This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on how to find, engage and activate social influencers.

Now that social media has captured the imaginations of both consumers and businesses – engaging millions of B2C and B2B consumers throughout the world – the question for marketers is: How can I capitalize on these relationships, and leverage social media engagement to influence buying decisions? Are likes, follows and mentions enough to build sustainable relationships with real top- and bottom-line impact?

The short answer is:  No.  A click of the mouse or an occasional offhand statement about a company is a positive step in the right direction, but by itself is unlikely to lead to a purchase.

When it comes to social media, we’re at the tip of a very large iceberg. Although most Fortune 500 companies are now monitoring social media, only a small number are engaging; and, an even smaller number are actively offering content, community and relationship-building that directly benefit sales in a sustainable way.

In an effort to kick-start their social media programs, many companies have taken the step of hiring celebrity spokespeople or paid bloggers to make their programs more effective.  The lack of authenticity in their tweets and posts, however, to date has only resulted in nebulous, or absent, ROI.

What matters more to the buying public on social media is the opportunity to interact with ordinary people with shared interests – a person with genuine comments or opinions about their passions. Consumers are more likely to make a purchase after reading a positive statement or review, written by a credible, trustworthy person, not a paid endorser.  Ideally, that individual should be in a similar purchasing situation, and perhaps even live or work in the same geographic location.

How can marketers find these ordinary people, who – through their social media influence – can act as strong advocates for a brand or product? And once identified, how can a company engage these individuals and then activate them to impact the buying decisions of others?

It’s All in the Data – Big Social Data

Millions of social media participants are posting – sometimes several times a day – information about their preferences, occupations, interests, opinions and purchasing habits, creating hundreds of terabytes of data in the public domain.

The challenge is how to sift through all this “big data” to identify influencers – people who are saying positive, or negative, things about brands. These individuals may not be famous, or even well known, but in natural communities formed around shared interests or things in common, they are rock stars to the people who follow them.

Finding your local heroes starts with identifying communities of people who discuss and interact with others on certain topics. Social media data specialists can now zero in on those communities, and then identify which members are most influential. So, for instance, a cruise line company may want to find the most influential person talking about and recommending its type of cruise vacations. Or a firm that sells compliance software may want to find the most influential person talking about regulatory, compliance and risk management technology.

The key is the influence data and how it is calculated. Once a community is identified, a complete influence measure can find individuals important to your product segment – and then assess how frequently that person is retweeted, replied, mentioned and followed on Twitter. Just as importantly, you can check that this person has a high outreach score, measured in how much he or she reaches out to others in the form of retweets, replies and mentions of others.

Once you’ve identified the most engaging and influential people discussing your product or service, you can use social influence data to hone in on their geographic locations, to help promote events, engagement or services in their local areas.

The process of locating your influencers is much the same for B2B as for B2C brands. However, your goals for those influencers will be impacted by the level of complexity in your sales approach: Selling a can of soup is clearly not as complex as selling enterprise software, and the social media discussions will reflect this. For any company, engaging potential influencers with relevant content can encourage them to join, or even lead, the brand community.

However, in both cases, social data will bring valuable intelligence on what people are saying about your product in social media micro communities – helping you to further define your market segments.

Focus on Sales, not Likes or Follows

The next phase of social media marketing will focus on credibility.  Likes can be bought, and many consumers now know this. They also know that celebrities who are paid to tweet or post about a product or service may not necessarily be a fan of the brand, as it always has been for commercial endorsements.

Aside from the fact that celebrities are expensive to hire – and out of reach for small and medium-sized businesses – they can also of questionable value for big brands. The starting point for many consumers is skepticism:  Does Kim Kardashian really like that handbag?? You’ll get someone’s attention for a minute, but if your celebrity’s affection for your product isn’t genuine, you’ll lose the consumer’s trust and attention quickly.

Celebrities also aren’t so easy to control.  Many are accustomed to posting random musings, so their posts may not be as clear, effective and timed as you would like. If you completely take over scripting and timing the postings, consumers will just view the messages as advertising copy – information that may be mildly informative but clearly not from the horse’s mouth.

The same holds true for paid bloggers. Potential purchasers are seeking quality information – objective commentary on the product that will help them understand its benefits. Paid bloggers are not authentic, and consumers are becoming savvier at spotting them. You can’t bluff it in social media.

Ready, Set, Activate

Now you’ve found your man or woman on-the-street influencer. How do you nurture him or her without compromising objectivity and turning the individual into nothing more than a paid blogger?

Read Part 2 of From Likes to Social Influence – Ready, Set, Activate.