Influencers – a new force in corporate PR?

By Megan West-Hill

The media landscape has changed dramatically in recent years – in New Zealand as much as anywhere in the developed world.

The runaway new kids on the block – now quite mature – have been the various social media channels, which will be familiar to most people. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like.

A parallel development of note has been the trend for people to increasingly mistrust “news” channels – and get their news via social media channels, which are quick to act on information, much quicker than traditional channels in many cases. More and more people, especially young people, additionally seek word-of-mouth endorsement of a product, service, idea or piece of news. And often they “follow” people of influence – influencers.

Influencers are people acknowledged by their followers as being connected and savvy about some particular area – they guide consumers on trends and purchase choices. But there is growing scope for influencers to play a role in the corporate world. So how do influencers and their social media tools fit into the PR frame?

Corporates have brands and/or services they want to promote and increasingly need to maintain a wholesome reputation. They generally have stories to tell that bolster both brand and reputation, if at times they are less than masterly at telling them.

An influencer approach packages that brand or reputational “story” and puts it into the hands of the influencers in a creative (and disruptive) way to catch their attention. Influencers get it, find it interesting and comment-worthy (if the package has been built well), and they duly share it with their followers.

An example: we were tasked with promoting interest in canned mushrooms for a company that also produces fresh and did not want to cannibalise their fresh offering. To capture the interest of influencers, the canned mushrooms were framed as a ‘Meal-time Emergency’, media kits were sent in a medical emergency tin along with pantry staples and an emergency recipe to create a delicious canned mushroom meal. Influencers pick up from this promotion was extensive.

Influencers can be paid or unpaid. A paid approach guarantees they will post on it (usually Instagram) and that the messaging will be intact (as agreed with the client). Unpaid influencers may still share the story but may rehash it in some overt or subtle way.

Using influencers doesn’t replace the traditional channels but provides another option, another potential channel to get the messages across. Every channel delivers an audience, but as a rule the content must be memorable and authentic to gain attention and achieve cut-through.

More importantly, people aren’t getting their information from single channels these days but from a multiplicity of them, with social media carrying a lot of weight. To take a single-channel approach is risky – the risk being that the communication will be incomplete or miss a part of the audience altogether.

Business-to-business (B2B) companies aren’t usually interested in “consumers” as such.  But their promotions are increasingly about such attributes as a company’s CSR work and sponsorships - areas of activity which offer a lot of lively content for influencers to share.

An example: a machinery company sells componentry to manufacturers – Mrs Smith in the street isn’t the target and wouldn’t be interested in the tech gizmos being marketed.  But if the company is doing excellent community or environmental work as part of its CSR programme, and Mrs Smith lives in that community…suddenly the news about the company is of interest.  If the company is getting bad press on health and safety issues and is addressing them, similarly Mrs Smith will be interested.  She knows people that work there.

Influencers can also take stances other media spokespeople might not. They can draw attention to “greenwash”, for example; they’ve nothing to lose.

And there are many influencers scattered across a wide range of spheres and areas of interest. They are a force to be reckoned with and increasingly have a very legitimate role to play in the marketing and corporate communications environment.

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