Like “engagement,” the word “influence” in marketing means so many things that it’s at risk of meaning nothing. It can be about endorsement, or content sharing, it can be interchangeable with “viral strategy,” it can mean growing a fan base as part of a CRM strategy… and it is almost always challenging to scale. We have to get past the jargon and develop a realistic understanding of the social mechanisms marketers can legitimately use and expect to show results.
Endorsement has been with us for many years. We wanted to be cool like Humphrey Bogart, so Resistol paid him to appear in their ad for his signature fedora. Britney Spears dancing about soda, Jennifer Lopez implausibly driving a Fiat, and so many more. Celebrities are totems that represent some specific qualities that people may aspire to. They are also expensive. So when the mechanisms developed to connect measurably with our peers, advertisers lifted the endorsement model and got busy looking for the opinion-shapers among us.
But there are a number of problems with the way “influence” has been leveraged for marketing. A key driver of this type of program is cost: it’s cheap. But anything cheap means that you pay the price elsewhere. To wit:
- Authentic influence is tough to scale. It takes an awful lot of me or you to add up to the reach of one spangle on Britney’s jeans.
- Endorsement isn’t authentic. When advertisers pay, with a media buy or free product, for an endorsement the audience may discount the credibility of the endorser. Early on, companies tried giving away product to bloggers with the implied graft of good-review-means-more-free-product, which caused the FTC to regulate the practice and which made people realize that a mommy blogger shilling detergent is the same sellout that Lou Reed became trading on his indie cred to hawk scooters.
- Influence doesn’t keep forever. It’s like take-out French fries – the farther you get from the source, the mushier it becomes. When you try to create scale by syndicating a blogger’s content through advertising, there is no influence left, only content. Content is valuable on its own merits, but we must recognize that its author is only reliably credible to folks with whom they have established credibility and not to people meeting them for the first time. It’s much easier to spread a message between people who are close to each other (in terms of their relationships) than distant from each other. The credibility that travels with the content is that of the sharer, and they may attach their own message.
- Influence is unpredictable. In a landmark 2009 study, social scientist Duncan Watts and his co-authors showed that while content links are spread by popular people, it is not possible to predict which people will spread what content.
- Influence metrics are often misleading. Klout tells me that Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore influences me. He is the face of Mashable on Twitter. His tweets are essentially a rolling table of contents of Mashable headlines. He narrowly influences my content consumption, not my broad lifestyle.
Our relationships in all parts of our lives are complex and inconsistent. Our interactions, even mediated by social platforms, are a swirling matrix of verbal and non-verbal cues. We assert and back off topics and opinions very differently with different people, which is particularly difficult to accommodate with one-to-many social platforms.
We follow or friend people not because we believe everything they tell us or because we want to be more like them in all ways but because there are certain things we trust them for. I follow @bryanfuhr on Twitter and I am highly likely to pay attention to what he writes about marketing but nothing he writes about French cuisine will make me consider eating snails.
Instead of banking on the myth of influence, we should think more practically about how we can work inside social mechanisms – platforms and software – that enable consumers to find, share and enjoy content in ways that accrue to our benefit as marketers. While influence doesn’t scale, content often does.
Content carries value when it is authentic, relevant, useful/entertaining, and, ideally, at some degree of distance from overt commercial interests (sponsored/gifted by a brand, not hammering a brand message). Here are some things to think about.
- Take care who makes it. Content should be created by people who are authoritative, passionate, have a history of making things people like, and are trusted by a reasonably large audience. Their immediate audience will gain the most from the content. Some of the audience will share it to their networks, and the brand will almost certainly need to promote it through paid methods. The former is better than the latter, but you can’t rely on sharing from the source. There is a spectrum between I Trust You and I See You — we have to run that spectrum.
- PR departments and ad agencies are generally lousy at making content (with a few notable exceptions). Don’t outsource editorial-style content creation to them. It will smell like marketing and undermine your goals. Real people who care about real things make real content. The best, like this promo for Playstation’s Video Store, doesn’t feel like advertising but as a gift from Sony – and the content creator treats their sponsor that way. You don’t have to know the creator to love the content.
- You can’t predict who will spread it. So put it in front of as many people as possible. According to that 2009 Duncan Watts study, “word-of-mouth diffusion can only be harnessed reliably by targeting large numbers of potential influencers, thereby capturing average effects.” Make sure you’re delivering it in ways that social software can easily handle.
- Understand you’re still making advertising. Just a different sort. People will like it if it’s good. If people consume the content only through a paid introduction, that’s not a failure. If they share, it’s a bonus. If the shares take on a life of their own, it’s a lightning strike of a win. You can control paid; you can’t force earned.
- Viral is not a strategy: it’s an outcome. And while it’s a good outcome, if success depends on getting a jillion organic views, you’re setting up expectations that aren’t reasonable. Sharing of the sort that “goes viral” is so unpredictable the most respected scientists don’t understand it. Some of the most “viral” campaigns had media agencies goosing YouTube view numbers with very large media budgets.
- Always be learning. The nature of a brand’s positioning and product give it permission to make certain kinds of content on a certain range of topics. Experimentation will lead to an understanding of what kind of content most resonates with each segment of your audience. Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. Sounds simple, but this is rarely the filter for marketing creative.
There’s too much emphasis on using influence to gain mindshare. The truth is: great ideas resonate. Instead of making your brand dependent on the influence of others, brands that think about what they can do to move people and then do those things in sharable ways themselves become the only influencers that matter.
NOTE: This post, slightly edited, first appeared on the 140Proof blog.
If you would like to be influenced by me in the future, please follow me on Twitter at @CanonFodder.