Critics Of Influencer Model Are Missing The Boat

Newton taught us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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:

  1. People in formal positions of authority
  2. Individuals or institutions who are recognized subject matter experts
  3. Media elites (journalists, commentators, talk show hosts)
  4. Cultural elites (celebrities, artists, musicians)
  5. Socially connected individuals, (neighborhood leaders, members of community groups, online networks, business networkers)



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:

  • They are about three times as likely as the rest of the population to spread word of mouth;
  • They have social networks that are nearly twice as large as those of other people, giving them more opportunity to talk about products and brands;
  • They are active seekers of information -- including marketing information, whether it comes via the internet, via advertising or in a store.

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.

6 comments about "Critics Of Influencer Model Are Missing The Boat ".
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  1. Ted Rubin from The Rubin Organization / Return on Relationship, April 8, 2009 at 9:04 a.m.

    You have hit the nail on the head and specifically touch on what we at have known for years and are leveraging with Social Media before it came into vogue, and today... more and more.

    People forget the Social media is not just Facebook and Twitter... but blogging, bookmarking sites, online reviews and others (including email... if not especially email).

    Influencers, raving fans, or simply everyday customer who love your product are influencers in their world and others. Understanding the social graph and how this kind of influence migrates is what is crucial to a brand if they do not want to "Miss The Boat," and regret not building a presence in this environment and leveraging the tools available to us all.

  2. David Camp from Camp Creative, April 8, 2009 at 11:56 a.m.

    Bingo. Some companies benefit from influentials more than others, but over nearly thirty years in this business I've found that in most cases it's the army of minor influencers that matters the most, not the big-time journos.

    Now, in the Connected Age, these small influencers matter even more because they have far more powerful communication tools. They're also a big reason why advertising still counts; it reaches large numbers of small influencers as well as the media mavens.

    These minor influencers are feeling their muscles now, too. Anyone who thinks the media elite still define opinions is living in the past.

  3. Meghan Odonoghue from CMG Partners, April 8, 2009 at 12:13 p.m.

    Thanks for the additional definition on "influencers" - it's definitely a term that has taken on a multitude of meanings with different interpretations at every company and client. Great reminder that starting with a definition of who we are talking about can make the discussion of how to reach them easier.

  4. paul myers, April 8, 2009 at 8:56 p.m.

    The masses by definition are NOT influencers. Then again, it depends on how you define "masses"? Is the skateboard industry considered a mass or a small niche group?

    In the early 90's the skateboard industry single handedly brought cargo style pants and shorts into the mainstream fashion world whereby the mid to late 90's not only had the snowboard and surfboard industry jumped on the bandwagon - but mainstream brands and retailers like GAP were selling nothing but cargos.

    So, are skateboarders considered to be a small niche group or a massive group?

    Even today skateboarders are very influential. Just look at guys like Bam Margera, Ryan Sheckler or Rob Dyrdek. Not only are they influential, they have paved the way to reaching other influentials by promoting and associating themselves with mainstream brands from RedBull to Carls' Jr.

    Influentials are defined by what they can do for a brand. Not by how many of them exist!

  5. Jon Levy from Hype Circle, April 9, 2009 at 2:03 p.m.

    Duncan Watts' argument that "trends in public opinion are driven not by a few influentials influencing everyone else, but by many easily influenced people influencing one another." is half true. However, behind every mob, is a small group of people that fire it up without even thinking about it. The influencer we seek is in that group. These are the Bam Margeras, Ryan Shecklers or Rob Dyrdeks that Paul Myers talks about above. They are not satisfied with mediocrity and they can smell BS a mile away, but if embrace you, everyone else will follow.

  6. Ian Mckee from Vocanic, April 10, 2009 at 12:58 a.m.

    We ( have run nearly 100 campaigns now, some of which had non-influencer benchmarks to compare and our findings support almost exactly those of Keller Fay. Which is interesting because we operate in Asia.

    Indeed in a project (for a major US bank launching a credit card in Singapore) found that Influencers (Type 5 people as defined above) delivered a x6 increase in reach compared to a normal control group. Also, an invitation to participate from an Influencer converted at x2 the rate compared to one from a normal group so we found for this project a x12 lift in ROI for the program from the influencer group.

    We have an online influencer identification took called Groundswell(tm) which identifies them by their contagiousness, the size of social network and level engagement with the category/brand).

    We found that many of the existing models were too US centric and did not cross cultures very well.

    I am always amazed at the Influencer vs non influencer model as it seems to ignore a simple practicality – economics.

    Take for example a product launch using seeding as a typical project.

    I have never yet met a brand with the budget to seed everyone who wants to participate. (We work more with telcos, consumer electronics, banks etc rather than CPG clients)

    So, given a limited budget to seed you have to choose who will receive the product. And we use science to choose based on their influencer score – knowing that they will spread the message wider and more persuasively than Joe Average.

    The other topic of note is scale. We agree with Dave Balter, Dr Watts, Kawasaki et al that a few high profile people will not move the needle in terms of results. The example I like to use is Tiger Woods and Tag Huer. Why would I trust his judgment in watches – golf clubs maybe, but watches, probably not.

    And if he suddenly pops up promoting beer brand X, am I going to switch. No.

    So we don’t believe in cool hunting – looking for a handful of people, nor celeb hunting.

    Instead, we run projects where 100s or 1000s Influencers are involved, and find that the sound of that number of voices recommending a product does behave like a media and the results can easily be measured.

    *We launched with our Influencer identification tool in 2005, before the excellent book by Josh & Charalene – check out our March 2005 website*/

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