While the term Web 2.0 was first introduced to our lexicon in 2003, certain parts of the anatomy of the perceived "second-generation" of the Web have been around for 10 to 15 years (or more). These are places where "conversations" take place, where "communities" form and build quickly and where the best influencers for any company can be found.
The blog, as we've come to know it, is (according to Wikipedia) approaching its 10th anniversary. Yet, the phenomenon has its roots in the online discussion forums started in the early 1980s, which allowed groups of people with a common interest to talk and share opinions - positive and negative - online. Others could comment on those opinions and, taken collectively, have a powerful effect on word-of-mouth communication. These forums, along with "online diaries" started in the early 1990's, have evolved into a true phenomenon where anyone is a publisher.
Any company - from major consumer brands like Coke or Starbucks, to the smallest venture-funded or bootstrapped startup - has influencers who are online and can carry your message. The good news is they are easier than ever to find. The trickier part is engaging them, as the old rules of PR and communications do not apply.
*Identifying the Influencers
Depending on the company or client, the number of influential entities might be too large to manage. The ideal starting point should be to identify the 10 to 12 individuals or groups that have the most potential to be influencers or evangelists. There are several ways to determine this:
1. If the individual has a blog, how many comments does the typical blog post get? More comments obviously mean more readers of the blog.
2. How large is the "blogroll"? This is the list of links bloggers publish to tell readers who else they consider part of their community. Most often it is who the blogger links to, posts comments to, and vice versa. The blogroll may lead you to some other potential influencers.
3. What does the "About" page tell me? Every blogger has information about themselves and the premise for their blog. This can give you a feel for their professional profile, and can help identify consumers or users of offerings in your market or product/service category.
4. What is the Technorati authority ranking? The popular blog search engine "ranks" the influence of sites by the number of other blogs or forums that link to it. The higher the ranking, the more blogs that link to it and, therefore, the more it is followed.
*Engaging the Influencers
Once you've identified your influencers, the less formulaic part of the equation is engaging them. The old rules of communications and PR - typically pitching the media on a story that will carry your message to buyers - will not work here. The individuals spending time online to discuss your market or product/service category are doing so because they are passionate about it. They are authentic in their opinions and in the information they put forth, often written to help peers and others who have the same interests and passion.
They also - especially the ones who write in their blog every day - are constantly seeking content. The key to engagement is participating in the conversation in the same way - with an authentic voice and offering content that they can use. Here are a few ways that can manifest itself:
1. Show them you're listening. If a blogger offers a tip or best practice on using a product or service, post a comment complimenting it. If it's feedback (positive or negative) on your company's product or service, tell them that you'll use the feedback in a future version.
2. Help your clients start their blogs. As part of this advise them how they can "talk" to these potential influencers through their blogs by linking to and commenting on their insights (again in an authentic way). The potential influencers will welcome the attention.
3. Offer content they can use. Produce a customer interview-based podcast, create an animated tutorial on your product, post graphics and images to Flickr or Photobucket, post a YouTube video, make press releases "sociable." In other words, put content where bloggers are looking for it and in a form they can use.
The trick here is to understand the preferences of each of your potential influencers and engage them accordingly.
This article is excerpted from a piece written by Ted Weismann, SVP of Lois Paul & Partners, for the upcoming PR News Digital Guidebook. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Digital Guidebook will be available on prnewsonline.com this fall.