influencers photoUpdate – I’ve had lots of questions about how vendors can get some good advice when it comes to tailoring their Influencer Relations and Influencer Marketing processes. I do a significant amount of consulting with organizations – both startup and large companies – around this topic and am happy to have conversations around the topic. Feel free to reach out or just hit me up on Twitter!

Traditional models are in a death spiral and people are searching for sustainable solutions.

I’ve spent a decade or so in something of a no man’s land. While some people me call me a journalist (I’ve written, after all, for print and digital media titles such as Forbes, Wired, Computerworld and many others), others lump me in with the analyst camp. I’ve never completely understood what an industry analyst does, my emergence on this scene coincided almost perfectly with the begin of the end of the traditional analyst firms and, while I have immense respect for my friends from Gartner, Forrester, IDC and the others, I’m not entirely sure how their business model will survive.

Nonetheless, it is worth defining what an analyst is, to give some context. As I see it, industry analysts spend their time looking at different vendors products and services, their strategies and the marketplace in general, in order to be able to sit down with their end-user clients, and advise them about the most appropriate technology choices for their particular situations.

So historically, things were pretty clear. Journalists covered news, remained neutral and got paid by the publications they wrote for. Analysts were not about covering news, but rather opined over the longer term and more strategic shifts and published detailed reports that their clients could purchase. Analysts, of course, make their money working for analyst firms who, in turn, make money from their clients (both vendor and end-user).

But something funny started happening a decade or so ago: Journalists started having opinions. I was part of the founding team for a cloud computing-focused technology blog that prided itself on being the ‘go to” place for cloud news, but also analysis and opinion about what that news meant. That site has, sadly, been and gone, but this approach towards more analytical and opinionated journalists survives under mastheads such as TheNewStack and PandoDaily.

At the same time as this tectonic shift was occurring for journalism, the traditional analysts were changing as well. A number of analysts working within large firms broke away to create their own boutique firms with new approaches – Altimeter, Constellation Research, and RedMonk are but three examples. Another growing trend was for individual analysts, formerly not particularly voluble folks, starting to blog regularly and, as social media platforms grew in usage, to use these channels to create dialogue and engagement.

And so as we roll the clock forward to today, the market is incredibly complex. While there are certainly people at either end of the continuum who perfectly mold to the traditional stereotypes of journalists or analysts, more and more people are starting to look like a combination of the two – someone who writes for a journalistic publication but classifies themselves as an analyst, or an analyst that strongly leverages social media to build upon more private discussions.

Much of this change is a direct response to economic models that have been completely disrupted in only a few years. The death of classified advertising has resulted in traditional models of monetizing journalistic content to be obsolete. The days of being able to put food on the table just by covering tech news have well and truly gone. Digital mastheads are investigating new ways of monetizing – sponsored content, putting on events etc. At the same time the traditional firms, while somewhat insulated by every vendor’s fear of being left out of the next Magic Quadrant or Wave report, have been buffeted by a reducing relative influence. The bottom line is that, with no disrespect to my traditional analyst friends at all, someone with some time, a blog and a Twitter handle becomes as influential as an individual with a Gartner or Forrester business card.

Smart vendors are starting to realize that simply splitting outreach into “analyst relations” and “public relations” no longer works. Simple engaging a PR agency to pitch journalists, while expecting higher execs within the organization to deal with the analyst classes, does nothing to recognize the nuances that exists. Smarter organizations are rolling out an influencer relations program, a title which many people feel uncomfortable with (who is really arrogant enough to call themselves an influencer) but one which actually suits the status quo well.

The reality is that the traditional models will soon cease to exist, and individuals, as well as vendors, are trying to work out how to engage in the new world. And the new world has a different rule set than before. No longer are there hard and fast lines about what people do – newsrooms of old would gasp at journalists being wined and dines by vendors, or journalists signing NDAs to get a deeper inside story by way of background for their research. Today, these situations are the norm.

And if we were to travel back in time a decade and tell the traditional analyst firms that their star analysts would give away opinions in 140 character chunks, we would be laughed out of the room. But that is most certainly the case today – influence is only valid if it is demonstrably exerted. And we have new channels to do so.

So if I was to take a look at a crystal ball, and advise my friends within large vendors the best way to build out a broad influencer program going forwards, m advise would be stark. No longer can you, or should you, have a “command and control” approach towards content. It is no longer tenable for you to broadcast and expect your message to be heard. What you need to do is engage with influencers in a symbiotic relationship – which even extends to supporting them to do their jobs. not from a “this is our message and we need you to broadcast it” way, but rather being respectful and aware that small players exert huge influence and arming them with the information to tell a more coherent story is in the interests of both yourselves and your prospective customers.

I’m personally surprised at the high number of emails I get from high-level leaders within very large organizations, asking me for my opinion and advice about their technology decisions they’re facing. While I don’t think for a minute that these people are no longer asking traditional analysts these same questions, vendors would be wise to understand just how much informal dialog of this type is going on, and, by extension, the level of influence that non-traditional individuals have on their business.

None of which, of course, clarifies exactly how the business models will work going forwards. I don’t and see no viable path how to, monetize the informal and generally back-channel advice I give. At the same time the 10,000 or so articles that I have written in the past decade, and continue to write today, provide no substantive or direct monetization options. One thing is for sure if we were to travel ahead a decade, the models that we would observe would be radically different to what we see today. It’s going to be an interesting ride in the meantime…

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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