The myth of influencer marketing in Brussels

The notion of ‘influencers’ has been all the rage in Brussels recently. Understandably. In the real world, influencer marketing – the practice of teaming up with influential people to help promote an organisation or product – can be highly effective.

The principle of influencer marketing is not new. We’ve all sniggered at grainy ads from the 50s featuring doctors flogging cigarettes that do wonders for a niggly sore throat. And in public affairs, we’ve also been at it for years – think pharma and patient groups, or agrochemicals companies and farmers – but calling it stuff like key opinion leader mobilisation (or whatever).

But in the social media age, the concept of influencer marketing has moved on a notch:

  • It is far easier to build a public platform, so there are simply more people who are influential (as well as plenty more who think they may be, but patently are not)
  • Similarly, it is easier to get an influencer in front of those one is seeking to influence online than it is offline
  • Higher levels of mistrust in entities like industry and media makes credibility harder to attain, and influencers can help

Cue: lots of people, including public affairs practitioners, with high hopes for online influencer marketing.

While not doubting the effectiveness of online influencer marketing when done well, I would urge caution to anyone expecting it to make a massive dent in Brussels. In the marketing world, influence comes from being able to help sell a product. In Brussels, the product for sale is policy impact, usually driven by: the provision of high quality technical information; proof of market power (i.e. the ability to generate jobs and growth); or proof of public support (at least amongst key constituencies). If online influencers can help deliver technical or market power information that supports one’s case but might otherwise not cut through the clutter, or whose reach can be taken as a sign of popular support – then great, they will likely deliver policy influence. But I doubt there are more than a handful of Brussels-based individuals who fit this bill. There may be plenty of people who are followed by the entire bubble and whose stuff gets shared because it is amusing, topical or controversial – but this does not equate to influence.

So should we discard influencer marketing entirely in Brussels? Not quite, but we may wish to alter the paradigm by which we approach it:

  • Online influencers that can influence policy (experts, high-profile green bloggers etc.) do exist, but usually at member state level. So if a key target stems from a country in which an all-powerful online influencer may realistically support your cause, by all means, explore the option.
  • Given how small the Brussels bubble is, the key triumvirate – entity seeking to influence / influential people / target audiences – have fewer degrees of separation between them than in the real world. And sometimes they are the same person. Spokespeople are sometimes cited as influencers, for instance. But are they not also targets? You might be seeking to influence, but are you not just one useful piece of online content away from actually being the influencer yourself?

In summary, for anyone seeking to use the online sphere as a means to influence in Brussels, I’d advise two things:

  1. Do not develop an ‘influencer’ list for Brussels, as there are not enough influencers, and there will be too much overlap between it and your target list. Simply create a target list that doubles up as an influencer list. It should include details on each individual’s online presence, especially a recommendation on how best to reach and leverage each e.g. target directly, target indirectly through paid, engage openly – or indeed, seek to leverage as an influencer.
  2. Try to become influential online yourself rather than seeking intermediaries to carry your message, through a really relevant and high-quality content strategy. Given the dearth of brilliant online content in Brussels – and the reluctance of many otherwise excellent public affairs practitioners to build their ‘personal brand’ online – there are rich pickings to be had.

PA professionals: picking the right “influential” people

A Public Affairs staple, as with all fields of communications, is to seek out “influential” people who support your side of the story and are willing to say so. This gives you and your side of the story credibility, so the logic goes.

So who is usually sought out as “influential” in PA? Often, the academic (or scientist) for clearly these are highly credible folk: smart, independent and presumably not profit driven. Again, sounds logical, you’d think, and what’s more, the Trust Barometer tells us academics are amongst the most trusted people out there.

Yet as anyone working on issues in Brussels can confirm, you can have scores of cuddly, bearded academics on your side, without the tide changing on your issue.

Why not? Could one reason be that we’re applying rational thinking to an irrational process? You ask someone who they trust: the CEO, the academic, an NGO, someone like you… You’re given time to think, and you’ll provide the rational answer: clearly, I trust academics.

Yet we don’t make decisions rationally, we do so emotionally. Our gut tells us how it is. In a meeting I recently attended, a clever man said that 95% of decisions are “emotional” not rational. Let’s be conservative and cut that down to 80% for the purposes of my little illustration here:

In summary:

  • Academics and scientists appeal to our rational being, which reflects perhaps 20% of decisions.
  • Who could influence emotional decision making? Perhaps a regular Joe like me with a clear link to the issue at hand, ideally an emotional link (I work in industry X which people are trying to shut down; my child suffered at the hands of substance Y). A celeb? Not any celeb, but a well-known person with a less than spurious connection to a cause (OK hardly Brussels fare, but remember Joanna Lumley and the Gurkhas, legitimised by the fact that her father had been in a Gurkha regiment?) Or a community and/or business  leader who, again, might not be just like me or be a celeb, but has taken an issue on board with real fervour.
  • What do these type of influencers have in common? In short, they approach an issue from the heart, not in a cold-blooded analytical fashion, and are thus more likely to influence emotional decision-making.
  • And journalists? Clearly influencers, but they’re hard to place – it depends on the individual, the publication and their approach on the day, so I’ve placed them on the threshold.
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