Caleb Gardner: An Influencer Approach to Stakeholder Engagement

Among the key insights that came out of Edelman’s 2012 Trust Barometer was a plan for how businesses can earn the license to lead, not just operate. In today’s environment, a focus on operative factors alone is not enough to win over a skeptical public. Companies have to broaden their vision and their language, taking on societal issues and practicing radical transparency. Shareholders are only part of the puzzle – engagement with all stakeholders is needed, and an effective social business plan is needed to get there.

Engaging Beyond the Customer

The results of the study reminded me of Charlene Li’s excellent predictions for social business in 2012. Li made some great points about what businesses should focus on in order to make tangible steps toward becoming more social and more open in the next year. Her third point is especially valid: that a culture of sharing that empowers and connects employees with consumers will create a sustained competitive advantage for businesses willing to implement it. I would take it one step further and assert that social businesses will be more effective at engagement with all stakeholders.

Most companies are making headway in consumer engagement via social on some level, but they aren’t considering other stakeholder groups as part of the social business puzzle. The Trust Barometer emphasizes more than ever an engagement approach inclusive of employees, partners, and others as well as current and potential customers.

Engaging with all of these stakeholder communities at scale is a challenge. However, I believe that an influencer approach can help provide some focus, and will allow for the most effective communications with all audiences.

The Bigger Picture of Influence

The idea of influence amongst consumers is nothing new, and brands and their agencies have long targeted the most influential consumers in order to gain third-party credibility, spread awareness, and ultimately drive sales. Some have argued that a “cult of influence” will even emerge in 2012 that will see businesses obsess over turning influence into business value. Services like Klout are built around helping brands do this at scale. But there are influencers in every stakeholder group that are driving the culture and perception of businesses. These deserve attention and engagement just as much as customers do.

Through a comprehensive influencer mapping process, businesses can identify and engage with the most influential voices in each group – whether that be the blogger who drives online conversation around a brand, the employee who sparks water-cooler conversations, or the journalist who covers the industry. The reality is that these groups have already been engaging with each other, but businesses have never before had the tools to bring all stakeholders together under an umbrella engagement strategy. But the new reality illustrated by the Trust Barometer demands it.

Social Business Planning Leads the Way

What that engagement looks like will depend on the unique position of each company, but a smart social business plan will be the roadmap to engaging at all levels of influence. Most likely it will involve:

  • Some combination of internal and external community management. Have you implemented an effective employee collaboration hub – one that is about culture sharing as much as information sharing?
  • Social media training – for all departments, not just marketing – and policy development.
  • Collaboration between departments – especially HR, which has an increasingly important role to play.
  • Buy-in from C-Suite executives, who are the biggest influencers for most stakeholders. This will prove to all parties how important a culture of sharing and open communication is to your business.

If trust is indeed shifting from institutions to individuals, then businesses need to understand which individuals are responsible for driving their company perception, and put in place an engagement strategy. How are you positioned to engage with your stakeholders in 2012?

Originally published 31 January 2012 on Edelman Digital