The Tipping Point (2000) and The Influentials (2003) helped to create force behind the idea that there are certain consumers who play a more active role than others in spreading trends and spurring word-of-mouth advocacy on behalf of brands; more recently, the reaction has begun.
A number of people have now published critiques of the "influencer model," suggesting that it doesn't work either because the Internet has expanded opportunities for participation in the marketplace of ideas, or because the model relies too heavily on a very small number of "elite" people who don't enjoy the credibility of "everyday people."
We would like to put forward a proposition that the current debate is really about differences in how marketers use the term "influential," rather than a fundamental difference in how we look at market forces.
According to a handbook recently published by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, there are five types of influencers:
When we talk about influencers in our research, we are talking about everyday consumers who are substantially more likely than the average to seek out information and to share ideas, information and recommendations with other people -- in other words, #5 above. These socially connected individuals, far from being "an elite few," number nearly 30 million people in the U.S. -- hardly a small and exclusive fraternity.
Over the last three years, we have conducted continuous research on such influencers and their role in word of mouth, all of which continues to point to their power:
In addition, there is new academic research that concludes that social influencers accelerate product adoption, and as a result, word-of-mouth programs targeted at social influencers (versus the alternative of targeting random customers) increase long-range profitability by between 6% and 14%.
Critics of the influencer model, however, have been focusing on an "elite few" when they evaluate the effectiveness of targeting influencers.
In 2005, BzzAgent founder Dave Balter described the concept of influentials as a "myth" and explained in his book, Grapevine, that "it took nearly a year of campaigns...for [his company] to understand that mavens and high-profile influentials are effective in specific ways and in particular categories, but that most of the time, everyday people are better."
Similarly, marketing guru and venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki recently weighed in on his blog with a post (10/2/08) that declared: "Reliance on influentials is flawed because the Internet has flattened and democratized information..." He maintains that "it's better to have an army of committed nobodies than a few drive-by somebodies."
Finally, while writing about "The Accidental Influentials" in Harvard Business Review and elsewhere, Prof. Duncan Watts argued that "trends in public opinion are driven not by a few influentials influencing everyone else, but by many easily influenced people influencing one another."
What the critics are overlooking, however, is that influentials are not "a few drive-by somebodies," but actually the active and engaged "many." By focusing on the fact that plenty of people other than Oprah or Martha Stewart (or bloggers with large followings) can spread productive word of mouth, they narrowly define influentials as the media and cultural elite. Yes, Balter reminds us that BzzAgents are everyday people -- but these "everyday people" who are motivated to join a word-of-mouth network like the one Balter founded are precisely the hand raisers that we categorize as "influencers." In fact, 60% of BzzAgents in Balter's network qualify as socially connected influencers, based on the definition we use in our research.
To one degree or another, we all believe that in today's marketing world, the advice and recommendations of everyday people are gaining influence. Marketers must not overlook the large minority of people who are far more active and engaged than others -- and who, as a result of their personality as well as their behaviors, serve as "market multipliers" -- people whose advice is disproportionately sought, and who are therefore more likely to offer recommendations.