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Seven strategies for brand leadership through influencers

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By Martin Zwilling

These days, the influencers at the top of your business make your brand, rather than a brand making influencers of your leaders. Consider Jeff Bezos at the top of Amazon, or Howard Schultz at the top of Starbucks. They were influencers before they were a brand. You too can become an influencer through social media, videos and blogs, and people will follow you on what to buy, what causes to support, and who to vote for.

In this age of total visibility and instant communication via Twitter, Facebook, and smartphones, people assume that if they don’t know who you are, they can’t be influenced by you, and perhaps you don’t even exist. At the very least, big brands like IBM and McDonalds still take decades to achieve influence, whereas people have become influencers with only a few months of work.

The actions required to become an influencer today are all related to traditional leadership, but key elements need to be given a much higher priority in this age of the Internet and pervasive video. Based on my own experience in business over the years, and current coaching efforts, I recommend a focus on the following strategies and attributes:

Make your customer the center of everything you do. I still see too many aspiring business leaders highlighting their technology, product features, and price, more than customer value and usability. They and their brand have a long road to becoming a key influencer in their arena. Customers need to believe that you have their interests at heart.

Highlight your credibility by visibility and relationships. In the past, credibility came from a position title and the size of your business. Now customers judge you by your visibility to them at public forums, your writing, videos, and what other public figures say. Steve Jobs was always visible at industry forums, product pitches, and interviews.

Take an active role in a higher cause or social reform. Leaders who are clearly committed to giving back, or improving the environment, become influencers because the rest of us feel the urge to reciprocate. Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, is recognized as an influencer in online retail, doubling sales annually, by giving away shoes to the needy.

Demonstrate a willingness to take a stand and defend it. Influencers who started as bloggers demonstrated their view of parenting (“mommy bloggers”), cosmetics, or clothes, through constant interactions with interested potential customers, videos, and sometimes controversial perspectives. No business leader can be all things to all people.

Appeal to people’s interest in exclusivity and uniqueness. Mark Zuckerberg became a major influencer of social networking by first allowing only students from Harvard on his platform, and highlighting the uniqueness of Facebook. Your influence level goes up when your offering is available for a limited time, or highly personalized to each customer.

Be open, authentic, and willing to engage your followers. Influencers build trust by being transparent with their team and their customers on tough questions and issues. People want to connect with and learn from people like them – not from edicts, anonymous brand marketing material, and white papers that allow no interaction.

Pick a niche and target audience to demonstrate commitment. Jeff Bezos revolutionized selling online, by proving his unique one-click customer-first focus and starting only with selling books to a specialized audience. After becoming a recognized influencer in that domain, he was able to quickly expand his business leadership.

Influencers are able to capitalize on the new less expensive form of marketing, called “pull” marketing, that draws customers to your solutions, rather than the more traditional “push” marketing, which tries to push customers to products based on features, value, and cost. “Word-of-mouth” is another form of influencer marketing, pulling in friends and new customers.

Staying invisible and counting on your innovations and traditional marketing to make your company a respected brand is a recipe for failure today. Certainly the steps I recommend here for becoming an influencer and leader involve risk, and take focused effort. If you haven’t done it yet, it’s time to change with the times and join the new wave of leaders and influencers out there.

The writer is a veteran startup mentor, executive, blogger, author, tech professional, professor, and investor. Published on Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc, Huffington Post.

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