Be Selective in Crowning ‘Key Influencers’

Corresponding with the rise in all forms of social media has been a growing fascination — to the point of obsession on the part of some marketing VPs — to find their markets’ key influencers.

I got to thinking about this after watching the movie“Elf” over the holidays. The character of Miles Finch, who is supposed to be the key influencer of publishing in the movie, is the picture of a key influencer gone bad. If you haven’t seen “Elf” and enjoy Will Ferrell, check it out; if you have kids, they will love it.

Find Me the Key Influencers

I know of a peripheral products company that put one of its best product directors on the task of tracking down key influencers — this director is a Harvard MBA no less — and he came back with a handful of outside consultants and industry analysts who qualified for the title of “key influencer.”

This company next began to work with key influencers to provide them tentative product plans, invited them to speak to their resellers at exclusive events, and generally pampered them like superstars whenever they were invited to company events — and yes, this included picking them up at the airport in limos.

The marketing VP felt that if they could be won over through pampering and ego-stroking, they would sing the praises of the company. Trouble was, the company had serious quality product problems and a product strategy that was a generation behind the industry — and only one of the key influencers held her ground and told the truth.

The results were predictable: The key influencers never turned down a paid speaking engagement or hesitated to give the occasional obligatory quote to the media or even comment in their own publications. The one troublesome key influencer that kept pointing to quality problems and late product roadmaps was never asked to present, never asked in for strategy sessions, and was mostly tolerated, as the company had given her advisory firm a retainer. One of the key influencers got so big-headed that she became the Britney Spears of the influencer set. She would duck calls and skip meetings — not bothering to phone ahead or dash off an e-mail to let others know she wouldn’t be attending.

Setting the Tone

What are the lessons learned?

First, be very careful when you give someone the title “key influencer.” That is quite a pedestal to put someone on. Guy Kawasaki, who could certainly qualify as a key influencer, nails it with hisblog post on the subject. Going after word of mouth, as he suggests, is a much better use of time.

Second, never trust anyone who claims to be a key influencer in your market. Immediately question the person’s motives. That self-described key influencer is most likely seeking a consulting gig with you.

Third, key influencers are by nature disruptive and not affirming. Think about it; all the world’s true key influencers are disrupting social, financial and even religious foundations. True thought leaders (and I would consider a key influencer a thought leader) have clear, crisp visions of the way things are — and, let’s face it, have bigger and more expansive plans that just promoting your products.

Fourth, take your key influencers off their pedestals and ask them to get out and push your company up the hill to reach its goals. Too much pedestal polishing will create arrogance in key influencers; better to put them to work and tap their knowledge as to how your company can improve. This is especially true of industry analysts; use them as strategy sounding boards — and for goodness’ sake, don’t act as if the Red Sea just parted when they walk into your building. Set the tone that you expect — humility and hard work — and get something accomplished.

Now, back to the scene in “Elf” that triggered these thoughts: Miles Finch (played brilliantly by Peter Dinklage) is in the conference room of the book publishing house, just getting ready to share his insights. In bursts Buddy (Will Ferrell), and in total innocence, mistakes Miles Finch for an elf. Here’s the clip onYouTube. No one needs a Miles Finch around, but everyone needs more brainpower trying to solve problems.

Louis Columbus, a CRM Buyer columnist, is a former senior analyst with AMR Research. He has worked with enterprise clients on defining solutions to their channel management, order management and service lifecycle management strategies. He also teaches graduate-level international business and marketing courses at Webster-Loyola Marymount University and University of California, Irvine. He is the author of fifteen books on technology and two books on analyst relations. His book, Getting Results From Your Analyst Relations Strategies, can be downloaded for free.

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