can find websites devoted to that, as well.
Any one of these other influences may not be strong enough on its own to overcome a vet's advice. But if multiple sources recommend a different product, the pet owner may well be convinced to make at least a trial purchase—and the marketer's investment in traditional B-to-B-to-C marketing will be at risk.
2. A new paradigm for digital-age consumers: Business-to-Influencer marketing. To succeed in this new marketplace, marketers must look beyond the tried-and-true business influencers they have relied upon to deliver product information and other persuasive messages to consumers. They must broaden their thinking to include the whole wide world of digital influencers who can sway the decisions of prospects and customers alike—for or against their products or services.
To do this, marketers will have to adopt new tools and techniques. But the goals in this new world of Business-to-Influencer (B-to-I) marketing are familiar:
- Reinforce positive influencers;
- Counter negative influencers; and
- Convert your most loyal customers into positive influencers.
3. Creating an effective engagement model. As with any important marketing program, start by creating a business plan that identifies business goals and opportunities, and links them to prospect and customer needs. The plan should including quantitative goals, and establish key performance indicators with benchmarks to define progress.
Next, develop a clear understanding of prospect needs and customer experiences throughout the customer lifecycle, based on qualitative and quantitative research, and data analysis. Traditional tools, such as focus groups and surveys, can provide insights. But newer techniques, like social media listening research—which taps millions rather than hundreds of consumers, and allows participants to direct the conversation rather than relying on predefined questions—is even more useful.
This research provides the data needed to map consumer experiences with influencers of all types, online and offline. These insights in turn are the basis for creating an engagement model that focuses on delivering the right message to the right people at the right time via the right channel—email, direct mail, social, Web.
The engagement model should lay out a systematic approach that engages consumers at all stages of the customer lifecycle, from earliest demonstrated interest through trial to regular and—ultimately—loyal customers.
An effective engagement model will take into account three different venues to interact with customers:
- One-to-one engagement using personalized content relevant to each consumer's interests and needs, and contingent on the consumer's permission. This can include targeted emails or online advertising based on a prospect's purchasing interests or history, as well as targeted and triggered communications stemming from consumer actions, such as a purchase or website visit.
- Social engagement using commercial social media, such as affinity groups on Facebook, as well as non-commercial media that could include sponsored affinity groups, outreach to bloggers and the like.
- Traditional face-to-face engagement leveraging your existing dealer or distributor network to reach consumers, as well as direct-to-consumer impressions through in-store events or representatives.
With consumers in charge, it's essential that your communications through these engagement opportunities be personal and respectful. You must always give your recipients the opportunity to opt out, to avoid creating a negative impression that could drive a consumer to become a negative influencer.
Because your goal is to build a community or network of positive influencers, your communications should always offer recipients opportunities to socialize their consumer experiences, through social engagement venues such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as any affinity groups you may sponsor through your website.
4. Data management is an essential component of your strategy. Because effective engagement revolves around relevant communications, you must have an actionable data management solution in place. Timely, meaningful messaging requires timely and accurate customer data, effectively linked to outbound marketing channels.
Fortunately, the options for gaining a comprehensive view of prospects and customers by identifying and employing rich datasets have never been stronger. For example, it's now possible to bring together varied data resources, such as offline demographic, psychographic and lifestyle data; purchase behavior, including online and offline data; and comprehensive online behavior via clicktrack data. The result is detailed audience profiles that guide both relevant messaging and effective targeting for online media placements.
5. Two likely obstacles-and how to handle them
Turf trouble. Many companies that sell through dealer or distributor networks manage their B-to-B-to-C marketing activities through the sales organization. While B-to-I marketing maintains dealer programs, it shifts resources toward consumers. That shift toward consumers can lead to conflicts between sales and marketing organizations; which, in turn, can undermine budgeting and coordination.
The best way to avoid this pitfall is to work toward gaining executive-level buy-ins from both the sales and marketing organizations before launching a B-to-I initiative. Short of that, a C-suite champion may be needed to help referee conflicts and support a coordinated effort.
Resistance. Inaugurating a B-to-I marketing program is a major shift in focus for most companies, representing a change from established marketing practices in terms of both audience (businesses to consumers) and venues (offline to online). Implementing such major shifts can lead to significant questions about the value of B-to-I marketing in the best cases—in the worst, irrational resistance. To combat this kind of foot-dragging, it's imperative to develop a solid business case with a realistic and defensible ROI for multiple horizons during the implementation process.
6. Start now. B-to-I marketing is a new and rapidly changing discipline, evolving at a rapid pace. Best practices are still quite new. You should begin your program knowing that the solutions you implement during your program's early stages may change. All of this makes some marketers nervous.
But that's no reason to wait—because your customers are already there. They're comfortable gaining product insights through this new world of on-demand influencers—and making purchase decisions accordingly.
Companies that fail to develop a clear, focused approach to enter and compete in this new world will simply be left behind, wondering where all the customers have gone.