The mobile and social revolution in digital technology has disrupted traditional media businesses and opened up opportunities for a diverse array of new influencers and audience aggregators.

Despite these changes, there’s still a place for traditional PR and marketing activities in most businesses. Stories need to be envisioned and told. Content needs to be designed and created. And people need to reach out to other people and communicate.

However, many PR firms and marketing agencies – and their clients – misunderstand how to effectively work with this new breed of digital influencers. The best approach, gleaned from years of first-hand experience, is precisely not to market and pitch to influencers, but instead to build relationships and nurture engagement with them.

This strategic approach to influencer outreach and engagement can play a complementary role in helping marcomm firms and agencies advance their clients’ interests most effectively.


What is influencer outreach and engagement?

Let’s start with definition of influencer outreach and engagement, because it can mean different things in different settings. I’m interested in business-to-business sales settings, where influencers are typically not celebrities (as they often are in business-to-consumer sales), but rather subject matter experts who have managed to build an online following around their personality and expertise.

Influencer outreach and engagement typically involves the following activities:

  • Identifying influential people with authority and reach in a target market;
  • Networking and building relationships with these people through social networks;
  • Communicating your brand value story through these relationships and interactions.

Note that I am explicitly not using the word “marketing” in describing the approach to influencers because influencers are not our target market – they are a pathway to our target market. We want influencers to be aware of our offering, recognize its value and communicate it to their networks. We want the influencer’s influence, not their business.

Why influencer outreach and engagement isn’t typically done well

There are many reasons why PR and marketing firms don’t typically do influencer engagement and outreach work or, if they do, don’t do it well:

  • PR and marketing firms tend to focus on corporate brands, whereas influencer outreach and engagement is best leveraged through people and individually-led social networking and engagement activities. This entails identifying suitable individual business leaders among their clients and supporting those individuals in direct personal outreach to and engagement of influencers – a departure from traditional brand-based PR and marketing work.
  • PR and marketing firms tend to pitch to media that expect to receive pitches, even want the pitches. However, the world of influencer outreach and engagement focuses on people that are not professional media people. They are subject matter experts, consultants, vendors, academics, and just interested people. These influencers tend to be less open to traditional marketing and PR approaches because their motivations for being active online are different: they are online to stay informed and learn from their peers – other influencers – and share this knowledge with their audience. Some marketing and PR tactics can undermine the influencers’ credibility.
  • Social networks and online communities are based on mutual benefit and adding value. People gain authority, audience, and influence by adding value to the community and promoting other members of the community – not promoting themselves. Generally speaking, professional PR and marketing firms are hired precisely to promote their clients, so this can cause a disconnect when the main mode of engagement is promoting others. It’s not uncommon for target influencers to be contacted by junior agency staff with a clumsy ask on behalf of their client. These approaches fail to recognize that you get more from influencers when you earn the right to ask.

Influencer outreach and engagement done well

Effective influencer outreach and engagement programs can build visibility, thought leadership and contribute positively to a company’s bottom line, when they are built on these strategic activities:

1. Always be identifying your target influencers

Start by using social analytics tools to identify your target influencer group. Selecting who you should focus on is a subjective activity, but there are a variety of data-driven tools and online resources you can use to reveal key candidates. If you have knowledge of a target market, you can ask other influential people in the market space who they pay attention to. It doesn’t take long to compile a list of top influencers. Listening for insights and iterating your target influencer list is the best way to stay current.

2. Contribute value to the influencer community

Influencer outreach and engagement is more akin to personal networking than anything else. It’s certainly NOT marketing, which is why you need to be wary of “influencer marketing” tools and strategies. Influencers are not our target clients; it’s their trust and, well, influence that we want. The best way to build this trust and attract influencers is to promote them by curating and sharing their content and insights. Participate in industry discussions online, attend community events and conferences and be seen to be a supporter of the community and its members. And always strive to create (and share) valuable content that informs and helps others in the community.

3. Take a long-term view to building relationships with influencers

Real relationships drive business and social networks offer a myriad of opportunities to develop better relationships with influencers. Start by taking a long view influencer outreach and engagement; after all, these are influential people in your industry with large audiences in your target market and you want their long-term respect, NOT one tweet or mention. Get to know these influencers as people because business IS personal – find the ones you like, seek common ground and build trust. This approach will take you a long way to earning the right to ask influencers for their help. And when you do it right, you won’t even need to ask for help in many situations – it will be offered.

Influencer outreach and engagement complements PR and marketing

Digital technology has remade human social networks and communication over the past two decades and this dramatic change is only going to continue and accelerate.

However, some things haven’t changed as much or as quickly: people.

We humans still need to share stories. And we rely our networks, digital and otherwise, to stay informed on important issues – whether it’s Facebook to keep up with the lives of our friends and family, or LinkedIn and Twitter to stay abreast of key developments in the rapidly-changing industries in which we work.

And we still have basic human desires to connect with other people and to reciprocate when someone offers to help us without asking for anything.

For these reasons, influencer outreach and engagement is the perfect complement to a sophisticated digital marketing plan and professionally-managed brand image because it serves our human needs to know, like, and trust the people we do business with.