‘A more sophisticated influencer strategy’: Publishers are building teams to recruit ‘expert networks’

Contributor networks swing in and out of fashion in media. But with influencer marketing en vogue and publishers hunting for ways to drive engagement on their properties, the hunt for famous, influential contributors is back on – and it’s giving rise to a new kind of role at business and news publishers.

Quartz has a team of five people, the Quartz Pro Committee, partly responsible for identifying and recruiting people to contribute thoughts and commentary to Quartz’s mobile app. The Washington Post’s brand studio, WP BrandStudio, recently hired a person to attract and cultivate a network of leading executives, experts and authorities, called the Collective, which helps create and distribute BrandStudio’s content. Axios has two people working full-time on recruiting, managing subject matter experts to participate in Expert Voices, the news publisher’s year-old, invite-only contributor network.

Though their titles differ and they sit in different corners of publishers’ organizations, their responsibilities for these roles are broadly the same: Find influential people, bring them into a publisher’s orbit, and try to create a symbiotic relationship that allows both publisher and writer to benefit.

“It’s a more sophisticated influencer strategy,” said Meena Thiruvengandam, an audience development consultant. “Rather than just overt marketing, this is about proving that people are really engaged with a product. Everybody’s moving toward engagement, conversation; everybody is asking, ‘How can we give value to our readers?’”

At a high level, these new roles fit into the lineage of audience development and community management, which publishers once embraced as a way to drive engagement on third-party platforms, particularly Facebook.

But lately, publishers lately have become more interested in engaging audiences on their own properties. Publishers such as The Information have discovered that smart commentary from impressive sources can be a great way to build a community that attracts subscribers.

That’s a key reason why Quartz has nearly 70 people, called Quartz Pros, contributing to conversations on its app every week. Its five-person team identifies people, both on and off its mobile app, that it thinks might help drive better conversations around the news shared in the app. The team meets once per month to discuss possible outreach candidates.

The Pros, a mixture of household names and accomplished people in their chosen fields, ranging from Richard Branson to Roger McNamee, are offered the chance to raise their profiles among similarly accomplished people; Pro commentary is foregrounded within the app, and Quartz’s community team regularly sends Pros links to articles or discussions they feel Pros can easily participate in.

In several cases, Pros have managed to build audiences on Quartz’s app far larger than the ones they’ve amassed on other platforms. For example, Philip Lipscy, a professor of political science at Stanford University, has over 75,000 followers on the Quartz app; on Twitter, he has 1,400. Allison Baum, a venture capitalist, has over 93,000 followers on the Quartz app; on Twitter and Medium, she has 1,200.

That offer of a bigger platform has to be good enough because publishers aren’t paying for the influencers’ time and energy. That’s partly out of deference to the publishers’ editorial operations — “Because we may use them as sources one day, we don’t pay them,” Axios communications manager Megan Swiatkowski said — and partly because the offer is framed more as a brand-building opportunity than a paid gig.

“It’s the same reason you’d want to moderate a panel or contribute to an article,” said Annie Granatstein, the head of WP BrandStudio.

In the case of the Collective, the BrandStudio’s 45-person group of experts, participants can do everything from offer guidance on what the BrandStudio is producing for a client, to work directly on creating it. The Collective’s manager decides who to add to the group partly based on the kinds of proposal requests BrandStudio gets, and partly based on a list of subjects that the Post would like to establish deep expertise in.

Being able to show off an influential audience can be helpful for an emerging media property trying to make its mark among advertisers, said Gila Wilensky, the North American vp of media activation at Essence. Having smart people, particularly if they have big followings on other platforms, makes this not dissimilar to an influencer marketing strategy, Wilensky said.

Over time, however, having influential readers matters less to where an agency will invest its clients’ budgets. “For established brands, the answer is probably not,” Wilensky said, when asked about whether influential readers make a difference when it comes to allocating client budgets. “Your target audience data should be more important.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to WP BrandStudio’s Collective as the Community. 


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