Commentary

Death Of The Influentials?

In the flat world of Web communication networks, is the old marketing strategy of seeking out influential opinion-leaders really dead?

Some digital digerati (like Guy Kawasaki) suggest that in today's world of blogging and tweeting, mass reach is the name of the game.  Kawasaki's argument is that the Internet and social media have eliminated or substantially reduced any semblance of information dissemination hierarchy. As such, if you extend your reach as far as possible through as many network nodes as possible, you will reach more prospective customers and thereby optimize your results. In this view, focusing on reaching "influentials" who might effectively distribute your message to an audience of more likely buyers is a waste of time. Just blog away and let anyone and everyone carry the message.

On the other side of the issue are people like Ed Keller of Keller Fay, who literally wrote the book on the influentials. Keller's research into both online and offline WOM suggests that online WOM is still only a small fraction of offline WOM volume in most categories, and that nothing is more effective at driving behavior than the objective recommendation of a known, credible source. This would suggest that pursuing the sheer volume of reviews and opinions flying around the Websphere may be a potentially distracting pursuit to marketers seeking highly effective leverage of their limited resources.

I see some parallels in marketing history here to how first network television, and then direct mail, each boomed on the strength of message-delivery efficiency, and then busted under the declining marginal returns as clutter and CPMs rose and response rates declined. Each respectively then fractured further (network TV to cable TV; direct mail into database marketing) in search of targeting efficiencies. The idea of targeting "influentials" was born out of a desire to focus the increasingly constrained marketing team resources on the points of greatest leverage in the market.

Granted, there are substantial differences in the evolution of Web communications, not the least of which is the no/low cost of pushing out messages. But it strikes me that the real cost of communicating with a flat world is the time and energy it takes to respond to all the feedback you get, much of which is irrelevant (owing to the reverse-application of the flat-world theory back on you). This is just one of the  dimensions of measuring WOM effectively.

So I suspect that the futurists forecasting the death of the influential-centric strategy are just that, futurists (and, somewhat paradoxically, influentials themselves). If you're selling Coke or Crest or something else that practically anyone in the world (including emerging economies) would buy, maybe the flat-world model works. But until we have appropriate technology for effectively and efficiently sifting/sorting and managing the feedback from the flat world, most marketers would probably be better off concentrating their efforts on reaching the right "nodes of influence" within the Websphere.

Presumably that's what you and I are both doing right this very moment.

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9 comments about "Death Of The Influentials?".
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  1. idil cakim, January 27, 2009 at 1:43 p.m.

    Well said. Social media gives us the chance to speak more directly to relevant audiences. You may not be able to move the needle in the marketplace if you only speak to 10 influencers and stop your efforts at that. You can make a difference if you speak to a sizable audience for your universe. 300 influencers who are focused on your mission or 500 loyal customers who have a propensity to spread word of mouth will get you even further. The optimal communication and marketing strategy should land you at that intersection of reach and relevance. Size matters, but so does relevance and propensity to make a recommendation.

  2. Martin Edic from WTSsocial, January 27, 2009 at 1:45 p.m.

    Having seen literally hundreds of brand influencer searches in social media I have to respectfully disagree. We measure Popularity with our tool but I always counsel that users not ignore the low popularity sites because of the exponential effect of exposure in social media. An unknown source is just as likely to break news as a big source because everyone is spreading things as they find them.
    And BTW, we make the technology to 'manage the feedback from the flat world'.

  3. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, January 27, 2009 at 2:17 p.m.

    I think the influencers are right to bemoan the diminished impact of influencers, but there's a delightful metaphysical irony in that, isn't there? If people are paying attention then you've proven yourself wrong, and if no one is paying attention then you're right but no one knows it except you.

    The reality is that people onine tend to start off as voiceless consumers but in short order evolve into influencers themselves, glomming on to ever more and more influential names as justification for their own credibility.

  4. Mark Earls from HERD, January 27, 2009 at 2:38 p.m.

    Interesting pov but not entirely borne out by the facts. When you step away from the marketing community, it becomes clear that most ideas and behaviours don't spread through populations via a limited number of highly connected individuals who "exert" their influence on the rest of us (i.e. the network structure is rarely "hub and spoke")

    Indeed, the contemporary idea of "influence" is as Kawasaki suggests, a simple repurposing of our old ideas from the television era:
    channels = networks
    persuasion = advocacy
    influencers = high rating spots

    Above all, influence is something we push out into the population as opposed to something the population chooses to adopt/accept/embrace

    So while it would be nice if things were as simple as "influencer" as default setting, that just doesn't seem to be correct.

    More here on pulling together the work done in this area with real data

    http://herd.typepad.com//herd_the_hiddent_truth_abo/2008/11/free-gift-influence-and-how-things-really-spread.html

  5. Ed Keller from Engagement Labs Inc, January 27, 2009 at 10:46 p.m.

    As co-author of the Influentials, this discussion is particularly interesting to me. Recent research by our firm on influencers causes us to remain convinced of their efficacy, for reasons already discussed here – efficiency and effectiveness. They have larger social networks, which helps them to engage in more conversation each day about products and services (90% more than the average), and their opinion is sought out and offered more often. Whereas Guy’s argument against influentials is primarily related to the democratization, or flattening of information, our research finds that influencers are twice as likely as the average American to expressed themselves, online or offline. They are more likely to post messages on blogs, post opinions on review website, upload videos to YouTube or photos to Flickr. In other words, they are the ones who are taking the greatest advantage of the opportunities that the new technologies afford, so their voices are more prominent than others. You can see the research at http://kellerfay.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/KellerFay_Bazaarvoice%20Social%20Commerce_5-08_FINAL.pdf.

    New academic research supports the power of influencers, too. For example, a recent study by Don Lehmann of Columbia concludes that “Contrary to recent arguments, social hubs [defined as people with an exceptionally large number of social ties, i.e., influentials] adopt sooner than other people . . . because they are exposed earlier to an innovation due to their multiple social links.” Further, Lehmann's research says, “Adoption by hubs speeds up the growth process and directly influences eventual market size.” Professor Barak Libai of Tel Aviv University finds that influencers not only adopt new products earlier, but that because of this acceleration in the adoption process a firm can increase its profitability by between 6% and 14% by targeting influencers over the alternative of targeting random customers. And it can increase profitability by 11% - 44% by targeting infuencers via word of mouth versus the alternative of no word of mouth seeding at all.

    Finally, I encourage readers to look at the WOMMA Influencer Handbook (womma.org/influencer), particularly the discussion of types of influencers and the need to define terms clearly. As I read Guy’s post I suspect he is referring to media or cultural elites when he talks about influentials, whereas we are talking about consumers who are socially connected when we talk about them -- in the Influentials, and in our current research.

    To be continued . . .

  6. Ted Wright from Fizz, January 28, 2009 at 5:54 a.m.

    Ed - Thanks for stopping in and sharing. Very interesting stuff.

    All - Does anyone have a link to Guy's argument? It would be interesting to know how he defines "Influencer". Given Ed's analysis, that should have been the first question that I asked.

    Final quick point - in reference to Michael Durwin's post it is really hard to find Influencers so you let them find you by putting out a quality story (meets all three criteria: interesting, relevant and authentic) and then creating a dialogue with those who show up and/or want to engage.

  7. Noreen Sullivan from Occo, January 29, 2009 at 12:29 p.m.

    Influencers are dead long live influence. Influence is a much more complicated social transaction than described by either strategy. Having built a large following of friends or contacts or blog subscribers does not mean you have any influence at all. Conversely being an insider to a group or a loyal customer that influence is limited in context. The holy grail of 500 people that will do your work for you is hard to find and harder to define. This is because the social structure has balanced itself. When seeing friends of friends and other social systems at work on the internet it was a assumed that if you had a lot of people listening you knew what you were talking about. Or if you had a blog you were interesting as these technologies become ubiquitous as means of communication they have as much impact as a telephone. The telephone at one time was a disruptive technology. Real influence happens in the form of a social transaction, I listen to you because I want you to like me, or because I want to be like you, or because I feel like I owe you something, or I want to be better than you, or I want to fit in. It is more than relevance it is the context of a social transaction. Brands should spend less time looking for influencers and more time understanding influence in context and scale.

  8. Barbara French, January 30, 2009 at 2:41 a.m.

    Pat, Great post. Our work for clients in North America and Europe reveals some fundamental shifts taking place among influencers. We're seeing changes in the relative importance of different kinds of influencers. We're also seeing emerging categories of influencers gaining in stature. Thanks for sparking the discussion.

  9. Rich Reader from WOMbuzz, January 30, 2009 at 12:48 p.m.

    Online influence, reach, time spent in engagement, and funneling are much easier and cheaper to capture for tracking and analytics purpose than their offline parallels, which makes it easier to justify and sell to a client. However, we may remain blind to the causal impact of offline interactions upon the online world. A lot of complicated and expensive multi-variate testing would have to be done to prove the point, which is why that argument remains unproven, and thus, unembraced. This is not to say that it's wrong.

    In a side note requested by both the Department of Redundancy Department and by the Department for Homeland Semantics, let's not call anyone "digital digerati". All digerati are digital. Would you refer to their offline counterparts as "analog analrati"? Let's hope not.

    http://richreader.blogspot.com/

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