Case study: ROI of social influence


What is the ROI of me? We’re about to find out.

Last week I participated in an “influencer outreach program” sponsored by Dell. I have dabbled in stuff like this before but have never been immersed in a two-day event. Was there a payoff for Dell? Let’s dissect this as a case study and find out.

I am vitally interested in the emerging channel of influence marketing because I genuinely believe this is an untapped goldmine for most companies and brands. With a declining ability to reach our target customers through newspapers, TV advertising and even some forms of Internet advertising, we must take a serious look at developing alternative competencies like connecting and nurturing powerful online advocates.

Many companies are attempting to enter this space and almost all of them are doing it wrong. They are simply sending awkward or even inappropriate emails to bloggers hoping beyond hope to get a placement or mention online. Some are paying content producers for mentions of their products.

This has created a feeding frenzy as brands desperately try to connect with influencers.

But one company got through.

What did it take to get me to stop what I was doing and take two unpaid days out of an insanely busy schedule to learn about Dell? Let’s look at the one effort that worked as a model of how to cut through the noise and make a meaningful connection with a targeted “influencer.”

The courtship

I normally don’t respond to strangers asking for something out of the blue. But if it is somebody I know –either online or in real life — I will go to the ends of the earth to help them. Dell started connecting with me two years ago and invited me to several events that I chose not to attend for various reasons.

But they kept after me and several people from their marketing or social media group connected to me through Twitter. After several communications over a period of years, I knew they were trying to make an authentic connection with me so I started to pay attention. They were doing more than simply sending me an email and asking for a favor. After two years, I was hearing from people who I was beginning to know.

Current state

Before I participated in this event, I had a mildly negative view of Dell. I admired Michael Dell and the company’s heritage but felt they were wedded to an obsolete business plan centered on PCs. I was aware that they have state-of-the-art social media efforts but who really cares when the stock price is slipping? I have never owned a Dell product. To the best of my knowledge I have not created any Dell-centered content before.

An offer of real value

Each year, Dell hosts a gathering for customers, partners and fans called Dell World. They wanted me to be their guest but I was hesitant — this was a huge (unpaid) commitment that would mean three days away from my home and business.

Dell eliminated as many barriers as they could by 1) offering to pay for my travel expenses; 2) providing a very educational and relevant program with great speakers; and 3) offering unique opportunities to meet with executives that would result in some good content for all of you.

And then I saw that Tesla/SpaceX founder Elon Musk was on the schedule. I was in!

The total package was attractive enough to convince me to go. This is a key point. Most influencers are not going to pay attention to you because you will increase their “awareness.” You have got to offer something truly GREAT to cut through the clutter and have them connect with you and your products.

Paying attention to the details

Once I arrived at the site, Dell was helpful but not overbearing. They requested that I attend a couple of special media events but other than that, I was on my own to explore.

They provided a comfortable hotel room, unique content, friendly help, and access to some key leaders. The educational sessions were excellent and the demonstration area was lively and interesting. I even got to meet Michael Dell.

Dell just let the event unfold for me. They did not push me to do anything and asked nothing in return.

The results

Here is the hard part about influence marketing. There are no guarantees … and if there are benefits that occur, it could be far in the future. It’s a patient investment. Still I think the event had an impact on me, and a benefit for Dell.

1) I tweeted and posted consistently throughout the event, not because I had too but because I was interested by what I was seeing and wanted to share it with my audience. So this provided small, positive, organic exposure for Dell and its event. I also created several other pieces of content from the event I will be sharing over the coming weeks.

2) I changed my mind about Dell. The company has a palpable new energy and direction since the company returned to being a private company this year. In fact, they may be uniquely positioned to succeed in the end-to-end enterprise tech market.

They are making bold moves into long-term R&D projects and announced a new $300 mm venture capital fund that they probably could never have pulled off as a public company. I heard some inspirational stories about the customers and markets they serve and I walked away with a much more positive opinion about their direction.

3) When you meet people in person, it always makes a strong impact. By getting to know some of the Dell people, I am more likely to respond to them in the future. We moved the relationship ahead.

4) I have never owned a Dell device of any kind. I will definitely consider one in the future.

What’s the ROI of me?

That’s really the big question isn’t it? Dell worked hard to get me to Austin. I spent two days there. Is that going to sell any computers, servers or security systems?

That may or not happen. If it does, it’s unlikely Dell will ever be able to connect the dots to determine the genesis of the sale was me. Will somebody buy something because of this blog post? Who knows?

But sales aren’t everything. Business success comes from many complex interactions. Sometimes “trajectory” is more important than the “target.” For example …

  • Dell has had some PR problems over the years. I gave them some good PR and probably will continue to do so because I am interested in the company now. In fact, they had their social monitoring software on display for all to see and I was the number one non-Dell influencer putting out content during the entire conference (which is kind of hard to believe).
  • I met with Dell people and others who I will probably collaborate with far into the future. People at Dell can leverage their relationship with me because I like them and I have a favorable view of their company. It’s hard to put a number value on relationships, but there is undeniable value nonetheless.
  • Dell needs to increase the market’s awareness of their range of products and services. The message at Dell World was very clear and it was repeated often enough that even a non-techie like me can articulate their strategy. So I understand the company now and can explain it to others.
  • Based on the number of messages I got about the conference, I definitely piqued the interest of others in attending Dell World. I think many people enjoyed following along with me.

Business is developed through relationships. And now, Dell has one more relationship it didn’t have two weeks ago. And that can’t be a bad thing, right?

What do you think? Would you consider this a successful investment for Dell and why? Would it still be a successful investment if I never personally bought a Dell product?

Disclosure: I have not received any pay or merchandise from Dell other than a coffee mug. The company paid for my travel expenses to Dell World. 

Illustration courtesy of BigStock,com

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  • I think the very fact that Dell invested in a strategy that may or may not succeed and did so in such a hospitable way is great marketing and PR for them. IT’s also a great example of the benefits influence can bring.

    I’m not sure that I’m any more likely to buy a Dell as a result of reading the updates put out during and after the event, but my opinion of them and their marketing strategies has improved, which is a ROI for them, and I’m probably more likely to mention them to others over the next few months 🙂

  • RandyBowden

    It’s the “connecting the dots” that has me scratching my head. Your question of “what if I never bought a Dell product” is a key to explore. Certainly they had a respected thought leader talking about their product and one who has a robust audience that stays engaged but…At what expense does a business drive after niche market share with a difficult measure of effectiveness? Is influence marketing valid, of course, it works!, but…

  • Thanks Mark. To me, this would be considered a very successful investment for Dell. They reached out and connected with you (appropriately) did not shove anything down your throat and let you discover and evaluate for yourself. You are an influencer and will help their credibility, regardless if you ever buy any Dell product. I know I will be checking Dell out.
    It’s all about relationship development and this is a great example of the right way to do it. Thanks again for sharing and caring.

  • Brand building for an enterprise is a long term activity. Association/endorsement by a person of credibility is as good a way as any.
    Are we seeing a shift of influence from the conventional glamour segment (stars, sports persons, celebrities) to Social Influencers (with possibly greater credibility)?
    Sign of the times..

  • Interesting perspective Barry. Thanks.

  • I actually think the measurement will catch up. At some point, could you track my network and see how the message reverberates? I don’t see anybody doing that now (insanely complex) but if I had to guess, Facebook is probably doing something like this.

  • That is a pretty stunning statement … “I know I will be checking Dell out.” If “awareness” was their goal (and it was) then I guess you have to chalk one up right there, right? Thanks Al.

  • Yes, I certainly think there is a shift and an opportunity here for businesses who recognize this channel. Thanks for commenting Vijay.

  • And for people like you, @businessesgrow:disqus:
    Authenticity, Credibility, Influence rolled into one.
    Trying to make my mark in the Social space with a fair degree of success.

  • Congratulations. Nice to hear of your success!

  • catherinetatum

    I actually use Dell computers but with much negative publicity in the past years I was beginning to think I might need to change. I appreciate now their credibility and admire how they reached out to you without being pushy. For me the most important lesson to keep in mind is to offer real value and to continue to pay attention to details. Thanks for the excellent post.!

  • Hi Mark,
    Looking forward to the day when measurement catches up. *When I look for it*, my analytics dashboard often show the role digital assists play in conversions over a 2 year period. Typically the initial touch points are lower in intensity (time on conversion site, frequency of visits) initially but then spike higher just before conversion.

    Maybe Klout can help connect the dots by measuring your impact on the
    digital assist and provide a way (hook) for Dell to connect it to
    their ‘goals’ on their analytics dashboard? Maybe there is already some tool out there that does this?

    Even if the measurement issue is resolved, I think any company has to assess their short-term and long-term marketing goals and evaluate if/how any influencer campaign can help meet these goals. Not every organization can afford an influencer campaign that stretches over 2-3 year conversion cycle. On the other hand some organizations may not be able to afford to do otherwise.

  • So very interesting, Mark. I was reading this, connecting it to your podcast? I think that’s where you talked about p=p instead of b=p? It’s kind of amazing to me that it is cycling back to people connecting with people. A realization that behind all the flash and dash of the brands — large or small — are people. The human equation. More and more it seems to be THE equation…

  • Thank you, Mark.
    Merry Christmas to you 🙂

  • You’re welcome Catherine. Many thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • Agree Jacob. Measuring something like this might cost more than the initial outreach! But I’m sure it will come. In a time when most traditional forms of media are drying up, I think this will be a rich area for innovation.

  • Always has been In think. We just forgot about it for the last 100 years of mass media and broadcasting : )

  • Mick Twomey

    Great post, Mark, with some real insight. We are seeing signs everywhere that the world is moving more and more toward influencer and advocate marketing. The key is executing it in an authentic way. The fact that Dell “courted” you with a longer-term approach based on genuine connection says a lot about the organization.

    At the end of the day, there are a lot of us talking about Dell today who, without your post, probably wouldn’t be. There is real value there.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Well … there is that! I guess that is a good point. : ) Thanks Mick.

  • True. Even in Big Publishing you see this problem. They disconnected from readers and are now struggling to catch up with the new paradigms that connects readers directly to contentn providers. (I can still remember my what the heck moment when I read that “readers aren’t our customers” from a big publisher. My eye still twitches over that one…)

  • Marcela De Vivo

    I think when you focus on INFLUENCER marketing it can have a big impact. You have a powerful online presence that you’ve now leveraged on their behalf. Was it worth it for Dell – I would believe so. Just by reading your post I now have a more positive view of Dell and may in the future purchase one of their computers. Thanks for sharing about this.

  • Thanks for sharing your insight Marcela!

  • Carly Tatum

    Mark, we are thrilled that you had a positive experience with our social engagement programs. Thank you for sharing with your audience.

    Building authentic relationships is at the core of our social business strategy and rooted in our foundational commitment to direct connections with customers. The approach applies to all audiences we serve including influencers. We agree that authentic relationships provide new and unexpected value to the business!

    Carly at Dell

  • Thanks for stopping by the blog and for putting on a first-class event.

  • rhonda hurwitz

    When last touch attribution gets all the credit (as Tom said in the recent podcast), investing in soft and fuzzy relationships takes an act of faith. Maybe “influencer outreach” is the “basic science” of marketing. While you think something will come out of it, like R&D, it isn’t guaranteed. Kudos to Dell.

  • Interesting analogy Rhonda. Customer development R&D. Might work!

  • I’m a big fan of influencer marketing and am fascinated by the ways it can make my life better. This event sounds fascinating. I was competing with Michael Dell on travel without him realizing. I’m a big fan of his… And now much more travelled than he. I wouldn’t have taken two days out, but knowing Elin Musk would be there I would have gone too. Kudos to Dell for putting it together.

  • John Dietrich

    Okay so I love this article, but then to see the first comment from you Carly at Dell…well that goes a long way toward convincing me that Dell really does care about the relationships it forms.

    Well done to both Dell and you as well Mark!

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Fredrick Mutooni

    Mark, Dell made a big mistake to invite you because you never used their products. I have used Dell computets for years and i was not invited. I will never buy Dell products again

  • I’m not sure I understand your comment but I guess that is between you and Dell. The company literally has millions of customers. They probably could not fit into the Austin Convention Center. : ) Thanks for commenting.

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  • Mike Morris

    Mark – those of us who have worked in the pharma world are very familiar with influence marketing. Personal selling to doctors, pharmacists, nurses, dietitians and other healthcare professionals to get folks with professional/positional authority to prescribe or recommend your product was the backbone of the business. Of course, FDA decided that sending docs on all expense trips to “seminars” was improper.

    The major differences to the influence marketing of today is reach and access. The reach of influencers has been magnified by the Internet. The ease of accessing influencers is also a bit simpler – no more buying lunch for the office staff to get an appointment

  • That is precisely right MIke. This is nothing new and certainly not rocket science but the difference is scale and probably “punch.” An influencer today can have a potential reach of thousands or tens of thousands. There is also the tricky issue of driving real action online versus offline. Thanks for the great comment!

  • Hi Mark. It strikes me that in order for you to attend the event, you were provided with an opportunity to meet someone that you admired, in this instance, Elon Monk. If that opportunity had not provided itself, how much longer would Dell have had to engage with you to convince you to relinquish your time to spend a few days hob nobbing with them and their products? My point is that after a certain time, the ROI for the company becomes the larger issue. Carly from Dell commented on your post, as below, and speaks to authenticity. I question the use of that term when it comes to influencer marketing; it’s anything but ‘authentic’ and everything else. Does that mean that it’s ineffective? I believe that that depends on the ultimate goal. If Dell’s goal is to reach at least (x) number of your followers with their ‘authenticity’ and desire to enrich the user experience, then perhaps it is reaping what it is sowing. But if it doesn’t, then influencer marketing goes by the wayside just as it did with the pharma world, which today is more noise than signal. Harbinger? I guess we can see how this plays out; it certainly ended up backfiring in the health arena.

  • Patrick

    So all the hours you used with dell you had to pay out of the pocket? Sounds like a good deal for them

  • Fascinating anatomy of a well designed and (apparently) successful influencer marketing program. I’d say that expanding beyond enterprise tech analysts and similar figures to build influence among digital marketing thought leaders is a solid strategy for Dell, but I’d also be very curious to know how it evaluates the relationship.

  • No, my expenses were paid for. This article was written in 2013. Since then the relationship has grown and I have been paid by Dell to host functions, create content, provide consulting advice and more. They even sponsored my 2015 book “The Content Code.” It has been a friendly and fruitful relationship.

  • I think that is an evolving consideration. Measuring success must be multi-dimensional and based on more than just tweets or followers. Honestly, I don’t know what the internal measures are but they keep reaching out to me so I must be doing OK : )

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