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Know Your Tribe, Find Your Influencers: Cision’s Heidi Sullivan & Forensic Social Media

As the future of the news media continues to seriously fall into question, the task before PR professionals and marketers continues to demand unique strategies for reaching audiences and disseminating messages. Helping to navigate this new frontier is Cision’s Heidi Sullivan, in last Thursday’s “Forensic Social Media” session at Social Media Week Chicago.

While the term “forensic” may seem like an odd choice of title, Sullivan engaged the topic of social media strategy in depth, examining both the challenges and offering a range of techniques and notions to endure the inevitable evolution of the profession along with the media itself.

Sullivan noted the past ease of simply connecting with various types of news media, pitching the top newspaper, the top magazine, or the local news. Yet news habits are no longer so unidirectional: “We are so fractured as audiences now, you can’t do that anymore. There is no silver bullet. It’s the end of news as an event,” she proclaimed. “It’s become a lot harder to reach the people we want to reach, and you can’t have effective marketing if you can’t reach those people.” Sullivan invokes a March 2008 piece from former media columnist Brian Stelter in The New York Times, quoting a college student: ‘If the news is that important, it will find me.’

“That’s how we interact with news today,” Sullivan said. ”We’re receiving news aggregated to us in real time, customized to us, through social, RSS feeds, email, we’re just inundated with it. According to Pew Research Center, we’re actually consuming more news than we ever have before, through more sources than we’ve ever used before. So the news is out there, it’s just not the silver bullet that it used to be. We can’t just put media out there and expect people will show up.”

To add a further wrinkle to this PR dilemma, Sullivan also discussed the issue of Google rankings and the fact that SEO strategies and keywords aren’t the silver bullets they used to be either. “Google has drastically increased the importance of original content when it comes to where you appear in search rankings,” Sullivan explained. “Now if you have original content that’s regularly published that people are sharing, that’s when you’re able to increase your rankings. That’s what Google is looking for.”

In addition to original content, advocacy is also a key player in new PR strategies: “It’s ever important that you’re creating more content on behalf of your brand,” she said, “and that you’re building advocates who can be that third party.” Sullivan notes a study from Dimensional Research, where 90 percent of customers say buying decisions are motivated by online reviews, and the number of sources we need to reach a buying decision has doubled since 2010.

Sullivan’s ultimate point in this examination is the importance of influencers in contemporary PR strategy. While she notes ‘influencers’ can be an amalgam of groups, “all we’re talking about here are people who have found a voice that resonates with that target community,” she explained. Utilizing statistics from Rohit Bhargava’s Influential Marketing Blog, Sullivan acknowledged that while only one percent are actively creating media and 90 percent only consume it online, there is a “Holy Grail” of sorts, a nine percent that actively participate in that media, disseminating messages themselves and weighing in via myriad social media.

It’s this nine percent that are vital to identify, as these may not be the traditional influencers PR pros are used to spotting. She cited the case of Stacy DeBroff, founder of Mom Central Consulting and essentially the top voice in the ‘Momosphere.’ In a recent interview she told Sullivan “now, thanks to social media . . . moms can build an audience based on the power of their voice and the resonance it has with their audience.”

The certainty, then, is that anyone can be an influencer. Sullivan cites her brother as an example, who she remembers predicting pop culture trends such as the advent of zombies or Amy Winehouse’s rise to fame. She also offered Malcolm Gladwell’s summation of the ‘Law of the Few,’ where a small group of cool hipster kids in New York decided Hush Puppies were cool again, and the brand suddenly took off without any advertising whatsoever.

Yet Sullivan weighed that against the ‘Trends Are Unpredictable’ theory proposed by Microsoft’s Duncan Watts, who conducted a study on music downloading habits, comparing a group asked to rank songs independently with another group ranking the same songs with knowledge of other’s rankings. “When provided with group ranks, users followed the herd and word of mouth took over,” she said. However, the group of influencers affecting decisions were different each time. We can’t predict who those influencers are,” she cautioned. “We can’t say, ‘this is going to go viral.’ Sometimes it goes viral, if you find the right influencer.”

Sullivan noted this is quite the challenge for PR: “By no means am I suggesting that building relationships and engaging influencers is an easy task. It’s expensive, it’s time consuming and takes a lot of effort.” However, she said that the key to establishing this ever-changing field of influencers is for PR pros to identify the influencers’ tribes, or the social communities these influencers interact with around common themes. By identifying these tribes, PR pros can leverage the collective power of their influencers, most importantly by fostering relationships with them. “You have to be an authentic member of that community. The influencers all talk to each other. They’re the people who are setting trends.” she advised. Advancing that notion, “Who’s commenting on their blogs, sharing their Vines, posting on their Facebook wall, repinning their pins on Pinterest…figure out who those people are and you’re going to find the other influencers in that space.”

Sullivan noted how we see these influencers and tribes in real time through psychographics and socialgraphics as opposed to the “bucket method” demographics previously employed. Do we really know, simply by age, gender, ethnicity and so on that we’re reaching our intended audiences by pitching traditional media befitting those audiences? Citing Cision’s media database, Sullivan described the differences between the traditional media and the blogosphere. “Bloggers are exactly the opposite of traditional journalists. About one quarter of bloggers tracked in Cision’s media database cover one of 26 ‘first tier’ general topics. The rest cover more specific topics.”

Delving into marketing strategy, Sullivan talked about two approaches based on ‘lookalike modeling’ and ‘response modeling.’ Lookalike modeling is simply developing specific profiles of consumer groups based on browsing habits. While not every PR pro will have access to this data, she suggests a similar strategy:

“Identify trends by looking at what people in your tribe are tweeting about, blogging about, and you can start to extract this information anecdotally because you’re involved in the community. You can start to think about your campaign and strategy, and who else you can reach out to. Maybe they’re not talking about your topic a lot, but they’re most likely to be interested in it,” she said.

When discussing response modeling, which identifies those likely to respond to a campaign based on previous response, she advises spending ten minutes a day to identify these influencers and tribes, to follow them, retweet, repin, repost, leave comments and truly engage. This builds relationships that can pay off in the future. She noted a study conducted by PR News and Cision, ‘The State of Social Media and PR Pros,’ where 45 percent of communication and social professionals said they have pitched via social media, with all of them recommending “build a relationship before pitching.” The crux of this, though, is to both engage these influencers but also to respect the relationship: “Empower your community. Allow them to put their own spin on your story. Give them ownership to help cement relationships,” she said.

Echoing this sentiment at the session was surprise guest speaker Rebekah Iliff, chief strategy officer for AirPR, a PR software company specializing in technology. She notes her tactics during their startup: “One of the first strategies we implemented was to identify 25 to 30 people in the PR industry who we could become friends with and gain knowledge in order to both build our product and give us credibility at launch,” she said. “When you’re a new market entrant or launching a new line of business, influencers are your first line of defense.”

Iliff recalled success with their first customer, the New York Stock Exchange, aided by developing a relationship with its communication manager. “If you’re selling a product into a business, you have to identify internal influencers within the brand that can champion you,” she advised. “We used to really look at media and big brands as the most influential, but because of the democratization of communication fueled by social, we all have the opportunity to be influential in our own right.”

About Jason Morgan

Jason Morgan is a features writer for Cision Blog, writing spotlights on media influencers and trends, also editing daily media updates. Outside of Cision, he enjoys an unhealthy amount of TV (everything from House of Cards to Real Housewives), keeping up with pop culture (particularly comic books and video games), as well as cooking and baking.

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