Q&A with the Review: Influencer50’s Duncan Brown

This is the second interview in our new ‘Q&A with the Review’ series. We were fortunate to be able to start the series off with Amanda Maksymiw, and now we’ve managed to get some time with Duncan Brown, co-author of “Influencer Marketing: Who Really Influences Your Customers?” and Influencer50’s Managing Director for Europe. 

IMR: Thanks for joining us, Duncan. You were at Ovum and then IDC before joining Influencer50. How does your work in influencer marketing differ from what you did at those analyst firms?

Duncan: Interesting question to get started with! So, in terms of the client base, it’s pretty similar. Much of the work of most analyst firms is listening to vendors and providing direction and advice back to those vendors through published research or consulting. My primary target market on joining Influencer50 was those same vendors, and it’s still our largest market. Recently we’ve expanded out to other sectors, financial services and retail for example, but tech is still our major market today.

But the work itself is quite different. As an analyst you are focused on capabilities of the vendor and its products or services. As an analyst I often found that there was very little differentiation between vendors in a product segment – many technology segments are becoming commoditized, or at least homogenized. At Influencer50 we are focused on how to influence sales of those products and services. It is, if you like, the antidote to commoditization and homogenization. What I mean is, if two products look and function the same, why would a buyer choose one over the other? Well, they choose depending on recommendations, by listening to those around them, and in particular those people they trust. We call these trusted people influencers. We are able to make a difference which is based on the relationship between buyer and seller – we can find a path through to the end-user decision maker via influencers. I’m sure we’ll drill down on this later, but that’s what we do in a nutshell.

I guess the other overlap between my former life as an analyst and Influencer50 is that in many markets analysts are an important category of influencer. The mistake many people make, though, is that they think analysts are either always important (they’re not) or that they’re the most important category of influencer – again they’re often not.

IMR: We often hear you say in the context of identifying influencers that it’s not a question simply of influence, but rather of influence on whom. Can you elaborate on that?  

Duncan: Sure. Influence is 100% contextual. I can be an expert and influencer on cheese, but know nothing about wine. I can be influential on one particular demographic but have zero influence over another. It all depends on the context.

Let me give you an example. Imagine buying a house. Who’d influence you? Its crazy to look at a list of influencers generated by Twitter or a newspaper – you know the kind of thing. “These are the top 100 influencers in the 21st century.” They’re nonsense. Does Barack Obama influence my house purchase decision? Of course not. The real estate agent is a big influencer. But I’m also influenced by the local school principal, by the police or crime statistics, by the neighborhood watch folk, by the general ambiance of the street, by my prejudices towards certain house styles, by my aspiration levels, and so on. If you map out all of the people that influence you on that kind of basis you get a very interesting but long list. And that’s for one purchaser of a house in one particular city. Now extend that to a market-level basis and you get a better understanding of the complexity of identifying influencers.

It’s really important to start with the decision-making process. That’s what we’re trying to influence, and trying to understand who influences that process. That’s what influencer marketing is all about. So that’s where we start at Influencer50, with our influencer identification.

The problem is, decision-making is really complex, and it’s difficult to pick out when and where influence happens. One thing’s for sure – it happens multiple times over multiple occasions. So you have to find all of the people that influence over the decision lifecycle. That’s one of the things that makes B2B influence different from B2C – the decision lifecycle is usually much longer in B2B.

The key question is, who actually makes the decision? In the house buying example, in my own case, it’s probably my wife that makes most of the style and ambiance decisions and I’d make more of the location decisions and those influenced by crime stats. Imagine how complex the decision process is if you were to outsource your HR department. Or implement a CRM system. Or create a sustainable development plan for a town. How many parties are involved in making that decision, and then how many parties are going to influence that decision. That’s where influence gets really complex and where you need a reliable process to map it all out.

IMR: Influencer50 is perhaps best known for its Top50 reports, which identify and rank the client’s top 50 influencers. Can you give us some insight into how you find and rank all of these people? You’ve said that ranking influencers is more of an art than a strict or algorithmic science, so maybe you can touch on that as well.

Duncan: Okay. Not sure I ever said that it’s an art! But it’s certainly not mathematical certainty. I liken it to creating weather forecasts, because most people have at least some familiarity with them. There’s a methodology which we follow and which gives us a result. It’s not mathematically precise, because we’re dealing with many dozens of influence indicators, many of which are subjective, or have subjective elements to them. Over the years we’ve developed ways of dealing with this kind of information, like modeling, so we can manage uncertainty or ambiguity in a managed way. The process has been honed over many iterations, to the point now where, in general, we trust the results that the methodology produces.

It would be great if we could just ask decision makers “Who influences you?” they’d tell us, and we’re done. But we found early on that decision makers invariably don’t know who influences them. They have no idea. They might give you the name of the last person they spoke to. But can’t, or won’t, identify the entirety of influence that they’ve experience over the decision-making lifecycle. There might be confidentiality issues, or issues of competitive advantage, especially in a B2B context. Often, they just have no clue of the entirety of influence they’ve been exposed to – it’s not something they track or are explicitly aware of.

So you can either make a guess. Or you can do research and try to find out who’s likely to influence the market, based on a wide array of factors. That’s the approach we take.

The methodology itself is the most thorough and exhaustive research process I’ve come across in 20 years of industry experience. We agonize over whether we’ve missed anyone important, so we check and double check our research, and much of our research is duplicated by two or more people working independently. All of our research yields a very long list of people that have some degree of influence on the decision makers we’re targeting.

Then, we’ve developed a scoring process over the last six or seven years that separates out the different ways in which people are influenced. We use a wide array of metrics to score influence. Some are pretty straightforward to measure, like frequency of impact. There’s usually a way to determine this. But we also measure expertise – how do you measure this? We look for obvious indicators of expertise, like PhDs, but we mapped a market recently where everyone who had any influence had a PhD, so while that was interesting it didn’t help us to differentiate one person from another. Often expertise is a subtle factor. It might be indicated by longevity of one’s career. Or the number of peer references one has gained. In an emerging market expertise might be very thin on the ground. So we take a market-by-market view of what’s important, while maintaining the broad principles in the methodology. That’s why it’s not an exact science.

Nowadays we have eight criteria that we measure, each of which has multiple dimensions and they’re all mutually exclusive so we don’t double count attributes, and we average them out to give a final score. So our methodology doesn’t give 100% certainty, because no such thing exists in the world of influence. It’s as accurate as we can make it given the very nature of influence. And it’s massively better than the alternative. Which is guesswork.

IMR: Influencer50 founder Nick Hayes has said that clients usually know only a handful of the top 50 influencers you identify for them. That provides great value for the clients, of course, but how is it that these people are so influential and yet unknown to many at the same time?

Duncan: Nick’s right. The reason is largely because our clients have never really thought about it, from a holistic viewpoint. They know the obvious people, what I call “professional influencers” such as analysts and journalists. But influence extends way beyond these categories, so while they’re important they’re the tip of the influence iceberg.

Many influencers don’t advertise their influence, they don’t have “Influencer” on their business card, and they operate largely under the radar. Example: we can intuitively guess that McKinsey consultants are influencing decisions within large enterprises on a daily basis. But how many organizations have a Management Consultant Relations function? Very few do. Why? Because most McKinsey consultants don’t appear in the press, they don’t blog and they don’t give presentations at conferences. Finding such people is really hard. Contrast McKinsey with Gartner, which the whole tech industry knows, and whose analysts have a very high public profile.

It’s a good example of why those that make noise in the market don’t always have the greatest influence.

IMR: You’ve been working in influencer marketing for almost six years now, much longer than most. How is influencer marketing different today than it was when you first joined Influencer50? What’s changed, for good or for ill?

Duncan: The big change I’ve seen is the shift in emphasis from simply identifying influencers to building sustained engagement programs with those influencers. That’s where influencer marketing gets really interesting: working with influencers to create better marketing content, better collateral, better events, faster sales cycle. It’s what makes this job so interesting – seeing our clients do marketing better. Is that too salesy? Sorry, but I get really enthused when I see influencer marketing actually in action.

Without a doubt, the biggest talked-about change has been the impact of online sources of influence. Apart from the impact of social media, which I think we’ll talk about later, the sheer volume of information out there has grown massively. In one way that’s made our job easier, because it’s easier to find information about markets and individuals. But in another way it’s made it harder because we’re in the business of finding needles in haystacks, and the haystack just got bigger. Much bigger.

Is online good or ill? I think it’s distorted influence, or at least it’s distorted the perception of influence in terms of who’s influential. The biggest mistake anyone can make is to only use online measures as a way of determining influence. While online sources have made some people more obvious, easier to find, it’s made other people less obvious and harder to find. But their influence hasn’t diminished. Where do you think most influence takes place? It isn’t online. It’s in face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversations between individuals, in meetings and conference calls, in stores and malls, in coffee shops and in bars. Online sources can’t track this kind of influence, which is why online is, at best, a skewed view of influence, and at worst completely distorted.

IMR: So let’s talk more about online influence then. Twitter still hadn’t launched when you started at Influencer50, and Facebook was only a couple years in. And yet so many people today associate ‘influencer marketing’ with social media more than anything else. What do you think about this?

Duncan: The first presentation I gave on influencer marketing back in 2006 was at a blogging conference. It was clear back then that the early social media like blogging was going to have an impact on influence, but in ways unclear to most people. There’s no doubt that social media is important in influencer marketing. But as I said, I think social media gives an incomplete view of influence, and the big mistake people are making is that they equate online influence with the totality of influence. But it’s certainly increased some people’s profile and ability to reach an audience. So we include online measures of influence in our scoring methodology, but it’s only one quarter of what we measure.

In terms of influencer marketing, social media is a double-edged sword. It’s certainly raised the awareness of influencer marketing as a concept, but then that awareness is skewed around social media. Lots of people point out the deficiencies of social media-based influencer marketing, but then throw the whole concept out, rather than fully understand how social media plays a part of a holistic view of influence.

I think social media has been more impactful in some markets than in others. In low-value commodity items, like books and music, it’s been revolutionary. I think the most influential social network in book and music sales isn’t Facebook or Twitter but Amazon reviews. Facebook is often too vague and unfocused to be a great medium for influence. Maybe Facebook is going to be the medium for spreading social ideas, like the Joseph Kony message that’s spreading right now. But if I was CMO of a commercial company I wouldn’t be spending my marketing budget on a Facebook campaign without investigating other, more focused social media. And if I’m in a B2B market I’d be very wary of social media altogether. Very few B2B decisions are influenced online.

What’s also interesting is that in 2006 blogging was the growing medium, and Facebook was very new. Now, according to Technorati, most bloggers post once per year, and 25% haven’t posted in the last year. It’s all about Twitter now. I wonder how long it will last.

IMR: The online scoring services like Klout, Kred, and PeerIndex – have they given influencer marketing a bad name? Do you ever find that potential clients are turned off to the idea of influencer marketing because of these services?

Duncan: I’m not sure that they’ve given influencer marketing a bad name necessarily. They’re trying to give some insight into influencers online, and they measure what they can measure. I think most people understand them for what they are, and accept their weaknesses. No one believes they offer a complete view of influence. The question is, are they good enough for what you want to do. If you want to build a list of tweeters that focus on a particular broad subject then Klout is ideal. But I wouldn’t build a long-term relationship marketing strategy around them.

I think most of our clients are aware of Klout and PeerIndex and the other services but are looking for more precision, more of an online/offline balance, and a more proven and reliable methodology for identifying influencers. And for many of our clients in the B2B sector Twitter is irrelevant, so those services can’t help them.

IMR: You’ve already touched on some of the differences between B2C and B2B influencers, but what are the main ones? And what’s an exception or two to the rule?

Duncan: B2C decisions are highly influenced by peers, fellow consumers that have made similar buying choices. That’s why social media works in B2C markets. Especially low-value and/or low-risk purchases.

Most B2B decisions are high value, and usually high risk too. Decision makers are unlikely to rely on blogs and Twitter for their information, so they use analysts, consultants, trusted advisers, peers, and so on. The problem with B2B decisions is that employees making those decisions often can’t share their information with other decision makers. For confidentiality reasons, or competitive advantage reasons, one buyer can’t share their business objectives with a similar business. That’s why customer references are like gold-dust – they’re so rare and hard to construct and maintain.

So B2B decision makers use influencers to gather information about what other firms are doing. Influencers are the go-betweens for B2B decisions. This means that there is a market for influence, whether you call those influencers analysts or consultants or advisers. It’s much more of a professional segment.

Exceptions to this? I guess that there are some B2C markets that use these professional influencers, such as real estate or financial advice, very much like B2B markets. As far as I know there isn’t a social media for B2B decisions that supports a completely free flow of information. LinkedIn is probably the closest thing we have, but it’s not perfect because people can’t or won’t share confidential or competitive information online. The best peer-to-peer sharing facilities are the specialist forums that offer networking meetings. Like the CIOConnect network in the UK, or the Corporate Executive Board in the US. Those kind of meeting places facilitate exchange of peer-to-peer information, which is the equivalent of Amazon reviews or TripAdvisor.

You can see why online doesn’t work well in B2B markets – online doesn’t track those kind of in-person meetings.

IMR: What about the future of ‘influencer marketing’? Have these automated online scoring services damaged the term forever?

Duncan: I don’t believe so. Firstly the term isn’t that important. What’s important is that people recognize the role of influence in decision-making, and that they can identify points of impact on the decision-making process.

Secondly, if people are more aware of the possibility of influence by hearing about online scoring services, then they quickly understand the deficiencies of these services and then wonder whether there’s a better way of achieving a more reliable answer. And then they seek us out. It’s no surprise that our business is growing with the advent of online influence scores. It’s absolutely an opportunity not a threat.

IMR: So you’re Scottish. What’s that like?

Duncan: I don’t know – I’ve never not been Scottish!

Seriously, I’ve lived away from Scotland for longer than I lived there, so I’m a bit of a hybrid these days. I lived for three years in Boston in the late 90s – I think everyone should live abroad for a while, just to get a different perspective of cultures and outlooks. I follow the Boston Celtics but have a liking for single malt scotch, which probably sums up my mix of heritage and life experience.

IMR: Interesting. Interesting.

Duncan Brown is a high-tech industry expert, having worked as an industry analyst in Europe and the US for 12 years. He heads European operations at Influencer50 and is co-author of the seminal book Influencer Marketing: Who Really Influences Your Customers?. He lives in Winchester with his wife and twin daughters. You can find him on Twitter at @duncanwbrown.