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Interview with Ryan Bares

by | Apr 8, 2020 | Interviews, ,

Ryan Bares

Ryan Bares

Global Social Programs Lead at IBM Systems

Key Topics:Brand Advocacy, Influencer Marketing, Influencer Strategy
Location:Austin, Texas, USA

I've been at IBM and in the influencer space since 2016 and I sit within the IBM Systems business unit. IBM is obviously a very huge enterprise and we're divided into a dozen or so different business units that operate as their own companies in a lot of ways. Systems really focuses on the hardware side of things, so we are looking at IT infrastructure. These are the mainframes, the hardware storage and some of our more legacy products which drive a lot of value for the business.

Our influencer programme started in 2016. There was a little bit of work with influencers before that, but it was really on an ad hoc basis, one-off things such as coming to events. At that time we had dozens of events a year that were really large, and we'd invite a couple influencers to live tweet and that would help us hit our share of voice, or our impression number and then we wouldn't talk to them again for a year. Then in 2016 we made the decision to shift that to an always on program.

Why did you decide to work with influencers?

I think there are a few different things here. We noticed that over the last few years, our reach was being limited on social from our owned brand channels without paid. Our organic social was just lower in terms of who we’re reaching. We also noticed through analysis that the majority of our audience includes current clients and IBMers so we weren’t necessarily reaching new or white space. We wanted to make an effort to get outside of our brand channels and talk to different user groups, such as developers or IT professionals, that aren’t at the C level but are influencing the buying decision. We felt that influencers, or people with social reach that have credibility in the space, could help us hit those markets where our brand channels couldn’t go. We did that through content collaboration such as blogging, videos, podcasts with certain individuals based on their skill set. We still bring them to events which helps us get them in front of some of our executives and SMEs. They can then create content, interview and become an advocate for IBM.

My biggest goal for this program has always been around the relationship and the advocacy part. It’s less about them writing a blog for us or coming to an event and then not talking to them again until the next thing comes up. It’s more about having these little touch points, engaging with influencers that we’ve partnered with on social. Whether it’s from my personal account, other IBMers’ accounts, our brand channels, or them coming to our events and getting special VIP treatment. We really want to make sure that we’re building advocates for IBM, so when we’re not engaged in a campaign with them they’ll still want to go talk about IBM in a positive way, that’s not necessarily coming from us.

Tell us a bit about your program

I don’t think our history is particularly different to a lot of people in this space. IBM being in the B2B large enterprise space there hasn’t been a lot of influencer work that has been documented. The consumer space is on its own path, and for me, influencer marketing was what we would call the Wild Wild West. People were in different business units doing their own thing, but there was no clear point of view. IBM is still on a path for standardizing and centralized influencer marketing programs, but many of the business units have established amazing programs.

At the beginning, it was really just me sitting on Twitter and LinkedIn and finding people that were talking about topics that we were interested in, people that were referred to us by some of our IBMers that were saying, “hey, I follow this person on social” or “this person came to an event”, or “this person is speaking at this thing”. So, it was me following a lot of different events that we thought we’d be at and understanding who was using topical phrases. The goal for me was to create a program and a framework for the different regions within the business, whether that’s Latin America, Europe, Asia Pacific, etc. Then they would take this framework and hopefully implement it into their local geo. So, this program needed to be scalable outside of just North America or the US.

I started at the beginning just leveraging hashtags and Twitter lists and putting that information into spreadsheets. I quickly realized that wasn’t scalable and wasn’t a great use of my time. So, we evolved a relationship with Onalytica and they really helped us focus on the right topics and adding the right people into the program. Then we were able to see who the influencers were connected with, what their networks look like, and track engagements through the funnel and relationship cycle.

Which activities are you currently partnering with influences on?

It can vary a lot, but I think our bread and butter has really been around content creation. For example, in January we had a Forrester study come out, and we partnered with a handful of influencers that got a sneak peek of the report. They then created some quotes and we teased that out for a few weeks in the hope of driving people to sign up to download the report when it was publicly available.

Another key activity we partner with influencers on is live events support. For events which happen annually on a global scale, we’ll invite a handful of influencers to join us on site. The goal is not just for them to live-tweet every session that they go to and kind of spam with the hashtag. The goal is for them to be on-site and capture content while they’re face to face with some of these SMEs and while they’re seeing some of these great speakers, clients and partners talking about how we’re changing the world at IBM through collaboration. Then share those ideas in more long-form content. Tweets are great, LinkedIn posts are awesome, but we’re really interested in getting a blog or several short videos that really play well on social from the right influencer. We also connect the influencers with some of our SME’s and employees at IBM. We ask them to engage on social beyond just the likes by actually going through and replying and retweeting with comments.

Product launches is another piece. In September of last year, we had the new IBM z15 mainframe launch and we had a big event in New York City. We had 10 social influencers joining us there covering the half-day event live and creating content pre-event on thought leadership topics such as hybrid multicloud, security or pervasive encryption. Then as we go through the event and post event, they’re creating content specifically on the z15 and what they found really interesting and new about the hardware and technology.

So there’s a lot of activity, and it’s a mixture of face to face and digital first. We’ve also found ways to bring some of our influencers to our factories and to the places where we build our hardware and they’ve been able to interview SMEs, take videos, and showcase that. So, we’ve tried to find different and fun ways to get these social influencers involved in doing what they’re great at and helping us reach that new market with some of the products and solutions that we’re creating.

What value do you feel the influencers have brought to you as a brand?

I think there are a few different ways to look at this, one being influencers unique point of view on industry topics. As I mentioned earlier, talking about ourselves a lot on our brand channels doesn’t really drive a lot of its attention, it kind of hits a wall. We were looking for people that have significant social reach, but also have some topical authority on these IT topics that we’re interested in from a Systems point of view. I think the value that some of them brought is their unique point of view on the industry and the solutions. That may not be specific to IBM because they may not have the deep knowledge of the technology we’re building, but more at a high-level thought leadership piece. I think we’ve seen really great value from the partnerships we’ve had, and we’ve also reached new audiences that we typically wouldn’t be talking to. For example, there’s a YouTuber that we’ve partnered with several times and he has a really passionate following on social of mainly developers and students. We took a calculated risk going in that space and through the comments on YouTube, we saw those people didn’t know IBM was doing some of the things that we were doing. We’ve been around for 109 years and we really play in the enterprise space, so consumers don’t necessarily know a lot about what IBM is doing that touches their everyday life. Maybe this audience isn’t making buying decisions in the C-Suite Office, but one day they might be. Or they’re becoming long-term advocates of some of the cooler things IBM are doing that maybe they don’t see on the TV or on social. So that’s been another big value that I’ve seen from partnering with different influencers, it’s the new and different types of audiences that we’ve been able to reach outside of the branded channels.

What business outcomes are IBM seeking to achieve by working with influencers?

I sit in the social team within IBM System which is within our performance marketing team. So, a lot of what we’re tasked to do as a performance marketing team is to drive top of funnel interest and responses. So typically, the foremost thing that we want to achieve as a business outcome is to get people to click to our website, fill out a form and capture their information. Very simple marketing. Now influencers are at the very top part of that funnel in my opinion, and so they’re not really driving a lot of responses, but they’re driving a lot of traffic to our website hopefully, or a lot of interest, and hopefully, that’s engaged traffic. We don’t just want someone to click on an influencer’s link to an IBM web page, we want them to engage in other content while they’re there and spend more time on the website.

So the response is first and foremost the goal, but there are also things that are happening in the background, like SEO. As we’re building content with these influencers that are living sometimes on our blog, other times on their personal blog or LinkedIn pulse page. They’re all helping us build SEO through backlinking and different SEO strategies to help us as an IBM group return favorable search results. So that’s another outcome we’re seeking.

Finally, I would say the other outcome is advocacy. This is hard to quantify, but the way I look at it is are the people we’re partnering with over time mentioning @IBMSystems? Are they using our key topics like IT infrastructure, Hybrid Multicloud and is that number increasing time over time? So are they thinking and talking about the topics we care to talk about, not always related to an event or a launch or a campaign, or me emailing them saying hey, we’ve got this thing coming up, do you want to participate? Instead, it’s happening in the background. It’s a little bit harder to measure but we try our best to showcase the amount of mentions from our influencers, and that we hopefully saw growth this quarter and that it will continue to grow into next quarter. So that’s some of the outcomes that we’re looking for.

What metrics do you use to measure success?

We measure brand or topic mentions quarter over quarter. To be specific, I go into Onalytica and look at how many times influencers mentioned IBM Systems this quarter? Also how many times did they mention Systems and Hybrid Multicloud this quarter and has that increased quarter over quarter? There are also some vanity measurements that are not necessarily driving business outcomes in my opinion but are part of the entire ecosystem of social. So those are things like the number of video views, the number of impressions we’re seeing from some of the content they’re sharing, are they amplifying our branded content with comments that are driving engagement on their Tweets or LinkedIn? So that’s really important too, in the quick scheme of things what are those vanity metrics that we can showcase up and out internally?

Then getting back to the responses again, so how many downloads did they help drive, or how many registrations for an event or webinar did they contribute to? So those are some of the really specific metrics that I’m measuring on a regular basis.

Then there’s looking to the future, we’d love to create a program where our employees are engaging and building relationships with some of these influencers in real life and also on social through collaboration of content, through comments and engagement on social or whatever that looks like. So that’s another measurement we’ll look at it in the future, and how do we get those employees together with the influencers to make sure that we’re building relationships there where it’s a human to human interaction, and not always coming from a brand channel.

What are the most common challenges you have faced?

There are a lot of challenges that I’ve encountered over the years of doing this within IBM and I think some of them bubble up to the top for me. I think it starts with education internally. So what I mean there is level setting with the different marketing teams at IBM Systems, and even from our corporate headquarters team, and saying this is our point of view on social influencers, this is who they are and this is who they aren’t, and this is the value they bring. Showing the timeline of the relationship and all of the things that go along with influencer marketing. There’s been a common challenge with a lot of education needed internally on what influencer marketing looks like in the B2B space, in the enterprise space and at IBM. Some people see influencer marketing as more on Instagram and more in the consumer space, and feel like we can just have someone talk about our product and we’ll get a bunch of sales, but it’s very different for us because we’re selling really expensive enterprise level hardware. So, the types of influencers we’re looking for are a lot smaller and they aren’t going to be specific to our technology. They might be able to talk about security, they might be able to talk about cloud, on-premises and off-premises and the different clouds and why ours is important, but they might not be able to talk about how fast the z15 mainframe is or how secure it is because they’re not a technical person for us.

So that’s also been a challenge, making sure internally that people realize that these are thought leaders, really high-level top of funnel, their job is not to go and try to sell a mainframe, influencers are creating thought leadership content that drives interest into what IBM and IBM Systems are doing around IT infrastructure, hybrid multicloud, resiliency and data protection. Not about the specifics around the servers.

Another common challenge is finding the right influencers and expanding or recruiting new influencers. As I mentioned our industry might be a little bit niche in terms of the types of influencers and the way we’re set up. We don’t work with analysts or journalists as those relationships are managed through our communications team. We’re looking to draw in those true social influencers, and finding the right influencers and growing our club, if you will, is a challenge. I think building relationships is great and I want to continue building relationships with the right people, but how do we expand that to find new individuals? That’s been a challenge I found in the IT hardware space.

We want to look like we have a clear point of view on who we’re talking to and why we’re talking to them, which can be hard at IBM because of the size of our organization. There are also influencers that might be great for us in Systems but also might want to work with Security or might want to work with our Cloud team. So, it’s important to make sure we have a clear focus on the way we work with the right people and how we collaborate as a business so that it’s a win-win for us and the influencer too.

If there was 1 piece of advice you would give to influencer marketing practitioners what would it be?

I think if I was talking to someone trying to get started in this space it would be a different piece of advice for someone who’s been doing it for a few years. So, if you’re just getting started my advice would be start small and start with the specific geo wherever you are. Start with a specific topic and build from there. I would reach out and send them a one pager saying “hey, we see you talking about things that we also talk about, would you be interested in being part of this program? This is the benefit to you and this is what we would expect from you.”

I think if I were to go over and do it again, I would really start small with one or two people on one or two topics in one region and kind of build up from there. Then perfect it and scale it out.

My piece of advice for somebody that has been doing this for a year or more, or maybe wants to pivot a little bit, is start with the end in mind. So, think through how you really want to measure success because it can be a little bit difficult when it comes to influencer marketing. In a lot of ways, you can have the vanity metrics, but those only go so far. Is your success number of responses? Is it true awareness? Is it just impressions? Is it number of pieces of content? Figure out what that looks like and then work backward to make sure that you’re hitting those milestones so that you can showcase your success at the end of the quarter.