What is influence?
"That's the million dollar question," Duncan Watts, professor of sociology at Columbia University, and an outspoken critic of influencer and viral marketing, told me a few months back.
It was also the ultimate question this week at an Edelman roundtable, where I gathered with a small group of respected thinkers from diverse disciplines to tackle the issue in online environments.
With the rise of individual voices and the eroding effectiveness of mass marketing techniques, it's no wonder that so many marketing and communications disciplines are enamored with cracking the code on influence. Specifically, influence among people.
So let's address the core question: What is influence? According to Oxford, influence has a number of related definitions: 1. The power or ability to affect someone's beliefs or actions. 2. A person or thing with such ability or power. 3 The power arising out of status, contacts, or wealth. 4 The power to produce a physical change.
For better or worse, I've seen marketing and communications professionals tackle all these definitions of influence from a variety of angles in recent months. Here are just a few, which range from elementary and practical, to academic:
Influence Identification: Can it be identified? Can it be measured? Can it be harnessed? Has nature determined any given person more influential than another? Or are there specific variables that ultimately determine influence, such as popularity, reach, expertise, trust, willingness to speak, history, or association?
Group Influence: What are the influence dynamics of groups? How do they differ from individuals? Are cohesive groups really more influential over their members? What brings them together and inspires them to act? How are people influenced by the cognitions and attitudes of others in their social group?
Emotional Impact On Influence: How do emotions affect the ability of one to influence or be influenced? Are happy people more likely to influence, while sad people are more likely to be influenced? How much is primal and in our subconscious?
Contextual Impact: How much does context or familiarity matter for influence to occur? As Jeff Jarvis noted at Edelman's recent roundtable on online influence, it wasn't necessarily his influence that sparked Dell Hell. It was the fact that his experience struck a chord with the pain of thousands of other customers across the Internet. Which then begs the question: Does influence behave differently online versus offline?
Influence of Algorithms: How do algorithms -- particularly in Web services -- influence people? Does Google influence by defining what people see and where to focus attention? Do search-based "meme trackers" like Techmeme or BuzzTracker have inordinate influence versus other information sources? What about social-voting sites like Digg or Del.icio.us? Do algorithms cultivate the influence of individual people?
Influence Application: Can influence really inform marketing communications strategy to achieve higher performance? Does it make better sense to segment and market to those who are most influential, or those who are most easily influenced? Or is it a mix of both? Can we influence the influencers, or are we limited to simply observing and reacting to their actions and ripples? Are these even the right question when applying influence to marketing strategy?
With all the attention around influence, and many unanswered questions, what we need most is more practical testing, tied to specific marketing objectives and applications. The marketer's Holy Grail of influence is the ability to recognize patterns and optimize outcomes -- whether for advertising, media-planning, public relations, word-of-mouth marketing, etc. Without question, influence often rides on nothing more than spontaneity. However, deeper understanding will lead to bets and actions with more favorable odds.
Is influence part of your marketing strategy?