Inside Influence EP10: Ryan Bares from IBM on Influence Inside B2B Brands with Employees

Ryan Bares

Ryan Bares

I have always believed that everyone is influential about something and that sentiment is certainly true within B2B companies. In the B2B marketing world, we’ve all come to understand that buyers trust individual voices more than formal marketing and advertising messages, so finding ways to optimize influence internally is becoming a key area of focus.

To drill down into the intersection of employee advocacy and influence, this 1oth episode of Inside Influence features my discussion with Ryan Bares, Global Social Programs Lead: Social Influencers & Employee Advocacy at IBM Systems.

Beyond hitting a few key findings from the The 2020 State of B2B Influencer Marketing report, Ryan and I covered a lot of ground including:

  • Increased focus on employees as influencers
  • Importance of senior B2B execs to grow their influence
  • Optimism about influencer marketing at IBM
  • The difference between B2B and B2C influencer marketing
  • How IBM Systems engages with B2B influencers
  • Advice on starting an influencer program at a B2B brand
  • Integrating influencer content with other marketing tactics
  • Opportunities for the future of influencer marketing

Below is a highlight transcription of our discussion with the full video interview embedded below.

Tell us about your role at IBM Systems and how you’ve been “blazing a trail” in the world of influencer marketing.

Ryan: Great question. I’ve been in the IBM Systems business group for the last five years and sort of started this influencer and employee advocacy program there. This was one of the first at IBM in general. We used to bring influential people who had great Twitter reach to our events, but we wouldn’t really talk to them for the next year. Then we realized that we needed something more consistent and about building relationships. So we changed the focus a little bit on building relationships and on employees: how do we get them involved and how do we get them to become influential themselves?

In the 2020 State of B2B Influencer Marketing Report, you shared a prediction about an increased focus on employees as influencers. Can you share more about that?

Ryan: Yeah, I’m kind of in this interesting position of having a focus on both of these things which is great. I think when we started, roughly five years ago, the focus was really on the external influence or those people that are thought leaders with great reach on social that can connect with our target audience.

We still love those relationships and we still develop them, but I think over the last maybe year and a half, two years, we realized that at IBM our employees are also great advocates for our brand. They understand the products and the offerings at a really great level. So we’ve spent some time building training and enablement for those IBMers because it’s not natural for a lot of people to go and be active on social right away.

We’ve realized that with the coaching, enabling the ROI is there, especially when getting our IBMers to advocate for our brand to engage on social in the right ways. We know that branded content on social media in general, is reduced. I think there’s a stat out there that content coming from an employee gets eight times more engagement than content coming from a branded channel.

So, we just naturally shifted our focus little bit more from the branded content and the @IBM channels and more on the SMEs, those subject matter experts and some of our other developers at IBM that really have deep knowledge about our products and offerings. I think that they can really connect great on social and through content with our target market, our customers or buyers or business partners.

How important is it for senior execs at B2B brands to develop their own influencer footprint?

Ryan: Yeah, I go to that, that stat of eight times, right? Eight times more engagement. I think senior level execs are great because they speak on behalf of the brand. We’ve actually leveraged them for some of our events to get out and drive awareness. We see the results when it comes to getting our senior level executives on board and the team around them to help amplify and drive some of the messaging we want in the marketplace, at least on social media.

I also advocate for anyone that is a subject matter expert to be active on social in the right way. They, as you mentioned, could be influential in one way or another. You don’t have to have the largest reach on social media. You don’t need to have the biggest connection number on LinkedIn. It’s really just about, what can you talk about? How can you create interesting content?

Then we’ll use other people, maybe an external influencer, to help amplify that and get them to the right markets or other pieces of media, email or digital that we can leverage to make sure that our customers or prospects are connecting with the stuff we’re talking about and doing at IBM.

Connecting in a meaningful way.

Ryan: Yeah, meaningful is definitely important. You want to be authentic. You want to be genuine. And I think having an, an IBM-er or an employee or whatever company you’re at, that naturally brings authenticity to what they’re talking about.

Think about yourself and scrolling through social media. You might not be buying some high-tech piece of hardware from IBM through your Instagram, but from my experience, scroll past the brands at times. But I tend to stop when I see somebody I trust or when I seen other human. And so, as a human element, I might stop and listen to what they’re saying about what kind of product that may be exploring or describing. And I tend to want to engage more that way.

What advice might you give to help other people at brands that want to help their employees or senior execs get over the reluctance to be active on social and become more influential?

Ryan: That’s a great question, because I do hear that a lot from whoever’s on the other side of the zoom call. Hey, we think it’d be great if you’re active on social in these ways. Then they’re like, yes, that makes sense. I want to go after more customers or white space or develop deeper relationships with our customers we currently have, but how do I do that?

We realized with senior executive leadership, it’s a team around them that is really helpful. For example, maybe they have a communications person or an executive assistant that really helps keep them focused. I’ve also realized that they tend to want to have content that’s unique to them. So, figuring out a way when curating content for them to share or for them to create while also making it unique to them as an executive or senior level executive versus maybe something that all the rest of your staff is sharing is important.

They want to feel special, so finding outlets that are particular to them and through their training and through their knowledge is key. “Hey, I can share this, I can amplify this, or I can build off of this piece of content that I saw from a third party outlet and give my own spin.” It doesn’t always have to be about IBM. I think it’s also key to talk about what you’re interested in. That could be your kids’ sports and how does AI relate to that. It doesn’t have to be hitting on IBM content all the time.

Our research discovered that 77% of B2B marketers say that their prospective customers rely on advice from industry experts and 74% agree that influencer marketing improves customer and prospect experience with the brand. How does this optimism about influencer marketing line up with your own experience?

Ryan: I love those numbers. It helps me kind of showcase the importance of what I do and where this B2B influencer marketing trend is going.

I haven’t ran data myself at IBM on customers and how are they engaging with some of the stuff we’re doing with influencer marketing, but I know through people in the industry and through what I’m seeing from IBM Systems that IBM as an enterprise has a renewed focus on influencer marketing and a cohesive direction that we want to go. We’ve set up influencer councils recently and explored whether that’s internal or external and explored ways that we can sort of build playbooks for the entire enterprise.

I know that we find value and reach new audiences outside of our branded channels and we can leverage our employees to do that. We can also leverage external influencers to do that. So I definitely agree that those high numbers in the 77% and 74% are hitting our customers and they are finding value in that.

I go back to my story about the scrolling and these ads, right?  I personally, and I think a lot of people feel the same, that will stop on a person, like someone they trust or someone who is notable in that industry, whether an analyst influencer versus something the brand is saying through paid advertising or branded posts on organic social.

People join people. They like to follow people. Then the organization, the company, the brand follows. But I think again, we’ve been kind of talking a lot about the human to human, the personalized and the authenticity that really translates, from my experience as a consumer, scrolling through my feeds to the B2B space. There is a lot of intersection.

Can you share some of the ways you’re engaging with influencers at IBM Systems?

We really are focusing on relationships. That’s always been my go-to. That’s the platform, that’s the base, that’s the foundation of my program from the beginning – relationships over time.

I’ve really tried to avoid the one-off sort of campaign style activations or campaigns with influencers. What we’re doing is a lot of the content creation. So that could be blogging, that could be inviting individuals to events in the future. Some of our marquee events like IBM Think, video interviews, podcasting, you know, that sort of realm. That stuff lives in a variety of places. It can be on our IBM owned property like an IBM blog. It could definitely live on the influencer’s blog or their LinkedIn page, wherever the traffic is.

And we take a lot of direction from the influencers. We believe that they are the experts with their audience and the way they create content. It’s definitely a collaboration of how can we get the most bang for your buck to drive responses, drive interests, drive website visits, whatever the KPI is for that activity. Content is King for us right now even though we try to do less with more. So content is what we’re doing, blogging, videos.

Drawing on your experience with influencer marketing, what advice can you share for other B2B marketers who are thinking of starting their own program?

I reflect back on my time at the beginning, which has not been that long because this B2B influencer marketing is not old. I think for me, it is focusing and starting small with your program.

Where I started, it was like, I want to have X amount of people in our influencer program that have 2 million on reach on Twitter. Like, just made up numbers. And I went and did that and realized quickly that having that many people in a program, you’re kind of constantly trying to juggle and building relationships. It just becomes really hard for one person to do.

So I would recommend identifying four, five, or six individuals that really have a strong affinity for your brand, for the technology or the industry you’re in and build relationships with them. Set goals with them and kind of build this sort of advocacy program and grow it from there. That might take a year. That might take a longer time, but you have to be okay with that. And don’t rely on their reach. Don’t rely on how many connections they might have on LinkedIn. It’s more about the person and can they be a great advocate for you and your brand?

What has you excited most when it comes to opportunities with influencer marketing in 2021?

When we talk about relationships, and those are great over Zoom and email and email, but getting face to face – I am definitely excited about that for hopefully later next year. For me, it’s really just to improve in the same vein, improving on the digital events for next year.

You know, this year was the year of pivoting and trying things out, figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. What works with your network, your brands? Influencers like doing what they’re good at so I’m really excited about how can we adapt those learnings and hopefully perfect them next year in 2021.

Also personally, I’m just really excited about what IBM is doing in this space and focusing on influencer marketing. Up to this point it’s been kind of up to the brand channels and the different teams. If you have the resources, if you have the interest and time, go figure it out. But now there’s really some direction from across the enterprise on the best practices. These are the best individuals, this is how you can build a program. So I’m really excited about that personally.

To see the full interview with IBM Systems’ Ryan Bares, check out the Inside Influence Episode 10 video below:

To connect with Ryan, you can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Be sure to check out our previous Inside Influence B2B Influencer Marketing interviews: