Using digital influencers to reach mass audiences is becoming popular in business-to-business (B2B) markets. For business success, selecting the suitable influencer is crucial. Dr Benedetta Crisafulli, Prof Jaywant Singh and Dr La Toya Quamina draw on their research and expertise in the area to provide suggestions on how seller companies can go about selecting the appropriate influencer to maximize business impact.
Influencer marketing is an established management practice for companies seeking to grow their digital presence. The industry was estimated to be worth US$13.8 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach US$16.4 billion by the end of 2022.1 The expectations are for this industry to reach a value of $22.2 billion by 2025.2 In current business practice, digital influencers play a prominent role, given their widespread online presence and ability to influence the purchase decisions of followers. According to the 2022 Global Marketing Trends report by Deloitte, polling 1,099 C-suite executives from global companies in the USA, France, Japan, the UK and the Netherlands, 25 per cent of CMOs and 42 per cent of CFOs prioritise collaborations as a marketing tool, particularly influencer collaborations, to be closer to customers. Influencers are seen as leading the way to the next iteration of the creative agency.3
An exciting new trend that is emerging is the rise of influencers in business-to-business (B2B) markets. In B2B markets, a major challenge for seller companies (or vendors) is to provide accurate and attractively presented information for the buying firms to evaluate and select offerings. Beyond traditional B2B channels, such as personal selling and trade shows, the digital sphere offers novel communication approaches. A report by TopRank Marketing, a B2B marketing agency, indicates that over half of the B2B brands surveyed in 2022 see influencer collaboration on content creation and event participation as the most effective tool in driving success, and over 70 per cent of brands report that influencer marketing helps to build reputation and raise brand awareness.4
A number of seller companies are employing influencer marketing in their campaigns. A case in point is the technology brand Cisco, which, as part of a newly launched influencer programme in 2019, actively recruited tech enthusiasts and influencers, called “Cisco Champions”, to advocate the brand amongst professional networks and across social channels. Since inception, the brand has generated a steady stream of timely online content and engagement.5 Cisco is not an isolated case. American Express have successfully partnered with influencers via their brand ambassador programme #AmexAmbassadors to promote the Business Platinum credit card and the Shop Small initiative for small businesses.
Despite the growing momentum in management practice, there are important questions on how to select the appropriate influencer to enhance collaboration effectiveness in B2B markets. Specifically, which cues of influencers should seller companies take notice of? What is the impact of collaborating with an influencer to advocate a seller’s offering? Our research has addressed these questions.
The research draws on data from over 350 B2B professionals with purchasing and/or contract negotiation experience, tasked to evaluate technological offerings advocated by influencers, whose profiles were experimentally manipulated to portray either competence (e.g., skill and ability) or warmth (e.g., friendliness and care). With each B2B professional being exposed to one or the other influencer profile, we examined how cues about influencers impact the extent to which a seller’s technological offering is selected. We find that the influencers’ profiles act as a relevant signal at the time of evaluating and selecting a seller’s offering. Profiles highlighting the competence of influencers make sellers’ offerings particularly appealing.6
Our findings offer solutions for seller companies seeking to partner with influencers, and for influencers expanding reach in B2B markets. The selection of the right influencer is the first important step. Influencers’ fit with the brand image is a relevant selection criterion, even more than the number of followers.7 Our research demonstrates how fit can be attained based on the competence of influencers. Competence, which reflects perceived ability, including attributes of intelligence, skill, creativity, and efficacy, represents a meaningful cue that B2B professionals attend to when presented with influencers’ digital profiles. Strikingly, our findings show that cues of warmth such as friendliness, helpfulness, and sincerity are comparatively less meaningful in B2B professionals’ decisions. This is even though the influencers are known for their friendliness and social leadership in consumer markets. Such attributes are not as valuable in B2B markets.
An explanation for our results is that B2B professionals are most concerned about reducing risk and uncertainty when purchasing business solutions requiring high financial involvement. Competence is an effective cue in reducing uncertainty about sellers’ offerings. As a sign of skill and efficiency, competence is a necessary component toward B2B professionals’ goal attainment. A competent influencer advocating a product lowers perceived risk associated with the expected performance and goodwill of the seller, while providing confidence toward the purchase decision. We therefore advise seller companies to partner up with competent influencers. Influencers seeking to expand reach in B2B markets should emphasise specialist knowledge and skills on their digital profile.
Moreover, the extent to which B2B professionals identify themselves with influencers is an important factor. Self-identification is a universal psychological process of associating the self closely with other individuals and their characteristics or views. When identification with influencers is high, B2B professionals give equal weight to warmth and competence. The contrary occurs when identification is low. In the latter instance, the competence of influencers is an objective and reliable source of information for B2B professionals to evaluate sellers prior to purchase. Seller companies are recommended to appraise identification as part of regular business customer segmentation and satisfaction assessment through surveys or customer workshops. This can help in selecting suitable target segments with whom to communicate via competent influencers. When identification cannot be measured, characteristics linked with high identification, such as interpersonal cooperation8 and likelihood of recommending a company, can be employed.9
For influencers operating in B2B markets, identification with B2B professionals is not essential. Communicating skill, intelligence, and efficiency – core facets of competence – is a more effective strategy than conveying social leadership and caring attitude. For the B2B professionals, competence lowers uncertainty around performance and goodwill.
The selection of influencers is far from an easy task. To this end, we offer suggestions on how to use influencers’ profiling characteristics. B2B marketing is fast adapting to the digital world. Influencer marketing is here to stay. Moving forward, the shift toward integrating influencers in digital marketing efforts is likely to accelerate. Success, as our research shows, is contingent upon partnering with the right influencer.
About the Authors
Dr. Benedetta Crisafulli is Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research interests are in the areas of consumer-brand relationships, emotions in communications, and influencer marketing. She has published in highly reputed peer-reviewed international journals, including among others the Journal of Service Research, Psychology & Marketing, Technological Forecasting & Social Change and Journal of Business Ethics. She co-authored, with Prof. Jaywant Singh, a book entitled “Brands and Consumers: A research overview” published in 2022 by Routledge.
Professor Jaywant Singh is Professor of Marketing at Southampton Business School, University of Southampton, UK. His research interests are in consumer behaviour and branding. He has authored books on consumer behaviour and brand management and has published extensively in top-tier journals, such as the Journal of Business Research, Journal of Business Ethics, Industrial Marketing Management, and many others.
Dr. La Toya Quamina is Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Westminster Business School, University of Westminster, UK. Her research interests are in consumer behaviour and brand management, with a focus on reputational crises. She has published in the Journal of Advertising Research, Journal of Business Research, Industrial Marketing Management, European Management Review, and a book chapter on strategic brand alliances in The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Brand Engagement.
- Santora, J. (2023). “Key Influencer Marketing Statistics You Need to Know for 2022. Influencer Marketing Hub”. https://influencermarketinghub.com/influencer-marketing-statistics/ (Accessed 12 January 2023)
- Wiley, D. (2022). “6 Influencer Marketing Trends to Watch for in 2023”. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesagencycouncil/2022/12/06/6-influencer-marketing-trends-to-watch-for-in-2023/?sh=51b859e169f3 (Accessed 12 January 2023)
- Deloitte (2022). “2022 Global Marketing Trends Thriving through customer centricity”. Deloitte Insights. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/topics/marketing-and-sales-operations/global-marketing-trends.html (Accessed 7 December 2022)
- TopRanking Marketing (2022). “TopRank Marketing’s All-New 2022 B2B Influencer Marketing Research Report”. https://www.toprankmarketing.com/newsroom/2022-b2b-influencer-marketing-report/ (accessed 19 November 2022)
- Cisco Community. Cisco Champion Program (2022). https://community.cisco.com/t5/cisco champions-public/ct-p/CiscoChampionsPublic. (accessed 19 November 2022)
- Crisafulli, B., Singh, J., & Quamina, L.T. (2022). “Competence is power: how digital influencers impact buying decisions in B2B markets”, Industrial Marketing Management, 104, 384-99
- Audrezet, A., & de Kerviler, G. (2019). “How brands can build successful relationships with influencers”, Hbr.org
- Ahearne, M., Haumann, T., Kraus, F., & Wieseke, J. (2013). “It’s a matter of congruence: How interpersonal identification between sales managers and salespersons shapes sales success”, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 41, 625-48
- Einwiller, S.A., Fedorikhin, A., Johnson, A.R., & Kamins, M.A. (2006). “Enough is enough! When identification no longer prevents negative corporate associations”, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 34, 185-94