There's been a lot of talk about social media influence and its role in the new consumer decision journey. Big brands are not only buying into the concept of leveraging people with influence, but are serious money. From Polaroid actually hiring Lady Gaga to a study showing that the majority of marketers are allocating budget to influencer marketing, it’s clear that companies are keen on figuring out how to leverage “influencers.”
But what many brand marketers don’t realize is that influence doesn't matter unless the influencer is willing to endorse your brand and its products. Jay-Z won't promote your phone charger unless you pay him (a lot) and bloggers are starting to demand the same.
So what’s a brand to do?
Not all influence is equal
First, recognize that influencers don’t necessarily affect consumer decisions, even if they are willing to endorse your brand. A person may have the highest Klout score, the strongest blog community or 200,000 followers on Twitter, but why does that make him an authority on your product? The lifeguard at your local pool might have a whistle and big loudspeaker, but he still can’t convince ten-year old kids to walk rather than run along the edge of the pool. Influencers might create awareness of a problem and solution, but not all awareness leads to new actions.
Second, while influence plays a role, the influence of a “celebrity blogger” might not be the best type of influence. Friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors are simply more trustworthy. They are members of our tribe, and therefore they are the preferred sources of brand knowledge. We trust them to steer us right. They endorse a brand because they actually believe in the brand and its products, unlike the arch-influencer who is mainly in it for financial gain. Who do you think is going to stop more ten year old kids from running alongside a pool—the lifeguard or elder siblings and parents who recognize the danger and want their siblings or children to be safe because they love them?
Don’t discount influencers completely—just acknowledge that they are one or two small trail blazes along the path to a purchase. The rest of the blazes are word-of-mouth endorsements that social media experts now call advocate marketing.
Advocate endorsements are the goal
So influence is not necessarily dead—it’s simply migrating from the big shots to people we actually trust and identify with. Some people call it influence marketing, others call it word of mouth, and I call it advocate marketing.
Endorsements can come from multiple types of advocates: customers, employees and bloggers. Brands first need to shape programs that focus on harnessing the affinity that all these groups have for their products.
Advocates are effective because they are friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances, not paid celebrity influencers. According to Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising report, 92 percent of consumers say they trust earned media, such as recommendations from friends and family, above all other forms of advertising. Further, Nielsen has found that 77% of consumers are more likely to try a product when it is recommended by a friend or family member. No one wants to be paid to share a product they would share anyway—it feels insincere, and it destroys the credibility of the recommendation. Instead, a good advocate marketing program can reward advocates with deals, exclusive events and opportunities to test or preview new products.
Still, advocates can be difficult to motivate, scale and measure.
If brands could overcome these cons, would they be more likely to leverage advocates?
Technology puts advocates front and center
With the proliferation of social media and advent of cloud computing technology, there’s opportunity to scale massively. As Social Media Today reports, 2.5 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook and 400 million Tweets are sent out every day. There is plenty of raw volume to build advocate networks.
These networks scale advocate marketing from a 1-to-1 to 1-to-hundreds or thousands conversation. Whereas influencer marketing ran top-to-bottom, “blogger celebrity,” to others, the advocate conversation is peer-to-peer. It’s natural.
Further in the past, you could never really tell if advocate marketing was working for your brand. Today, integrations to social networks, tracking and cloud technology make it easy to measure success. Technology, however, only facilitates the conversation—brands still must start the conversation and keep it going.
Align brand and advocate goals to motivate thousands of advocates
There’s a myriad of great research on why people share, from the wonky Ernest Dichter, which Harvard Business Review reminded us of recently, to the practical steps that companies like Marketo provide and prove everyday. Regardless of your audience, there are easy ways to figure out what will motivate them to share, but they all seem to come down to a few key principles:
Make the advocate look smart. No one wants to be ridiculed or mocked for sharing. No one wants to receive unintelligent marketing jabber. Make advocate sharing about the advocates—your brand is secondary.
Give them something funny or entertaining to share. We don’t thank friends for forwarding bad content. We get annoyed with brands that pepper social media waves with standard marketing jabber. Make your advocates eager to share your content because of the inherent value of the content.
Give them something that helps their friends. Brands win by helping advocates and advocates win by helping their network. Only plugging your brand is not being helpful. What can your brand share that will make your advocates’ friends feel appreciative?
Give them a way to express themselves. Do not control advocate expression with an iron fist. You can suggest messaging and content, but ultimately the choice should be up to your advocates. Let them figure out the best way to reach an audience.
Listen to your advocates. If your advocates push back against your messaging, listen carefully because you have an opportunity to learn. Remember, these are people who already appreciate your brand. So if they’re not happy with your content, who in the world will be?
If advocate marketing works, platforms to scale it exist and the measurement technology to prove the business benefits are available, do potentially influential celebrities and bloggers still matter? Yes and no. Their influence is not dead, but perhaps it’s best saved for something other than endorsements. Let celebrities go back to being professional entertainers or athletes. Let bloggers go back to writing well. And let the people we trust help us figure out what brands we want.