Is the influencer model dead or evolved?


It has been said that the influencer model is dead. That may be true offline, but it is alive — and essential to marketers — on the net.

Last year, Columbia University sociology professor Duncan Watts received media attention for criticizing the word-of-mouth influencer model, saying that it’s society’s susceptibility to a particular trend — not a select group of influencers per se — that dictates how successful a product or service will ultimately become. His assertion is that social connections are so complex and consumer trends so random, that there’s no way for marketers to effectively rely on select groups of influencers to quickly spread a message.

Watts’ theory may ring true when considering the way influence works offline. In that realm, it’s hard to pinpoint whether a large sample of consumers buy iPods because someone influential told them to, or because there are simply so many people around them actively using the product.

However, when you think about how consumers are influenced online, it’s a different story. Unlike in the physical world, internet users leave a trail of footprints as they traverse the web, and smart marketers can use these as a window into how consumers are influenced and by whom. To put it simply: In the online world, you can quantify the power of influence, and use this to drive successful marketing campaigns.

So that leaves the question: Is the influencer model dead, or has it simply taken new shape in the online environment? My take is that the influencer model is alive and well online, and it’s a powerful force that can be harnessed and leveraged by today’s interactive marketers.

What is influence?
Influence can be defined as the ability to convert the raw material of one’s life into something that has the capacity to affect another’s choice. But let’s get our heads out of academia and into something real — as online marketers, we’re looking at the power of influence as it relates to consumer purchasing decisions and buying behavior.

Watts says influence is propagated not by individual “hubs” that can spread a message, but by a “critical mass of easily influenced people each of whom adopts, say, a look or brand after being exposed to a single adopting neighbor.” This supports the assertion that a broad, blanketed advertising approach will reach enough of that critical mass to expose just the right amount of “easily influenced people” to an idea.

But in the online world, that thinking goes against the current advertising trend of unearthing the most qualified leads with heavy-duty targeting to drive higher ad performance. Watts’ assumptions may work when considering a large heterogeneous population, but this level of simplicity is not reflective of the nuances of our fascinating, and often complex, online experiences.

In an online context, a person’s experience is incredibly specific, personal and peered. The web is populated by clusters of like-minded folks who share ideas through creating, reading and iterating on each other’s content. This behavior takes the form of networks, which can be both formally organized like Facebook, or open networks of online influencers, like blogs, linking together around topics such as hybrid cars, high-def TVs or fly fishing.

Following Watts’ line of thinking, finding online influencers would do little to help your marketing initiative, so let’s consider the alternative. Will a far-reaching ad strategy — say a banner ad blasted on a traditional media site — give you the biggest bang for your marketing buck when it comes to influencing today’s online consumers — people who are increasingly using the web as an on-ramp to a personalized world of social media and niche sites?

I’d say no. Enticing the right consumer with the right message will be much more successful, not to mention cost-effective, if you understand the influencers driving those passionate conversations and go to them first.

Online consumers & influence: an open book
Public displays of trust are everywhere on the internet. And the ability to personalize your online experience means that web users typically surround themselves with the kind of content that is truly meaningful to them. Both of these characteristics reinforce the argument that the influencer model is alive and well online.

From traditional media sites to niche blogs, from Twitter and Digg, to Facebook and Myspace, consumers are engaging with online content — and each other — in totally different ways from in the offline world. Friending someone on Facebook, linking to or leaving comments on someone’s post, blog-rolling a trusted blog, adding a story to your social bookmarking service of choice — these are implicit actions that communicate trust. It is safe to say that the ability to use the web to aggregate and analyze these collective activities would paint a very powerful picture of both who and what influences a particular consumer. And this is marketing gold.

Even passive consumers — those who aren’t telling as clear a story through their daily web activities — are admitting to being influenced by very specific people and content. We know 65 percent of consumers read blogs because they are seeking opinions, and 65 percent of power shoppers access consumer-generated media — like blogs — before they make a purchase decision, spending an average of 10 minutes engaging with this content before buying. Again, influence in this context is specific, personal and peered. Finding where it lies and who wields it is the key to a successful online marketing initiative.

New connections between influential content and online ad performance can be quantified, and this is a serious weakness in Watts’ theory. The ‘single adopting neighbor’ may not be connected with the right kind of people — those who have an intent to purchase. If we look at influential bloggers who have gained credibility on a certain subject over the last two years, we will likely also see audience growth, word-of-mouth referral, content consumption and, eventually, greater clickthroughs, consumer adoption and sales.

So is the influencer model dead? It depends on who you talk to. I would say that, before casting the concept away, take into account how the internet is changing the way we discover trusted content and connect with one other, and how influence is core to these trends. Online, influencers are alive and well — to find them, you just have to know where, and how, to look.


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