While there is a growing body of research on influencer marketing, it focuses almost exclusively on the consumer marketing context, and offers limited insights for business-to-business (B2B) organizations. To address this gap, the purpose of this study is to explore the use of influencer marketing in B2B markets. We draw empirical insights from 22 interviews with a) 12 senior marketing managers representing influencer marketing users in various B2B industries, ranging from industrial product manufacturers to professional service providers, and b) 10 experts from marketing agencies who advise other B2B firms on how to apply influencer marketing. The study findings identify the key elements of influencer marketing in B2B markets, and reveal four different strategies that B2B organizations use to operationalize the influencer marketing concept in practice. The study contributes to theory by providing the first empirical conceptualization of the B2B influencer marketing phenomenon. In doing so, the study widens the scope of influencer marketing to accommodate broader collaborations with influencers, which has significant implications across B2B and B2C contexts. For managers, this study offers alternative strategies to implement influencer marketing, which are associated with unique characteristics and serve different business goals.
Influencer marketing is gaining popularity as a key component of firms' digital marketing strategy (Appel, Grewal, Hadi & Stephen, 2020; Li, Larimo, & Leonidou, 2020), manifested in the market growth of global influencer marketing from $1.7 billion (USD) in 2016 to $13.8 billion in 2021 (Statista, 2021). While influencer marketing is often associated with consumer brands, multiple industry reports indicate that it is gaining momentum in the business-to-business (B2B) industries, too (e.g., Morgan, 2020; Hyder, 2019; Shea, 2018; TopRank Marketing, 2020). The increasing interest in B2B influencer marketing is being driven by contemporary B2B buying behavior, where buyers have become more self-directed in their purchasing processes, and complete a significant number of purchase-related tasks before contacting potential vendors (Järvinen & Taiminen, 2016; Steward, Narus, Roehm, & Ritz, 2019; Terho, Mero, Siutla, & Jaakkola, 2022). In turn, the independent online research relies heavily on digital content, and B2B buyers trust in content produced by third-party experts and peers (Shea, 2018). Given the significant role of trust in forming B2B relationships, influencer marketing provides a credible means to influence the self-directed B2B buying processes.
Industry case studies show that influencer marketing can provide substantial benefits to B2B firms. For example, SAP, a software company, created the TechUnknown podcast, where an influencer host discussed various topics around technology with industry experts and SAP's internal executives, resulting in a 66% increase in their podcast downloads. Furthermore, Cherwell Software shifted its business focus from IT service management to supporting companies with digital transformation, and used influencer marketing to build credibility for its new focus. The firm partnered with technology experts and achieved a 342% better click-through rate on influencer content, compared with the performance of its past campaigns (TopRank Marketing, 2020). However, while 74% of B2B marketers see the potential of influencer marketing to drive business benefits, only 19% are running systematic influencer marketing programs (Hyder, 2019). In fact, 60% of B2B firms report they do not have the skills or knowledge to implement influencer marketing programs, and one of the key reasons is that the current knowledge and best practices in influencer marketing come from consumer marketing contexts, which are not directly transferable to B2B contexts (TopRank Marketing, 2020).
6.1. Contributions and theoretical implications
Influencer marketing is a rapidly emerging, yet thus far relatively underexplored management practice in B2B markets. While there is a growing body of research on influencer marketing in general (Hudders et al., 2021; Sundermann & Raabe, 2019; Vrontis et al., 2021), it is almost exclusively focused on consumer markets, product-centric promotions in social media, and consumer attitudes and behaviors, providing only limited insights into the organizational processes and unique characteristics of influencer marketing in B2B markets. Against this background, this study provides two major contributions.
First, it provides a novel and empirically grounded conceptualization of the influencer marketing concept in the B2B market context, outlining its key elements and boundaries, and positioning it relative to established B2B marketing concepts. The conceptualization broadens the scope of influencer marketing, from product endorsements distributed on social media via external individuals in exchange for tangible rewards to multi-channel content creation and delivery by internal and external influencers on the basis of their mutual interests. This provides new knowledge by clearly differentiating the B2B influencer marketing concept from consumer influencer marketing, and highlighting the unique characteristics of influencer marketing in the B2B context. These findings provide important and thus far missing insights into the influencer marketing literature, which has been focused on the B2C context (e.g., Hudders et al., 2021; Leung, Gu, & Palmatier, 2022; Vrontis et al., 2021) and help explain why influencer marketing insights from the consumer marketing context are not directly transferable to the B2B context.