Why Government Marketers Need to Identify Key Influencers

Sales teams typically focus on connecting with decision makers at their target company, choosing to spend their time building relationships with those with the authority, budget and need to purchase their products.  The same practice is true for sales teams focused on government business; the sales team generally focuses on one or two key decision makers at an agency to build rapport.  Often overlooked is the opportunity to market to an agency’s key influencers.  Marketing to an agency’s influencers increases government market win rates by building support for a purchasing decision among all of the individuals involved in the purchasing decision.  

Frequently, the influencers at an agency are the end-users and while end-users of a product or service often do not have the budget or authority to make the purchasing decision, they often have a significant impact on which features or functionality the product must have; they can help identify the short list of vendors that their agency should consider when making a purchase. Sales teams may not be able to focus on this wider circle of agency influencers as it could be a team of 10, 20 or more individuals inside and outside the agency - there may be too many contacts for targeted outreach.  However, marketing teams often have the tools, messaging and collateral to reach and build relationships with this wider circle of influencers.  

This article aims to help marketers identify and categorize an agency’s circle of influence and continuously validate and grow the vendor’s own circle of influence at a target government agency.

circle of influence

The "Circle of Influence"

State, municipal and county government purchasing decisions, especially for large or strategic purchases, are almost never left to one individual. Congress, governors, mayors, policy makers, media, industry trade publications, civil society organizations, professional associations, and trade associations can all have a voice in the approval process.

Because every situation is different, government marketers should aim to identify an agency’s circle of influence in a structured and repeatable way using three steps:

  1. Define the universe of influencers at a target agency
  2. Place the influencers into categories in order to send the right message at the right time
  3. Collect feedback to validate and grow their own unique circle of influence at the agency

Define and Target the Agency “Circle of Influence”

First, marketers need to establish who the current purchasing agent/agents are. These are the people who have either been identified on RFPs or self-identified as official “decision makers" - we'll refer to these as "Level One" influencers.

Next, marketers should include anyone those people have cc’d on emails and/or brought to meetings - we'll refer to these as "Level Two" influencers.

Finally, for all those in Level One and Level Two, marketers should identify three other people to whom each is accountable and/or directly connected to. These could be people they report to, people who have held their position previously (most likely other government officials) or those who have broad influence (journalists covering certain agencies, citizen groups which may be affected by a project, etc.) - we'll refer to these as "Level Three" influencers.

While sales efforts will be concentrated towards the key decision makers group (Level One), marketing efforts should concentrate on influencing all key contacts in Level One, Level Two and Level Three.

Categorizing and Prioritizing Key Influencers

To help categorize key influencers in the three levels, government marketers should assign contacts to one of the following categories:

  • Executive Sponsor: This is likely the ranking officer in the part of the agency that is most directly impacted by a purchasing decision. Executive sponsors are the highest priority to target and influence.
  • Internal Champion: This is someone close to the account/issue/agency who is aware of and wants the vendor’s offering. They likely have an emotional stake in the outcome and have something to gain if the vendor’s product procured.
  • Consultants: Consultants are usually not in a position to make the purchasing decision themselves but they can provide valuable product advice and give direction to purchasing agencies about how best to proceed in the sale. Government marketers should prioritize influencing consultants to drive project specifications.
  • Informants: Classic informants are executive secretaries, administrative assistants and political aids. They can help facilitate better communication between the vendor and the buyer or decision maker and may be actively involved in procurement logistics around the opportunity. 

Once marketers have categorized influencers in each level, they can use those levels and categorization to determine the right message to send them and the right time to send it.  Consultants and informants can be important early in the evaluation stage of a new vendor or product. Executive sponsors and internal champions become more influential in the middle and later stage where a short list of vendors or products has been identified and influencers are doing deeper research on each option.

Validating the “Circle of Influence”

No matter the job title or how someone is initially categorized, marketers need to be certain they know what role they play in the evaluation, selection and approval process in order to continuously validate their own circle of influence and identify any members to add or remove from the circle.

Here are five questions for marketers to ask members in the circle of influence:

  • Are you the right person to talk to about this project?
  • Who else is involved in the decision making process for this opportunity?
  • Who will ultimately sign off on the purchase?
  • Is there anyone who might oppose this purchase?
  • Are there key product specifications required or wanted for this upcoming opportunity?

Answers to these key questions can provide valuable information to the sales team and gives government marketers a check list of who should be educated about the vendor’s value proposition. Marketers can collect this information explicitly (direct conversations with sales or marketing, email surveys, etc.) or collect it implicitly (agency contacts responding to emails, visiting the vendor’s website, forwarding emails to others at the company that in turn should be added to the circle of influence).

Agency contacts may remain tight-lipped about their decision making ability, reporting structure, key concerns or objections - this is normal. Persistence is important in government marketing.  Ways to help move those in the circle of influence from a passive observer to a full supporter of the vendor and the product are:

  • Make sure the influencers see case studies of other agencies using their product
  • Provide sales collateral that includes key differentiators of the product as well as the vendor’s leadership position in the market
  • Offer to help influencers understand the best practices for implementation of the product
  • Provide examples of bids and RFPs published by other government agencies for similar products to help create buy-in and build rapport

The Importance of Knowing the “Circle of Influence”

According to Tom Freese, author of Secrets of Question Based Selling, “Not everyone can pull the trigger and make a decision but lots of people can pull the plug on your opportunity to sell.” With this in mind, clearly defining, communicating and building relationships with the “circle of influence” is a critical component to winning more government business. Government marketers should seek to define the right contacts for targeted agencies and support their sales teams with the sales collateral, e-mail campaigns and marketing content that influences all those who have a say determining the final decision of a bid or RFP. Freese also notes that government marketers should always be aware that “anyone …who doesn’t understand the value of your product or service will ultimately vote (or lobby) against it,” so it is critical to determine the universe of key influencers.

Learn more about how to identify key agency contacts and begin defining your “circle of influence” with Onvia’s Agency Center.