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Influencer marketing is alive and thriving in the consumer marketing world, but we might be tipping over the bell curve of acceptance-to-annoyance for paid celebrities and bloggers hawking products or services. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that, while the money brands spend on consumer influencer marketing keeps rising 50% each year, engagement rates are down and there’s a significant loss of trust due to fraudulent Instagram followers and failure to disclose sponsorships. 

But away from Instagram, in the business-to-business world, influencer marketing is very much on the upswing. A new crop of social media stars is taking note of what’s working and what’s not in the consumer sphere. Industries, including technology and finance, are seeing conversations and opinions shaped by independent influencers who have spent years building their online credibility and following. More and more, they’re getting noticed and approached by brands.

One such influencer is Professor Sally Eaves, who is described as a “torchbearer for ethical technology.” A frequent keynote speaker, author, and acknowledged global influencer, Sally focuses on applying emergent technologies as an enabler for both business and societal transformation at scale. Her online influence in the B2B technology space has been growing for years, so much so that she is now continually rated in the top 10 for leadership in digital disruption and technology subjects (e.g. AI, Blockchain, 5G, Cloud, CyberSecurity) in leading B2B influencer rankings.

I caught Sally while she was en route to Marrakesh to participate in the World Policy Conference. We talked about the rise of B2B influencer marketing and how she authentically works with brands while still maintaining strict ethical standards.

Influencer marketing has been a critical tool in the consumer marketing world for many years now. How do you see influencers shaping the B2B world, especially the tech world?

Sally: It is happening organically. It is all about being authentic, having a holistic view of what's going on in the industry and bringing in different perspectives to brands based on your own experience. I think there’s a real opportunity to help connect organizations with end-users and other stakeholders in a different way. 

To me, it’s all about sharing narratives. I really like to bring the human side of technology to the fore. I have both a research and CTO background and care a lot about social impact i.e. Tech for Good. I believe influencer marketing is a different way to connect organizations to end-users and the wider community.  

What's your perspective on paid versus organic when it comes to influencers in the B2B world?

Sally: Everything I do in this space is all about building trusted relationships. I’m somebody who likes to really get to know and understand how an organization works and the people behind the tech. If you’ve got that understanding, and it’s a fit with your own personal experience and what you believe in and what you want to do, then you've got alignment. That’s the key starting point. It’s a shared value proposition.

In terms of a paid arrangement, I think that happens naturally. If you have legitimate experience, show what you can do and build trusted relationships, you are working in a complementary way. There’s a shared reciprocal commitment where you’re putting the time into really understanding the brand and the people and writing, for example, extended pieces around particular topics, or attending events over a long-term committed basis. It’s a natural trajectory in terms of reciprocal value.

How do you like to see brands properly leverage influencers like yourself? What's the best way to work with you?

Sally: The starting point is asking, is there alignment here? I have an applied technical background and I do a lot around digital transformation, but I’m always thinking about how to discuss the cultural and societal transformation elements, too. So, I look at all the different areas in which I can work with a brand. I want to see if there’s an opportunity for something longer term, where we can get to know one another. I want to understand how they work and really meet the people behind the brand.

I go in with an independent background and I’m trusted to find my own narrative. It’s important for me to be able to pick out the key points or takeaways, so it’s not just about pitching a product or service. I personalize content for the audience. I try to stay true to changes that might be happening with the brand, or what’s ahead from a technology, trend or cultural point of view. I can see how those areas fit together—and being respected and trusted to talk about that is a wonderful thing I greatly value.

At events, I spend time doing one-on-one interviews, not just with executives but also finding my own sources, too. I’ll do video content, extended thought-leadership pieces and social media —I like to do a range of activities, and I research the space so I can bring my perspective to each of them. 

You talk a lot about trust between a brand and an influencer. How can both parties build and maintain that all-important trust in the relationship?  

Sally: There’s been a shift in how brands work with influencers. It is no longer a one-off. Brands tend to follow what influencers do over a period of time. Everything I’ve done has been from me, and I’ve prided myself on doing that. The community I talk with is 100 percent organic.

I think brands get to know what you stand for. Everything I do is highly personalized, evidence-based and can be trusted. For instance, I’ve written a lot of long-form articles recently that have had a lot of positive feedback and the readers can tell it’s not prescribed. That resonates with an audience; they get to know your tone, your voice, and what you believe in. If it’s authentic, it should stand out, and the more brands want to work with you. 

Are there any brand success stories that you're particularly proud of? Or any brand fails? 

Sally: An authentic influencer wants to build a partnership. I want to know what a brand stands for and really be part of the plan and help build a trajectory over a longer-term relationship. You want the brand to give you access, for example, to early research findings or one-on-one meetings with key stakeholders, and I love the opportunity to continually discover more and co-create content together.

A recent positive brand experience was working with a leading technology company at the V&A Museum as part of the London Design Festival (LDF).  I care about financial inclusion, sustainability and the circular economy, and this was the biggest design event of the year. We wanted to get people curious, aware and more engaged in the issue of plastic pollution and so we created an immersive exhibit about the waste in our oceans. 

This brought together technology, design and art and I had the opportunity to meet with artists, attendees and the LTF leadership team. Working with the brand, we created an incredible visual, a video series and a portfolio of written and social media pieces about the physical installation, taking people on a journey and using different forms of media to get people involved. It’s a great example of doing things differently with a brand.

How did you learn about influencer marketing guidelines and ethical standards?

Sally: I didn’t set out to become an influencer. It happened very organically based on my experience and really enjoying sharing about the things that I know and care about. My social media presence grew naturally as a result of connecting with like-minded people and my desire to build a really strong community around issues I believe matter. I love sharing knowledge.

In terms of ethics, I would say I've got a very strong value set. There has to be a values alignment. Additionally, in the last nine months or so, more brands and agencies ask for certain ethical disclosures to make it clear that you are involved in a campaign. There are often specific hashtags to use.

What are the keys to making an influencer brand partnership successful in the B2B world? 

Sally: Authenticity of fit, authority of experience and alignment of interests, values and expectations are my three keys to building mutually fulfilling B2B influencer marketing relationships. 

These essential components ensure the quality, legitimacy and impact of an engagement that connects to the right audience at the right time, with the influencer informed and trusted to create or co-create content. This enables activations that feel personalized, compelling and natural, while cultivating long-term partnerships between influencer and brand that continually expand in relevance, resonance and reach.