Peers vs. Influencers: What Marketers Need To Know

There's an interesting debate raging over the role "influentials" play in spreading trends. On one side is the idea that there are sets of people who exert a significantly greater amount of influence over others, typified by Malcolm Gladwell's "Tipping Point" argument. On the other side is a far more chaotic theory that rejects the concept of "influentials," stating instead that no one person has any more influence over creating a trend than any other person, put forth by Duncan Watts. If you are a marketer, the outcome of this debate should have you sleepless at night. How can you plan your campaign if you don't know whom to target?

Clive Thompson has a great breakdown of the debate titled "Is The Tipping Point Toast?" in Fast Company. While I find the argument interesting, it feels a little bit black and white, and I don't think it address the key issues faced by marketers in the 21st century.



What marketers need to do is operate in a world that is somewhere in between Duncan's chaos theory and Gladwell's influencer model. Keep in mind that everyone has influence, but not all influence is created equal -- and it's impossible to buy enough influence to create a trend that society isn't ready for. Before I get arguments that I am just avoiding picking a side, I did post on the need to measure what I called "Return On Influence" in social media over a year ago.

A year later and a little more to the point, here's what marketers can consider: Everyone has influence, but that influence has a couple of variables.

--People have a quantity of influence: the maximum number of other people they can reach with a message.

--People have a quality of influence: the amount of influence they exert over those that they reach.

--People have types of influence: categories of "expertise" that other people assign to an individual.

This is of course infinitely more complex when you consider that these variables can change for any given person, depending on the person they are influencing. The reason this theory lies somewhere between Watts and Gladwell, is that it does indeed argue that successful marketing campaigns will target larger, or even mass groupings of people, rather than a few super influencers, but that attracting certain people adds more value than others.

Quantity of influence is all too often mistaken for quality. A MediaPost article cites a report that highlights exactly this mistake done by Pollara. There is no proof that quantity of influence = quality of influence. This doesn't mean that quantity of influence isn't important, but it is just one variable to look at.

Quality of influence, conversely, seems much more likely to come from "peoples like me." As Steve Rubel writes in his post "Trust in Peers Trumps the 'A-List,' Study Finds," people are more likely to trust "someone like them" rather than a celebrity. Steve goes on to post some great data gathered by the Edelman Trust Barometer. What the Edelman does not define is what people are thinking when they say "someone like me" -- after all, they didn't say "anyone who is ordinary like me."

This brings us to type of influence. I am more likely to take advice on running shoes from someone I know who runs, over someone I know who does not run just because I know them. Now to the chaos theory: I could listen to my know-it-all friend who doesn't run, but claims to have read something on it --but why would I, when social media just lets me turn to anyone to get the feedback I am looking for in real time.

So what does a successful marketing campaign look like, given these variables? The new questions marketers have to ask themselves is that if a successful campaign will influence 1,000,000 people, how can they reach not the 10, or 100, or even 1,000 "super influencers," but how can they get the 10,000+ people with the right quantity, quality and type of influence to spread their message to their "peers"?

This is possible given social media technologies. It may mean reaching out to hundreds of thousands of people with a message and product that might appeal to them to get the right 10,000. It will certainly mean engaging, listening and adjusting a product and/or message until enough people are willing to actively pass along your message. You can't really buy influence, but you can buy the opportunity to engage with the influencers. All this while keeping in mind that it just might not be possible to achieve "success" if society doesn't like the product you have to offer. It is social media, after all.

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