Without question the digital age we live in is marked by remarkable advancements as well as ease of information creation, distribution and proliferation. As they say, we live in an age of information overload. What can B2B marketers do to stand out? Simply create more “useful content”?
For 2021 and beyond, the bar for stand out B2B marketing is much higher than utility. Our guest, Marshall Kirkpatrick on episode 11 of the Inside Influence Show featuring B2B Marketing Insiders, has some smart insights on how influence can play a role in creating (Dan Pink quote) and connecting the dots between the kinds of insights buyers are attracted to, that drive engagement and action.
Marshall is the founder of Twitter influencer platform Little Bird which was acquired by Sprinklr where he is now Vice President of Influencer Relations, Analyst Relations, and Competitive Intelligence.
During our talk, we covered highlights of the 2020 State of B2B Influencer Marketing Report, some important topics for B2B marketers that want to better understand the role of influence in B2B marketing including:
- Marshall’s evolution from the first blogger at TechCrunch to founder of Little Bird to VP at Sprinklr
- How Dan Pink’s Symphonic Thinking translates to being a B2B influencer marketing thought leader
- Insights into working with B2B influencers
- B2B influencer activations that actually work
- Opportunities for B2B brand executives to build influence
- How to unlock influencer potential from executives who are not natural to social engagement
- Advice on outsourcing an influencer marketing effort with consultants or agencies
- What’s most exciting about B2B and influencer marketing in 2021
See the full interview with Marshall Kirkpatrick, check out the Inside Influence Episode 11 video below:
Below is a highlight transcription of our discussion.
You are an OG when it comes to influencer marketing. Can you share with us a little about your experience starting Little Bird and how you got to Sprinklr?
Marshall: My background is actually in blogging first and foremost. I was a tech blogger covering startups and ended up using tools to break news stories and was the first blogger ever hired over at TechCrunch.
I saw in that experience that when you’re in an influential position online, people bring you a lot of information. Lots of startups were always coming to us and saying, “Oh, look at this cool new thing. Here’s my perspective on the market.” And that was really an educational experience for me. And so, as I developed in my blogging career, I wanted to start looking around to find other influential people who were also receiving a lot of inbound information so that I could know who to watch and listen to in order to break news stories quickly and learn through watching them.
I wanted to start looking around to find other influential people who were also receiving a lot of inbound information so that I could know who to watch and listen to in order to break news stories quickly and learn through watching them.
So I built some research tools for discovering the most credible experts, the most influential people in any industry that I was covering as a journalist and in time ended up productizing some of those lessons learned in the form of a startup that we named LittleBird. LittleBird ran for five years and it did exactly what I was looking for as a journalist for marketers.
It said, let’s find the people in your target market that are being followed by the largest number of other experts and specialists in a particular field. So, especially good for B2B.
It focused on discovery, so five years after we founded it, LittleBird was acquired by Sprinkler, which is now the world’s leading customer experience management platform. Born of social listening, the technology listened to the keywords and people’s content in order for brands to manage relationships with customers and crises and opportunities. It was a really good marriage of our small startup that specialized in discovering experts and influencers and now this whole big suite of tools for actionability that Sprinkler has built in social listening and beyond social now as well.
It’s just a perfect fit for it. I’m not working on the product anymore. LittleBird has been turned off now for some time, but I get to see emails come through about big new deals with global brands that have purchased a wide swath of different sprinkler capabilities and products. Quite often I get to see in that announcement and included in the deal was Sprinkler influencer marketing and I got to feel some pride as a result of that.
In the 2020 State of B2B Influencer Marketing Report, you were named as one of the top 20 influencer marketing professionals. What does it take to be at the top of your game when it comes to B2B influencer marketing?
Marshall: I think that part of the challenge is that sharing valuable, interesting information in a time of information overload is tough because there’s no shortage of information out there. And the bar is quite high to rise above the noise. The way that I go about that is by engaging in a lot of what Dan Pink calls, symphonic thinking, where he says that in the emerging economy that we live in, one of the most valuable ways for knowledge workers to generate value is through symphonic thinking or the creation of connections between seemingly disparate people and ideas and initiatives.
One of the most valuable ways for knowledge workers to generate value is through symphonic thinking or the creation of connections between seemingly disparate people and ideas and initiatives.
When you create a connection between things, it’s like you light up a circuit and it’s a really generative kind of process. So I make a conscious effort to form connections between people and concepts and topics.
Furthermore, in order to do that one layer lower, I build systems to deliver a stream of interesting things to connect to one another. So, in addition to using Sprinkler to listen to thought leaders and conversations and all kinds of different industries, one of my favorite new tools is I’ve got a Twitter list that I maintain of just amazing, fascinating people. And I don’t just watch all of their tweets. Instead, I have bookmarked the search results page for a search inside of that list of people for any time they use the words, amazing, new, innovation or learning. It’s just a steady stream of amazing new, innovative things being learned by amazing, innovative people.
It’s a really high signal to noise ratio of a stream of information because of the care put into the source selection and then the creation of the interface. It’s like a little conveyor belt of amazing things to pick up and connect to other things on to try to generate value.
What are you most excited about when it comes to working with influencers?
Marshall: Well, for me, it still comes back to the same themes around discovery. I’m a very awe driven person and I find that really influential people, especially in B2B, are a constant source of awe for me.
One of my favorite examples is some work that I’ve done recently with John Hagel who was, by our metric when he worked at Deloitte, the most connected guy in all of Deloitte, the giant consulting firm, an incredible organization. In a social graph analysis of Deloitte people on Twitter in particular, he was the Deloitte person most followed by other Deloitte people. So you want to follow that guy, right? So I sure did.
I spent hours and hours reading John Hagel content: reading his blog posts, reading his books. And then I produced a podcast with him. The podcast was really fun and it was really nice to get to connect with him face-to-face. Then I created some derivative content based on that podcast. Then he went and he shared it out with his whole network of people.
The part of that process that has driven the most business value for us as well as been most exciting for me, was the very first step in the process when I was spending hours and hours reading John Hagel content.
But the part of that process that has driven the most business value for us as well as been most exciting for me, was the very first step in the process when I was spending hours and hours reading John Hagel content. That put all of his experience and knowledge and insights into my head s0 that I could deploy entirely behind the scenes at work and connect it to other projects and other initiatives that we have going on publicly and privately. That’s really where the lion’s share of value was available from. The advocacy that occurred in the end was overshadowed by all the business value available just from reading his work.
What are the characteristics that make a great B2B influencer?
Marshall: That’s a question that I have explored in a lot of different ways over my career. Currently, my standard or my criteria are three:
First, I look for people that have influence. Not just generally, not even just inside of my industry or our target market, but specifically for people who have influence with our existing customers and people like our customers. We’ve got a quantitative way that we can make that assessment. I pull out that yardstick whenever I consider engaging with an influencer. At Sprinkler it works really well.
It really requires a good amount of emotional energy invested to cultivate these relationships over time and keep them moving forward, if you want to make them authentic and sincere.
The second thing that I look for are people who are smart, that I feel like I can learn from. Because otherwise it’s easy to kind of peter out. It really requires a good amount of emotional energy invested to cultivate these relationships over time and keep them moving forward, if you want to make them authentic and sincere. And especially if you’re perhaps working with a more modest budget and it’s not just a big transactional kind of thing.
And the last thing that I look for are people that I like, because if I don’t like someone, then it’s not going to be much fun to work with them. And I want it to be fun. That ends up being the most effective work.
So once you find an influencer and you’ve defined what it is you’re looking for, what is it that you do with them? What do your activations with influencers look like?
Marshall: I’ve taken a lot of different forms. I’d say that one of the most heavyweight plays that are in our playbook has been a combination of a webinar, blog post and then private advisory phone call where we have anyone on our staff that wants to come and participate in a private phone call with one of these influencers, come and ask questions off the record and learn from their experience. You get the demand gen from the webinar and the blog post and then the more foundational value from the private advisory phone call.
One of the most heavyweight plays that are in our [influencer activation] playbook has been a combination of a webinar, blog post and then private advisory phone call.
I am very sympathetic to Forester’s perspective when they say that the most savvy brands in influencer marketing are not looking to influencers for reach because often that ends up in disappointment. But where influencers really shine is their ability to create high quality, high relevance content that breaks through the noise of this era of information overload. When coupled with paid media, then you’ve got a really awesome combination. It really works well when the brand brings the budget for the reach and the influencer is the source of the high quality, authentic, high relevance content.
That’s probably the most heavyweight of capabilities or plays in the playbook. But I do a lot of small stuff as well.
Yesterday I was watching some teammates prepare a presentation for the analyst firm, Gartner. I was providing some feedback on their presentation and watching which parts of the platform they were emphasizing, more or less. During a break I went and I opened up my list of amazing things mentioned by amazing people and Dion Hinchcliffe had posted a link to a survey that he had just published the results of, that said the number one thing that CIO’s are looking for today, especially in the pandemic around digital transformation, is a combination of automation and workflow management.
I thought that was really interesting because there was a big component of that in the Sprinkler story that we were preparing to tell Gartner. So I took that and went immediately inside the company and said, Hey folks, let’s elevate that part of the story. It’s really on trend right now and we’ve got a strong story to tell.
My favorite kind of influencer engagement: a kind of earned media and learning focused engagement that can be pretty lightweight [effort].
So thank you Dion, an influencer for that information. Then I re-shared that post of his publicly and some other folks then came in and engaged and affirmed that they had similar perspectives and I continued to learn and get more data points. And Dion came back and said, thank you so much for sharing it. And our relationship took another step forward.
Over the years, I’ve just learned so much from Dion. That’s my favorite kind of influencer engagement: a kind of earned media and learning focused engagement that can be pretty lightweight.
While much of influencer marketing has been focused on external experts, there are many opportunities for B2B brands to grow influence from within. What’s your take on opportunities to build brand executive influence?
Marshall: I think there’s a lot of opportunity for it. And yet, it’s a challenge for the ages. It is something that I think many of us have aspired to unlock for a long time for the executives that work at the companies. It is a great opportunity because so many of those executive leaders have tons of contact with customers and many times they’re great storytellers. They spent a lot of time with customers, they interface with other executive leaders and so are really efficient, high impact communicators.
[Executive influence] is a great opportunity because so many of those executive leaders have tons of contact with customers and many times they’re great storytellers.
The challenge I think, is finding ways to tap into that executive insight and flow of knowledge and access to information, much of which can’t be shared publicly. Some of it can and it requires a different sort of muscle memory, a different kind of workflow and often multiple sets of hands to help say, “Hey, let’s remember, let’s go unlock some of those stories that we get to hear, you know, in company meetings. Uh, let’s, let’s find some that are appropriate to share publicly because they’re such incredible stories.”
I know that’s the case for our executives at Sprinklr. The stories that we get to here inside the company walls are just amazing. The giant brands that we get to help solve really interesting problems for. When we’re able to reference those, either named or blinded, and do so publicly, they’re just great stories. They’re the kind of content that rises above so much in a world of information overload.
In the 2020 State of B2B Influencer Marketing Report, we found that the things B2B marketers outsource most often to agencies include: identifying influencers, managing relationships, developing strategy and measuring effectiveness. What have you found to be most useful when it comes to using outside help?
Marshall: We have been the outside resource a fair amount ourselves as a search technology on, uh, uh, management technology. And then we do a lot of our own internal influencer relations. I am real happy to do that for ourselves, but many times when working with brands that don’t have that experience or talent in-house, especially for the relationship cultivation and the practical management, well, frankly I refer them to you and your organization appreciate this.
You’ve done an incredible job of building brand equity and a demonstrated track record of success around that. I don’t know anyone who has come close to the kind of thought leadership and track record of success that you and the folks that TopRank Marketing have. So congratulations on that.
I appreciate that. It’s a great team and that’s where the magic happens.
I guess I would just suggest that people find good partners to work with and do it in a way that helps build your own capacity and learning instead of just outsourcing it.
Find good partners to work with and do it in a way that helps build your own capacity and learning instead of just outsourcing it.
It makes me think about something that Jean bliss says when she advises executives that are thinking about taking jobs in customer experience, but I think it’s good advice for almost any field. She says, when you go and you talk to a company about leading their customer experience, you should speak to the other leaders at the company and see how they talk about customer experience. Is it something that’s everyone’s job and that they are going to partner with you on? Or is it something that they’re going to outsource to you and then wash their hands of?
Because you really want to avoid being in that latter situation. You want to look for those partnership types of organizations where everyone is going to be participating and up-leveling their skills as they do, even though it’s one person’s bottom line responsibility. I just love that model.
What has you excited most when it comes to opportunities with influencer marketing in 2021 and beyond?
Marshall: I’ll tell you one thing inside of our company on one thing outside of our company.
I’m really excited about some of the new research and analytics capabilities that are being built inside of Sprinklr on top of influencer discovery in order to get early high quality insights into topics of interest to influencers and their communities.
Everybody says that they do artificial intelligence and machine learning, but Sprinklr has been doing a gargantuan amount of artificial intelligence for almost 10 years now.
Everybody says that they do artificial intelligence and machine learning, but Sprinklr has been doing a gargantuan amount of artificial intelligence for almost 10 years now and so has a really deep corpus of knowledge about a bunch of different, specific industry verticals. That means that we can discern what’s going on in conversations, especially in B2B, faster and better than any other source when monitoring influencers or discussions at large. So I’m excited about that.
For me personally and outside of the company context, I think this is a pretty nerdy answer, but I’m really excited about taking my notes from reading and learning from influencers and putting them into a startup called Rome research.
Rome is a note-taking app for networked thoughts. It’s a place where every note that you take is linked out to every page across the corpus of your notes, where the same words appear. It makes it really easy to jump from reference to reference of interrelated thoughts. And it’s just wonderful.
So, the incorporation of enterprise class influencer discovery and listening and understanding with last mile, human in the loop discernment of key lessons learned and insights and perspectives and filing that away in a note-taking system that gets automatically linked up to all the related notes from other influencers and other readings on that given topic, creates what some people call a second brain. It’s the ability to, upon reflecting on any topic, snap your fingers and say, Show me all of the things that I have read and take a note of on this topic, and put them all in one place, allow me to filter them, et cetera. I’m excited about unlocking more value from that this year.
Be sure to check out our previous Inside Influence B2B Influencer Marketing interviews:
- Episode 1: Rani Mani, Adobe – The Value of B2B Influencer Marketing
- Episode 2: Garnor Morantes, LinkedIn – The Power of Always-On Influence
- Episode 3: Ursula Ringham, SAP – Behind the Scenes with Influencer Marketing Operations
- Episode 4: Janine Wegner, Dell Technologies – Thought Leadership and B2B Influence
- Episode 5: Jen Hotlvluwer, Spirion – Award Winning B2B Influencer Marketing
- Episode 6: Amisha Gandhi, SAP – The Power of Mutual Value for Influencer Marketing
- Episode 7: Pierre-Loïc Assayag, Traackr – Maximizing Marketing ROI with Influencer Technology
- Episode 8: Srijana Angdembey, Oracle – How Influence Creates Better B2B Customer Experiences
- Episode 9: Brian Solis, Salesforce – How B2B Influence Adds Value to Business Customers
- Episode 10: Ryan Bares, IBM Systems – Growing Influence Inside B2B Brands with Employees
To better understand what hundreds of the top B2B marketers are doing to succeed at influencer marketing, be sure to check out the 2020 State of B2B Influencer Marketing Research Report here: