Every market has its cadre of luminaries — opinion leaders to whom the industry turns for expertise on where things are going and who's going to get there first. Pick up any trade magazine and see how it's peppered with poignant quotes from consultants, market research analysts, systems integrators, and gurus at cutting-edge companies.
Although their impact on the future can be questionable, opinion leaders have an immediate affect on your company's success when they talk about you favorably, unfavorably or not at all to customers and the press. Through a systematic communications campaign, you can manage this reality to your advantage.
Certainly you hope the expert will drop your company's or product's name when talking to reporters or potential customers. But also, by building meaningful relationships with opinion leaders, you'll learn from them and they from you. You'll uncover some of what they know from meeting with your competitors, sitting on customer advisory boards, and doing head-to-head product comparisons and ROI analysis for companies with money to spend on software solutions. They'll have a better understanding of your company and vision. In the exchange, you'll find they truly value your opinion about the market and what you've learned from working intimately with customers.
Know Who They Are
First of all, you need to know who you're targeting. Probably, you can already name a few opinion leaders in your market. It's important, though, to ascertain their level of influence, and that involves some assessment of their visibility and credibility.
You can turn to several sources. You'll find leading experts at the podiums of trade shows and association meetings. Computer industry databases, like MediaMap, have in-depth listings of the major market research firms, such as Gartner Group and Forrester Research.
There are more pointed means, however. For example, searching news databases like NEXUS on a specific topic and then searching the resultant listing for terms like "analyst," "consultant," "expert" or other such label will turn up articles written by or quoting industry pundits. Every time you read an article about your market that quotes an expert, add the name to your database, noting where, when and on what topic the person was quoted. And don't be limited to big-name firms. Many times they're independent.
The other thing you'll notice, is that reporters and customers typically depend on a trusted few experts for a particular topic. So make it part of your public relations and sales process to ask them who they call. You can take this important step even further with a more sophisticated audit that will help you get quantitative and qualitative information — information that can help immeasurably in the next step.
Get Them to Know You
You next want to find out if your company or products show up on the radar of your chosen experts. The audit will tell you, not only how much work you have to do, but where to start. And an anonymous survey will help to ensure a more unbiased opinion of who ranks top on their list.
Once you've identified a list of oft-quoted or hired experts, divvy them up into two tiers. The top tier is the six to 12 analysts who you want always to be aware of your positioning and capabilities. The next tier is a broader population of experts you want to keep informed, but in a more passive manner.
There are many ways to build relationships with your top-tier opinion leaders, but nothing replaces regular in-person briefings. Brief them on every major product announcement (under non-disclosure if necessary) and certainly at least every six months.
Understand how they operate
Re-evaluate your top-tier opinion leaders every so often. Keep in mind that this is a very incestuous business. A research analyst, for example, is very likely on retainer to your competitor, and probably for many of your customers, too. Briefings often involve you spending some time listening to their pitch for consulting or research services.
Fair enough. After all, if you think they're so sharp, why wouldn't you be purchasing some of their research or consulting services. But obviously you can't buy from every firm, and sometimes their patience, and yours, grows thin. The professionals, though, know that they are obligated by their clients to be familiar with all credible, alternative solutions on the market landscape, and they'll keep a fair separation of editorial and advertising. If not, move them to the second tier.
Opinion leaders can have a notable influence on your company's future in the press, at trade shows and through word-of-mouth — all vital elements of a referral-based industry. Your relationship with them should be developed systematically and selectively. There's much to be gained if you nurture an on-going dialogue with an elite half dozen or so thought-leaders in your market. Quite simply, the more they get to know about you, the more the market gets to know about your company and its solutions. And the more you learn about your marketplace.
Bob Brin manages the Emerging Technology practice group at Padilla Speer Beardsley, a full-service public relations and communications firm with offices in Minneapolis, St. Paul and New York.