The future of influence: the lazy man's approach or the way forward in marketing?

Influencer marketing is big news. But what value should we really be ascribing to the role of influence? Is there really an ultimate group of influencers? And if so, how much attention should we really be paying to them? Meabh Quoirin, MD, Future Foundation, discusses the future of influence.

The ‘influentials theory’, as made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, dictates that there is a magical sweet spot, where the voices of mavens (or trendsetters) combine with the network spread of ‘connector cogs’ to create something that is generally tipped to be big.This theory has evolved over time but it has also been subject to criticism, most recently by Duncan Watts, a network-theory scientist who has dubbed the maven theory “the lazy man’s approach to marketing”. His book Six Degrees effectively says: ‘target who you like but the end result isn’t going to be dependent on the special trendsetters you’ve set apart to charge forth with your message’. His work shows that your average slob is just as likely to start the next new trend as a well-connected influential. He is, in effect, an advocate of plain old mass marketing.So as the number of companies like Kred and Klout, which put a value on influence and help you engage with influencers grows, we begin to question whether there really is an ultimate group of influencers. We know there are merits to targeting people who are more inclined to amplify a brand - people who are prepared to share ideas and content have consistently demonstrated that they are also more likely to follow brands online, to buy brands in a conspicuous, trackable sense and in theory therefore, to inspire up to 900 million others to do the same. And indeed, looking to nVision data, we find that one in two people agree that friends and family come to them for advice – we enjoy being seen as mavens. It is also human nature to like to be liked – 60 per cent of us like it when people acknowledge our posts. And 37 per cent per cent – more than a third of the population – agree that they’re always telling friends/family about new products and services they’ve discovered. So what about that theoretical top 10 per cent that go even further, those who are more vocal, more active, more brand friendly? Are these the super influencers; the ones you really need to motivate to talk about you?Well, not really. In fact a comparison of ‘influencers’ versus ‘super-influencers’ didn’t inspire us at all. If super-influencers are those who strongly agree that they’re always sharing messages, this represents just seven per cent of the online population. And if we look at their socio-demographic characteristics and compare them to our ordinary mavens (i.e. those who agree they’re always sharing messages), there’s not a lot to distinguish them. The super influencers are a bit younger and less well off, but on the whole, you couldn’t possibly tap into them easily with an even loosely defined social profile.This also applies to their online habits – across a whole host of activities (buying online, downloading mobile apps, watching TV, social media activity) their uptake is virtually the same as our influencers. We would argue that it’s not about how many brands you follow, or how many connections you have. It’s increasingly about the quality of the connection and the conversation. Authenti-seekingThis established mega trend informs us that family and friends remain a faithful source of advice. But what really stands out from our research is that one in three of us say that we’re rather more influenced now by experts – credentials are increasingly the key to getting people’s attention. What’s also really interesting is that one in three of us agree that we’re less influenced now by our social networking contacts – an indication that while we might have loads of social media buddies to get ideas from, when we really need to know about what to read, what to do or what to buy, we need to turn to a more expert, authentic, intimate voice of influence. Within this, we’re anticipating a proliferation of platforms and places – forums, for example – where people go to do just one thing, or talk to just one group of people: privacy in other words. So effectively we’ll think less about the commodity and efficiency per se and more about the conversation quality. We need to start reviewing our expectations of social as being less about one to many and more about one to a few. Creative answersHow can anyone, or any campaign, be influential when there’s just so much noise? Some 40 per cent of us wish to stand out from the crowd: we want to be unique. But the reality that it is indeed incredibly hard to be truly unique, to break out of a cycle of simply referencing other people’s ideas. We’ve all seen the consumer obsession with creativity. From research we conducted before Christmas, we know that some 61 per cent are keen to be creative, 68 per cent are happy to co-create if rewarded for doing so, and another 13 per cent are just happy to co-create. And of course if you can make a consumer feel like you’ve helped them be creative, they’ll automatically have had a more engaging experience of your brand and when they do talk about it – as they’re certain to do if they’ve gone to the trouble of helping you evolve it in some way – then their voice will carry a more authentic note of endorsement. There is plenty of consumer appetite to do more here. So where does this leave us? We believe that influencer marketing should be more experimental. It’s about targeting people, not just more intelligently (like all smart segmentation), but with more intelligent ideas. Don’t leave it all to the top 10 per cent. Explore who and what else is out there. There is no substitute for a massive idea, something very clever or something very universal. But in too many instances, there needs to be a much more discrete connection to capture the consumer’s heart. Think about your ‘real’ experts, not the ones just concerned with their reputation management. It’s not always about the explosion of noise. Think about the fact that sometimes the most convincing influence will come from someone who just doesn’t care about broadcasting. Inconspicuous influence is on the up. Make room for experimentation and an adaptable use of your idea/product/message. Influence isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. It’s about how people interact with stuff and make it their own. Get it out there, let them adapt and maybe even abuse. If nothing else, it’ll make them feel unique. Leader image via Shutterstock

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