Nick Hayes: Social Media Influencers – A B2B Red Herring?

Nick HayesIt seems like 2012 was the year of Social Media Influencers. Plenty of people talking about them, plenty of companies saying they measure them.

But if social media is a conduit of influence, the question needs to be ‘influence on whom?’ In the B2B market at least, we can’t get away from the finding that any influence conveyed through social media is almost exclusively reaching those who have no role to play in buying decisions.

A recent IBM study looking at the effect of social media on Black Friday sales actually found it achieved no measurable uplift. Our research from a B2B perspective tells the same story. Analysis into the Twitter audience for the topic of Supply Chain Management found that of 7540 tweets and retweets on the subject, 98.4% were selling something and only 1.6% were potentially in a position to buy something. That’s not a very promising statistic.

Channeling ‘influence’, or just noise?

Some advocates suggest that we ignore direct ROI and think of Twitter as a PR and socialising tool. Of course, this can result in securing business, but it’s not the sales opportunity that many have claimed. It certainly doesn’t justify the effort many are putting into it.

Looking at social media more generally, Facebook remains of near-zero interest for the vast majority of B2B companies.  In fact, it’s well publicised that many businesses are actively pulling back on Facebook media buying, precisely due to lack of results.

In many ways YouTube is the surprise success in terms of its B2B influence. If your organization sells products, and if they require any degree of skill to set-up or employ, then prospective buyers will use YouTube to evaluate their prospective purchase.

Of the top four channels, we see the greatest immediate potential for LinkedIn. This channel significantly benefits from its credibility – it’s universally considered a legitimate business tool – whereas Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are still hampered by their perception as consumer-driven recreational activities.

The plain fact is that most buyers aren’t on Facebook and Twitter, at least not when they’re buying on behalf of work. It’s been all too easy to go along with the crowd who say “the world’s gone online for everything”. But our research has shown time and time again that while some marketplaces today are impacted largely through online influence, others remain almost exclusively offline.

Promoting the ‘Social Media Influencer’

When we look at companies promoting the concept of ‘social media influence’ it’s little surprise that almost every one is selling a service for measuring that supposed influence. It’s in their interest for influence to be seen as having moved online – so they can sell their measurement tool. The flaw is that they measure whatever movement they can witness – and that movement is being touted as influence.

What we’d like to see is a link between a particular individual or community’s activity on social media, and a movement in the number or quality of actual sales being made. But rarely can organizations match action and reaction in such a distinct manner.

Until we see those proven indicators, we can only conclude that Facebook and Twitter still very rarely influence B2B purchasing decisions, and that both platforms are far more effective at creating awareness rather than meaningful actions. They create noise, not influence. And those are two very different things.

This is the first of three outtakes from Influencer50’s just released White Paper: ‘The hype to uncover Social Media Influencers – should you care?’