By Clare McDermott published November 28, 2012

How Influencers Have Ignited IBM’s Content Marketing

IBM’s Leslie Reiser

As one of the world’s best-known tech brands, IBM faces unique challenges — trying to ramp up its presence in an existing market where it is lesser known, for example. Leslie Reiser, IBM’s Program Director for Digital Marketing Worldwide, is facing that challenge head-on. 

As manager of the digital marketing practice within IBM’s general business organization, Leslie is responsible for social media marketing programs, website development, interactive marketing, content marketing, and all things related to the online space. Her group primarily focuses on midsize businesses (companies they define as having between 100 and 1,000 employees) — an area where IBM is waging an aggressive campaign to gain more market share.

I sat down with Leslie to talk about IBM’s influencer blogging program, gaining traction in the midsize business market, and plans for future content marketing expansion.

CMI: What works well in your content marketing program?

Leslie: Recently, we joined forces across our entire marketing and communications organization. Instead of working within a siloed, pure marketing discipline area, we have amassed a group of influencers. They include our business partners, IT analysts, and independent bloggers, many of whom are compensated for their unique point of view and perspective on a particular area. We work in concert across all these various constituencies in IBM to form (essentially) a very robust influencer ecosystem.

People have a very specific skill set, or expertise on a number of areas that align to our solutions portfolio. For instance, we seek out experts in the areas of cloud computing, business analytics, or data security and ensure that we pull in those particular experts and use them in the appropriate channel for maximum impact across the social ecosystem.

What issue is your company trying to solve with content marketing?

We are working with midsize businesses to use information technology for competitive advantage. Using intelligent information effectively and competitively is not something that should be gated by a customer’s size. Both the smallest and the largest businesses in the world can benefit. Through our content marketing program, we are educating people — and it all starts with smarter individuals. A single person within a midsize business can have tremendous impact and can drive fundamental change inside the organization. Through the topics we cover, we are challenging these individuals to use information differently, to empower their teams to make better decisions that will ultimately drive business growth. It’s about sharing stories about how people are using information to better provide their customers with the products and services they’re looking for.

So content marketing has helped us with relevance, with reach, with amplification of a voice through the redistribution of content — through regional development of content — that is specifically tailored to the very, very unique needs of a midsize company.

Have your content marketing strategies been successful in changing that perception?

Yeah. We’re identifying the right influencers that align with our business priorities. Those priorities align with our product and service portfolio. For example, we have identified and nurtured relationships with bloggers who specifically focus on cloud computing, or business analytics, or data security in that midsize business space.

Those particular people are influencers within the marketplace. They have credibility. They are authentic. They have independent followings and a network. By leveraging their very balanced, objective opinions and educating them on our portfolio suite, we can educate the broader marketplace and drive that relevance and, ultimately, the profit that we desire.

How does IBM’s relationship with influencers work?

The influencers are not the only components but they are a significant part of our overall strategy. We work with a combination of independent bloggers and writers. Through the Skyword program, the writers work within a pay-for-performance model. We educate them on the IBM offerings portfolio, as well as the specific business issues that typical companies of that size face.

Midsize businesses have very different needs than enterprise companies. The needs of TB Bank, for instance, are very different than Chase Manhattan Bank. We educate the writers on the marketplace segment and IBM differentiators. We provide access to experts so that they have always-at-the-ready fodder for their blog posts.

The writers produce content based on contractual agreement with Skyword and us for a certain amount of articles. They are taught through the Skyword program, for example, how to optimize for search.

Every week we distribute a conversation calendar. It’s the bible for all of our programs. In any given week, what you will see in the news will also appear on Midsize Insider, our publishing platform for news. We have a well-integrated content distribution program — whatever the theme is of that particular week or month is consistently applied throughout all communication channels.

How does the Skyword program work?

Skyword manages the blogger program for us. We’ve built this pretty robust set of industry experts who are not IBM’ers. They’re independent. They consist of authors, analysts, and former client-side professionals turned influential bloggers.

They focus on business priorities like cloud computing, business analytics, data security, virtualization — about 9 or 10 different areas that we emphasize. Obviously, the end game is to drive consideration and preference for the IBM products. In any given week, these bloggers write original posts. They may cover pre-disclosure information or events we assign them, for example.

Recently, we had an exchange event down in Texas with a couple of bloggers on site. We have an MSP event, which is part of a new business model for us — selling with managed service providers, etc. We’re providing bloggers with backdoor passes so they can interview firsthand end-users and the IBM experts that are pulling the programs together.

These are the types of things we provide them with. Sometimes, we’ll offer a platform to showcase their brand through webinars, tweet chats, and the like. We really try to give them more encouragement, enticement, and help.

They are compensated for producing a specific amount of content, but they are not asked to comment on their opinion of IBM as a provider or to evaluate a particular product or offering. It’s strictly unbiased.

Has buy-in for your content ever been a challenge internally?

I’d say about three years ago that was the case — not so much content but social media marketing as a content exchange platform for generating impressions. I don’t really see that as the case any longer.

I think it’s a different vernacular that people had to become comfortable with. They had questions. How do you measure it? The ability to demonstrate a visible impact to the business is still something I think the industry struggles with. What does ‘X’ amount of millions or billions of social impressions actually translate to? How does that help a prospect or progress an opportunity through the sales funnel? What amount of social exchange actually spurs the client, the prospect, to take an action?

What have you done to more effectively measure content’s impact on your bottom line?

We have a partnership with Good.Is, a socially conscious developer of content. Clearly, positive and relevant messaging has an impact on your brand and on client consideration.

We have very, very specific ways of measuring by assigning tactic codes and specific calls to action. For example, somebody listens to a webinar and then they can download a chapter of the guest speaker’s book. We have a way to really follow that through, ultimately from opportunity identification through to closure. We are really focused right now on lead progression.

Where do you expect to go next?

We have a specific vision on how to expand our market through distributable, shareable, thoughtful content. Rendering for mobile is a large component of that approach as is a continued, laser focus on solutions to the specific  business challenges that continue to plague our midsize business clients.

The ability to create compelling content is going to be more important than ever. Our goal is to continue to look for interesting industry thought leaders (writers) who can provide their unique perspectives on the relevant IT issues of the day.

Program scalability is another big issue. Our goal for 2013 and beyond is to really scale the blogger program in the dozens of countries that we operate in. From a mid-market perspective, we’re in at least 60 markets, maybe more. So we are figuring out how we can launch a scalable, affordable model in different sized countries and are developing ways of identifying, engaging, and building relationships with the right influencers in these markets around the world — most importantly in Asian markets.

In some cases, you have unique challenges. China, given some of the regulatory pressures (especially with waiting periods for content distribution), presents a particular set of challenges. In general, not every country will resonate with someone who is U.S.-based. It’s really about finding those local influencers willing to work with us.

Do you want to see how other brand marketers have incorporated content into their strategy? Subscribe to Chief Content Officer magazine, and check out our series of interviews. 

Author: Clare McDermott

Clare McDermott is the editor of Chief Content Officer magazine and owner of SoloPortfolio, a Boston-based content marketing provider for professional service firms.You can follow her @soloportfolio.

Other posts by Clare McDermott

  • http://twitter.com/CourtneyLKay Courtney

    Great approach! Really showcases how a brand becomes an efficient publisher while playing up the importance of the independent POV. Congrats to Leslie and her team on such a great structure and content strategy. I’m curious as to how many individuals within the team are responsible for identifying and managing the blogger network, and any tips or guidance for the smaller brands out there who may be looking to execute on a smaller scale (key considerations, critical components etc).

  • http://twitter.com/marksalke Mark Salke

    Wow. Who’d have thought that it’d be IBM that embraces a strategy such as this! Kudos, Leslie, and IBM. This is a novel approach to producing/publishing/ distributing relevant content. And the sources, being recognized in their own market space, bring instant credibility. Great job! Keep it up.

  • http://twitter.com/B2BJeff Jeff Simmons

    Prime example of how to use “earned” and paid advertising effectively. Nicely done IBM and Leslie Reiser. I’m also curious about how big a team it takes to pull this off.
    Great interview.

  • http://www.scoremoresales.com Lori Richardson

    This is a great overview to show how IBM is leading the way incorporating relevant content into their marketing efforts. I was pleased to see one of my Postwire pages from the IBM Smarter Commerce event shown in the example – these sorts of posts help other companies with tangible ideas.

  • http://www.buildandbalance.com/ Michael_N

    This is an incredibly sophisticated and broad approach the likes of which I’ve not seen before. I appreciate their willingness to share how they put this together and are executing the plan. Really informative.