Q&A with the Review: OpenView’s Amanda Maksymiw

This is the first installment of our new ‘Q&A with the Review’ series in which we talk with prominent figures in the influencer marketing community about their work and their thoughts on influencer marketing today. We’re thrilled to be able to begin the series with Amanda Maksymiw from the Boston venture capital firm OpenView Venture Partners. (See Amanda’s bio at bottom.)

IMR: Thanks so much for joining us, Amanda, to help kick off this new series of ours. First, why don’t you tell us about what got you interested in influencer marketing and how you incorporate it into your role at OpenView?

Amanda: Thanks for having me! I first became interested in influencer marketing a few years ago when working on a project for one of our portfolio companies. We were working to increase brand awareness among its target segment and turned our focus to the influencers who had sway over the segment because we realized the impact. I really enjoyed the relationship building process between the brand and the influencers and realized that there is a lot of potential to help more companies implement influencer marketing to achieve their goals.

Today much of my role at OpenView is to identify and engage influencers on OpenView’s behalf so that we can continue to offer the best new ideas to help senior managers build better companies in addition to helping our portfolio companies implement influencer marketing strategies.

IMR: You no doubt encounter people bashing “influencers” or “influencer marketing” on blogs and Twitter from time to time. What is it you think they’re missing? In other words, what are the misperceptions you think people may have about influencers and influencer marketing?

Amanda: I have even come across people who hate the words “influence” and “influencers”! For one, I think people should get less hung up on the labels around the practice. At the end of the day, influencer marketing is just about connecting with your target audience by developing relationships with individuals or groups that your target audience looks up to. They are thought leaders, advisers, consultants, experts, etc.

Another misconception deals with how to identify influencers. I’m sure we’ll talk about this some more so all I will say now is that there is more to identifying your key influencers than using one of the online services that gives people different scores.

IMR: What makes influencer marketing so ideal for startups? And how come more VCs aren’t talking about it?

Amanda: Influencer marketing is great for startups for a few reasons. It can be a cost effective strategy to help you compete against bigger, more well-established brands because with the exception of staffing and time, many activities are free. And they can really pay off. By tapping into the influencer network and getting introduced to their audiences, your company’s reach will be ultimately be greater.

There is also a trust factor that comes into play. Influencers are, well, influential for a reason. People look up to them and listen to what they have to say. Startups can also use influencer marketing to test their messaging statements with their influencers and attain critical feedback on their products or services to improve them over time. Once you reach the stage when you are marketing with influencers, it can really drive awareness, traffic, and sales because you essentially have a trusted advisor validating your brand.

To be honest, I am not sure why more VCs aren’t talking about influencer marketing with their portfolio companies! We have seen it greatly impact our portfolio and more and more of our companies are beginning to incorporate influencer marketing into their overall strategies and goals.

IMR: What are some of the results you’ve seen from influencer marketing efforts?

Amanda: The results we saw within one of our companies were really compelling. In a period of time after we started the influencer program, the company’s website received more targeted traffic and inbound leads that converted to sales within the market segment that was targeted.

As for OpenView, our influencer marketing efforts continue to increase the awareness of our firm and build our brand. In the past year we have tripled our website traffic and built an active subscriber base of over 11,000 individuals and I don’t think we would have seen the same results without engaging our influencer community.

IMR: What are some of the impediments you’ve seen people encounter when trying to implement or execute influencer marketing programs? What can be done about them?

Amanda:  The biggest issue I often see is the lack of focus and time. People don’t necessarily understand that it takes time to identify the right influencers and build the relationship. It cannot be an afterthought or something “tacked on” to the overall strategy. My best tip would be to start small and only target a handful of influencers rather than setting your sights on building relationships with 100 people. I also shared five great tips to help make influencer marketing manageable in my blog last year that I think could really help resolve this impediment.

IMR: And what about the practitioners themselves? In what areas of influencer marketing do you think its practitioners need most to improve?

Amanda: I think practitioners can continue to improve their pitching techniques. I can’t even count how many times I have seen bloggers, editors, and other influencers tweet or share terrible, off topic pitches. Some of my favorite examples are from C.C. Chapman, founder of Digital Dads and author of Content Rules. He shares them on a Pinterest board titled “Idiots Who Pitch Me.” So take note practitioners! Before reaching out to any influencer, take a step back and do your homework. Read his or her blog. Follow him or her on social media. Do what you can to get a good understanding of his or her interests. Then, take time to write a personal message. Or better yet, try to get them on the phone. It will seem more personal!

IMR: Everybody seems to have an opinion on algorithmic “influence” scoring services like Klout, PeerIndex, and Kred. PeerIndex just recently rolled out its own “Perks,” as you’re no doubt aware. There’s now something called Circle Count to measure your “influence” on Google+. And there’s already PinReach (formerly PinClout) for Pinterest. What’s your take on all of this?

Amanda: I think marketers just have to be careful about getting caught up in the numbers game that is associated with all of this. Instead of focusing on only boosting your Klout score, ensure that your overall influencer marketing efforts are having an impact on your goals such as increased traffic or more inbound leads.

I would also advise against just basing your identification of influencers on the services you mentioned. Yes, they may be able to help identify a large pool of influencers quickly and easily, however there should always be some sort of validation from your target audience. Send out a quick survey or even have your sales team ask your customers and prospects a few questions to help identify your influencers.

IMR: Regarding this “large pool of influencers” – do you think all of the people these services identify really are influencers? Certainly not in the context of sales?

Amanda: It is difficult for me to agree that all are truly influencers. Sure, some may be truly influential to your target audience. But we have to remember that just having a large following on social media isn’t the full picture of influence and it doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase in sales for a company. As I mentioned, it is so important to qualify your influencers with your prospects and customers.

IMR: You write a lot about “content marketing,” a term that’s been getting a lot of buzz recently. Do you think it’s actually something new, or is it essentially just a way to group together marketing tactics that have been around for years?

Amanda: Content marketing is definitely not something new. Joe Pulizzi, godfather of content marketing, typically attributes the first example to cave painting thousands of years ago! In all seriousness, he also cites John Deere’s custom magazine launched back in 1895 as an early example. Content marketing is all about communicating with your customers and prospects in a valuable and compelling way. Brands have been doing this for as long as we can remember. I think it is becoming a more and more popular term because many people are shifting away from traditional advertising and it is so easy for brands to create and share content online.

From my perspective, in order to have a successful influencer marketing program any company must also have a solid understanding of content marketing. In my experience I have found that content is the key to success for influencer marketing. Your pitches that simply boast ME ME ME, or our product this, our product that, will likely fall flat. Simply put, without content it is more challenging to convey your story and your brand to your influencers.

IMR: We know a lot of people read what you have to say about influencer marketing, but what about you? What blogs, bloggers, authors, speakers, etc., shape your own understanding of influencer marketing?

Amanda: There are a lot of great resources out there! I look to Paul Gillin (The New Influencers), Gary Lee, Rohit Bhargava, Don Bulmer, Duncan Brown, Nick Hayes, and the Influencer Marketing Review of course. Several general marketing blogs including It’s All About Revenue, Mashable, and MarketingProfs share great tips from time to time too.

IMR: What do you think influencer marketing will look like in practice a few years from now? What will have changed?

Amanda: I believe it will become even more widespread as more companies recognize the value and build it into their strategic plans. I also think that the identification process of influencers will become even more important. The Internet has really taken down the barriers to creating and sharing content with a mass amount of people. Virtually anyone can become an influencer so as companies continue to practice influencer marketing, more attention will need to be paid to the identification and qualification process. I don’t think the practice will ever go away since there is so much power (and results) in targeting those who have sway over your audience. It will just be harder and harder to find the right people!

IMR: And what about Amanda Maksymiw? What will she be doing a few years from now? Aside from rooting for the team that always loses to the Giants in the Super Bowl.

Amanda: I get really excited about working with smart people and great companies. A few years from now I hope that I can continue to work with killer marketing teams on branding building and communication.

As for your dig…  All I will say is that I am proud to be living in a city that has won championships in four sports in the last 10 years. And as far as the Patriots go, there is always next year!

IMR: Well we look forward to following your career and wish you the best of luck. As for the Patriots … not so much.

Thanks again for joining us, Amanda.

Amanda: My pleasure!

Amanda Maksymiw works for OpenView Labs, the strategic and operational consulting team for OpenView Venture Partners. OpenView is a Boston-based venture capital fund that focuses on investing in high growth software and technology companies. Amanda is most interested in the way companies communicate with their customers and prospects. At work she focuses on creating and executing against branding, content marketing and influencer marketing strategies for expansion stage companies. As part of the OpenView Labs team, Amanda is responsible for developing marketing and social media strategies for both OpenView and its portfolio companies. Follow Amanda on Twitter @amandamaks.