Most marketers would agree that finding and persuading the individuals who shape markets is critical.  Word of mouse — the online buzz that comes when key influencers are tweeting, chatting, and posting about a product —  is often the difference between an industry leading brand and a laggard.

If you’re looking for a bit of magic to boost results in your 2012 marketing efforts, you might want to follow the lead of magic makers like J.K. Rowling and Peter Jackson, who ignored traditional media in favor of wooing and winning the hearts of social media and Internet influencers.

Author J.K. Rowling and her publicists at Scholastic and Warner Brothers did this with amazing results during the Harry Potter phenomena.  While mainstream journalists found it nearly impossible to get anywhere near Rowling for in-depth interviews, the editors of fan sites like The Leakey Cauldron scored invitations to her home for half-day recorded chats, got behind-the-scenes visits to closed movie sets, and permission to host live streaming video and audio from live events that banned mainstream media.

Rowling said that she wanted to focus on the young fans who bought her books instead of the mainstream media, so she selected a handful of top fan sites and communicated almost exclusively with them as each successive book, movie and new product rolled out.

Director/producer Peter Jackson did the same with The Lord of the Rings movies, and is repeating his strategy with The Hobbit.  Bloggers and fan-site editors from sites like The One Ring Net have been given advance character photos, movie set tours – even spots as extras in the films, and the chance to get posters signed during set visits.

The result for Rowling and Jackson was a rabid fan base pre-disposed to look kindly on the movies based on their favorite books instead of a skeptical fan base ready to find fault on opening night. (Of course, Jackson’s own spectacular video blogs and Facebook postings, as well as a large and active PR staff don’t hurt, either.)  Both of them created a fan base that was largely immune to whatever criticism the film might have gotten long before the first trailer hit the screen.  It’s a model that wasn’t lost on other marketers.

Don’t have a celebrity-filled film set that can help you turn skeptics into rabid fans?  No worries!  It’s still possible to create an effective social media influence program without trying to buy it.  Here are some ideas that have worked for other brands – which can you adapt for yours?

  • All Nippon Airways selected four Brand Ambassadors (influential travel writers or bloggers) for its new “Inspiration of Japan” cabin service from the U.S. to Japan.  Ambassadors disclosed that they were being given free airline tickets and other perks, and some like Neal Shaffer went further and described how the program worked and what kind of results the airline got from it.  Meanwhile, millions of people interested in travel received the tweets, blog posts, images and other commentary posted by the brand ambassadors – and the new service was a success almost from the beginning.
  • Beer-brewer Molson identifies top beer bloggers – harder than it seems, according to social media expert Paul Gillin, because so many people blog about beer — and invites them to beer-tasting evenings to try new beers.
  • Microsoft held “Bing salons” in cities around the world where a handful of “key influencers” were invited to preview the new search engine and get behind-the-scenes tips on how it worked.  Besides an advance Bing demo, the selected influencers enjoyed a nice dinner and plenty of time to socialize with each other and the Microsoft staff and PR firm people on hand, too.  And, of course, they got the caché that came from being identified by the giant software company as “an influencer” – which, given the fact that many of the invited guests were between 18 and 30, was actually a fairly big accomplishment.
  • Disney, Air New Zealand, Wal-Mart and many other brands have offered discount codes that bloggers can offer to readers.  This allows the blogger to say, “Just for our readers, use this discount code for X% off when you purchase this product from this company.”  That looks a less like a bribe for the blogger – and more like a benefit for the blog’s readers – and everybody seems to love this one.  It’s not that different from the affinity group marketing that’s been a staple for decades – how many cards in your wallet offer discounts for members or special savings when you show your card?  The average American has four or more:   a membership in a not-for-profit like the local NPR station, one or more credit or debit card that offers special members only perks, one reward or loyalty card from a local retail store, and one or more from a business or civic group they belong to that offers rewards for membership such as AARP, AAA, a university alumni association and so on.

A white paper published recently by Sysomos (part of MarketWire) starts with the idea that a decade ago, it was easy to spot the people who could influence markets, customers, and prospects.  The influencers were (largely) part of the media – print, broadcast, and a few high-profile online journalists.

Yes, there were always early adopters, community leaders (politicians, ministers, civic organizers, and so on), as well as industry-specific groups like computer user groups that were part of a smart marketer’s efforts to reach influential people, but their reach was highly targeted, and usually local.  Today’s influencers aren’t limited by geography or the number of personal contacts they have.

Users share over 110 million tweets and 1.5 billion posts on Facebook every day. That’s not even counting blogs, other social media channels, or the gurus who always seem to have the answer to a question on LinkedIn or other forums.

“It’s possible for someone who blogs frequently and knowledgeably to beat The New York Times in search results,” says Paul Gillin, author of three books on social media, commenting in the Sysomos white paper.  And it’s possible for someone with the right Twitter hashtag to do so as well.

It isn’t always easy to measure influence, or understand why one communications channel works better than another.  For example, Forbes.com blogger David Coursey picked up and reposted an article from this blog a few weeks ago.  Over 80,000 readers saw it on Forbes.  But according to Google analytics, and the social media monitoring application (Bufferapp.com) used to monitor results from the blog’s twitter feed (@distmarketing), more clicks on the article came from Twitter than from Forbes.com.  How many followers does the blog’s Twitter account have?  About 300.

Still, 3,800 people clicked on a single tweets about the blog post.  (It got just three retweets, none by users with more than a few hundred followers.) Overall, almost exactly as many people saw the article on our site as on Forbes.com — and our twitter account was the second largest referral source for the Forbes article.  How?  Hashtags.  So does that mean that our Twitter account is more influential than Forbes.com?  Of course not.  It just means that during the week after the article appeared more people searched for the Twitter hashtag #LinkedIn than visited Forbes.com and found one article among the many posted there.  (For tips on timing social media, check out Dan Zarella’s research.)

If “influence” varies by day, time of day, and subject, how does a marketer identify the influencers who to include in a brand’s multi-channel marketing outreach (PR, blogger relations, social media marketing, product review and sampling initiatives, and so on)?  Especially in a distributed marketing environment where corporate sets campaign strategy, but the campaigns (and sales) are made locally?

One way is to rely on influence ratings like Klout, PeerIndex, and Traackrr.  Another is to subscribe to a service like WE Trendz Pro from PR giant Waggener Edstrom, or FlipTop that help you identify and profile social media influencers.  FlipTop, for example, takes almost any email address and turns it into a social media profile that shows you someone’s public Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook accounts.  Social CRM applications like Socialware are also very helpful, especially for companies in regulated industries where the product’s approval and monitoring functions are essential.

And then there’s the most valuable tactic of all:  paying attention.  Most of us market in fairly narrow niche markets.  We might sell life insurance or financial services products – which are very broad categories – but most of us have specific target audiences within that niche.  Maybe it’s financial services products targeted at young, affluent recent college graduates making their first long-term financial plan, or newly married couples, or baby-boomers nearing retirement and worried about the future.

So what channels influence them?  If it turns out that a large segment of your target market have Facebook or Twitter profiles themselves, take a representative sample of your market – 5-10% of a sample group that is “typical” of your target buyer – and actually dive into their profiles.  What do they subscribe to?  Who do they follow?  Who do they retweet or repost or share?  How do you find out if your target audience uses social media?  You can ask them, or use a service like FlipTop to turn their email address into a social media profile.

In nearly every group an amazingly small number of “must reach” influencers are likely to crop up.  One financial services marketer identified a core group of just 60 social media influencers that its target audience seemed to have in common – and getting one of those influencers to start talking about their product positively made a measurable difference in short-term results.

The key according Gillin – himself an influencer in a number of categories from technology to social media – is to make influencers feel special and part of the club.  Don’t give them rewards – nothing that makes it look like you’re trying to buy influence, because that almost always backfires – but instead give them an inside look at how something works.  This harks back to the examples set by Rowling and Jackson: the fan sites who get behind the scenes tours and interviews aren’t flown to New Zealand or England at the company’s expense.  Some of them held fund-raisers to pay for the trip, and others simply dug deep into their own pockets or their family’s resources to pay for the trip.  Instead of staying at posh hotels, one fan site webmaster camped out in a National Park near where the movie was filming, and others stayed at low-cost backpacker inns.

What kind of program are you planning for 2012 that will reach the people who shape and influence your markets?  What tools will you use to execute it?   As business slows for many of us at the end of the year, perhaps these are the questions to ponder to insure success next year.

Photo credit:  Eric Vespe, aka Quint from aintitcoolnews, shared this photo from a site visit to Matamata New Zealand to visit the closed film set for Peter Jackson’s film The Hobbit, due in 2012.  More photos and stories from Vespe’s visit are included here (if you’re a Tolkien fan, read the multi-part series!).