By Michelle V. Rafter
Aug. 26, 2018
Spring is prime time for human resources conferences.
Practitioners who went to the Unleash conference in Las Vegas in May saw HR technology analyst George LaRocque. At the annual Society for Human Resource Management conference in Chicago the next month, they could have heard ex-HR executive turned speaker and adviser Jennifer McClure and staffing firm owner and blogger Tim Sackett.
From late March to late June, McClure spoke at seven other HR industry events, in Georgia, Texas, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan. During the same time, Sackett appeared at an annual conference Greenhouse puts on for customers of its applicant tracking system and at the Sourcing Summit U.K. conference in London.
LaRocque spoke in person at three events and hosted two Facebook Live discussions. In April, Laurie Ruettimann, a corporate HR manager turned blogger and speaker, organized the WorkHuman conference in Austin. Later that month, she spoke at the Create Good Conference in Durham, North Carolina.
Over the same three months, HR tech speaker, media owner, adviser and investor William Tincup appeared at five HR conferences, including events in Toronto and Hyderabad, India.
None of these people would attract paparazzi walking down the streets of New York or Los Angeles. But HR practitioners know them well and fervently follow what they have to say.
Meet the HR Influencers
In addition to barnstorming through spring and fall conference circuits, they speak at or attend HR vendor user conferences. They write and podcast. Some consult organizations not just on HR, HR technology and recruiting, but on broader issues of workplace practices and culture. They aspire to engage, inspire and direct how HR practitioners run their departments, and in some cases what they buy.
Top influencers can charge thousands of dollars or more to keynote an event, or for advertising or sponsorships on their podcasts or blogs. At least one influencer sits on advisory boards, taking an equity stake in exchange for sharing accumulated industry knowledge. Some have affiliate deals that pay them fees when people click through to vendor sites or become new customers.
Cobbling together work from a variety of sources can earn well-known influencers $100,000 to $150,000 a year or more, according to sources familiar with influencer fees. Even less well-known influencers can get all-expenses paid trips to conferences in exchange for participating on a panel or writing blog posts about what they see.
And therein lies the rub. If HR influencers rely on HR vendors for their livelihood and HR vendors use influencers to make their products and brands more appealing, how much can chief HR officers, HR information systems managers and other HR personnel believe what they hear?
For some industry professionals, it’s a no-brainer. “I don’t think HR practitioners should turn to so-called influencers when it comes to making HR operational or tech decisions, at least not solely,” said Nicole Dessain, a talent management consultant who works with Fortune 100 and smaller companies.
It comes down to who you can trust and for influencers acting in a way that creates trust, according to Tincup, who advises dozens of HR technology startups and is president of the news website RecruitingDaily. “You’re getting into the ethics and morality of an individual, so good luck. Some have it and some don’t.”
The Growth of the HR Influencer Economy
The HR influencer economy didn’t happen overnight. Its origins can be traced to multiple trends, starting with the decline of traditional publishing and rise of blogging, which offered a public forum to anyone who could figure out Blogger or WordPress. When the Great Recession shrank companies’ workforces, some laid-off HR staffers tried making a living by blogging, speaking and creating a personal brand. Their efforts were sparked at least in part by the success of influencers in consumer industries like fashion, beauty, parenting and food, which mushroomed along with growth of social channels such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
During the same era, cloud-based software made it easier for some HR tech startups to get into the business. The bigger market that resulted created the need for new players to find ways to differentiate their products and services from the competition. Partnering with industry influencers helped — and continues to help — HR vendors gain credibility through association.
Money pouring into the industry from venture capital and private-equity firms contributed to the influencer boom by giving HR technology vendors more funds for marketing, including influencer marketing. In the first half of 2018, venture spending increased 18 percent over the same period the previous year, to $1.33 billion, according to LaRocque, a former HR practitioner and HR tech vendor who runs the industry research firm HRWins.
HR Influencer or HR Famous?
Despite the buildup and some influencers’ six-figure paydays, fees for speeches, conference appearances and blogging remains a relatively small portion of HR vendors’ overall marketing budgets, according to HR company marketing executives, influencers and other industry insiders. A large HR tech company with an annual marketing budget in the millions, “if they spend $500,000 a year on influencers, that’s nothing,” Ruettimann said.
Even spending that relatively small amount on influencers might not be an effective way to convince CHROs or HRIS managers what to buy. Influencers are good idea generators and fun to have around at conferences, “but nobody takes it seriously,” Ruettimann said. “None of that, I’m telling you, none of it results in any sort of sale.”
Nicole Le Maire, a global people adviser and CEO of The People Engine, discounts influencers with connections to industry vendors. “I actually believe there are so many better non-influencers around the world that I prefer to focus on them, the people who actually change companies and communities, not linked to sponsored projects,” Le Maire said.
The majority of people who have reputations as HR influencers aren’t that influential, according to China Gorman, a long-time industry executive who manages the Unleash conference. They’re “HR famous,” said Gorman, who has advised HR startups and previously headed SHRM and employee engagement consulting firm Great Place to Work. “The difference in many cases is the volume of your voice and ubiquity of your presence on social media,” she said.
When asked to pick true influencers, HR executives name a handful of industry veterans, including Sackett and Tincup. Others mentioned include Naomi Bloom, a pioneering HR technologist turned consultant and commentator who retired earlier this year; longtime analyst, consultant and blogger John Sumser; recruiting agency founder Stacy Donovan Zapar; Fistful of Talent blogger Kris Dunn, who also is a longtime columnist for this publication; and recruiter and open source HR proponent Lars Schmidt. “Those are the people who can stand in a room in front of execs and talk eloquently and sell something,” Ruettimann said. “Everyone else is just avoiding real work.”
No One Path to Creating an HR Industry Personal Brand
Whether they’re influential or just well known, it’s a common observation that no two HR industry personalities earn their livings the same way. “It’s a newish game and there’s no economic model that’s the same for everybody,” Tincup said.
Tincup has parlayed a vast knowledge of HR technology into relationships with multiple startups that he advises in exchange for an equity stake in those businesses. He also has a financial interest in RecruitingDaily, but maintains that he avoids possible conflicts of interest with the advisory side of his business by playing no part in determining the site’s editorial content.
Sackett is best known as the proprietor of The Tim Sackett Project, a blog where he writes five times a week about recruiting, HR, work and anything else that strikes his fancy. He’s also president of HRU Technical Resources, a $40 million IT and engineering contract staffing firm and recruitment process outsourcing company in Lansing, Michigan, with 250 employees. “It’s difficult,” he said of running both businesses. “It’s two full-time jobs.”
To do everything, Sackett composes posts on Sunday afternoons or during his son’s tennis practice. When he and his wife take vacations, it’s usually to someplace he’s been invited to speak. It took him nine months of working at his kitchen table on weekends to write “The Talent Fix,” a book on recruiting that SHRM published in April. “My wife and I laugh” about the newfound HR fame, Sackett said. “But I keep cashing the checks. Eventually someone’s going to catch on that I’m just an HR guy and I don’t know more than anyone else.”
Ruettimann started blogging anonymously about working in HR a few years before leaving pharmaceutical company Pfizer during the recession. Once she was gone, she revealed herself as the author of the Punk Rock HR blog, which she said at its peak attracted 50,000 page views a month.
She used severance pay from Pfizer to expand her brand as an HR contrarian. Today, Ruettimann earns $10,000 for keynote speeches and $5,000 for other talks. She supplements that by ghostwriting marketing materials for HR tech companies and doing other writing, along with organizing Globoforce’s WorkHuman annual conference. In July, she finished a book proposal on her current favorite subject — how to fix work — which is also the topic of her podcast.
Although HR is predominately staffed by women, and women make up a large portion of CHROs, male influencers outnumber women. “We need more women thought leaders in HR,” said Dessain, the talent management consultant.
Women who work as HR influencers also deal with the same gender pay gap that vexes other industries, according to Ruettimann. After discovering that men who were invited to talk on the same industry panels she was were offered more money, Ruettimann started checking with close friends like Sackett to see what they were offered before accepting a gig. She now tells conference organizers in advance that she compares her fees with her male counterparts, “and if it’s not the same or more, I’m not coming.”
Calculating Influencers’ Worth
As the influencer economy matures, vendors are becoming savvier about how they calculate the return on their investment. At Namely, the cloud-based human capital management suite, part of Debra Squyres’ job as chief client officer is running the company’s influencer program. Her duties include partnering with consultants and other HR tech vendors to commission research reports, inviting influencers to contribute unpaid posts to the Namely blog, and hosting client forums that influencers can participate in. She also produces the company’s annual user conference, HR Redefined, which this year featured such speakers as management professor and author Adam Grant and HR Technology conference co-chair and podcaster Steve Boese.
Influencer marketing is fairly low cost compared to the company’s total marketing budget, not even big enough to merit its own line item. Even so, “there is a lot of effort put into it in staff time and initiative,” Squyres said. To make sure money is well spent, Namely measures how readers and clients rate reports and other content. The company asks conference attendees to rate panels and speakers. It also tracks and compares website traffic for posts written by influencers, including which are shared most on social media. “The shares will show how much they value” the content, Squyres said.
Despite how much the HR influencer economy has grown, some practices haven’t caught up with best practices in consumer influencer circles. For example, in the past few years the Federal Trade Commission has focused on social influencers who don’t disclose when they’re paid to promote specific brands, and cracked down on brands for not disclosing their arrangements with influencers. Those relationships fall outside FTC endorsement guidelines that are meant to protect consumers from false advertising. However, B2B vendors and influencers haven’t been as compliant, “not just in HR but in general,” said Mary Ellen Slayter, owner of Rep Cap, an HR marketing agency. “I’ve come in and had to update social (media) policies to clarify relationships,” she said.
Whether HR influencers who don’t already will heed FTC guidelines remains to be seen. What’s more certain is that they’ll continue to write, podcast and talk at local, regional and national HR gatherings.
“There’s a caché to having an influencer promote or espouse your message to their audience,” said Jeanne Achille, CEO of The Devon Group, a technology public relations firm that works with HR tech vendors. “It’s the Kim Kardashian syndrome. What does Kim Kardashian really do? But she has tremendous influence, and it can make or break brands. That’s what influencers are banking on, and why people are afraid not to listen to what they’re saying.”
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