Influencer Strategies – We Shouldn’t Want Them

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I’ve been thinking and reading about influencer theory and influencer strategy a lot lately. Last week I read a post by Lisa Petrilli: Three smart reasons to empower instead of influence, that provides some very good arguments against pursuing an influencer strategy.

Attempts to regain control
Petrilli’s first reason (Influence is an expression of your power whereas empowerment invokes someone else’s power) sticks with me because this is in essence what the change in thinking company’s need is all about. The Cluetrain Manifesto described it over ten years ago and more recently Paul Greenberg described Social CRM as the company’s response to the Customer’s ownership of the conversation.

I think that actively pursuing a strategy designed to target influencers whom should influence the actual targets is just another attempt of companies to regain control over the conversation. I agree with Petrilli and think that any such attempt will fail to deliver sustainable value for both the Customer and the company because it fundamentally drives in the opposite direction of the only thing your Social CRM Strategy cannot do without: Customer empowerment.

Companies need to come to terms with the Social Customer
The mere fact that we are still seeing a lot of debate around this proves to me that not only companies but also many of the “Social” thought leaders have still not come to terms with the Social Customer.

Many believe or think that the Social Customer is all about new channels and toys (with mobile going social now being the new cool-aid, or just the I-pad as the embodiment of revolution). If that’s how you feel about the Social Customer, please (re-)read the Cluetrain Manifesto by following the link above. (I also like the whitepaper by Attensity, yet it is written from a Company’s perspective, not a Customer’s perspective, which makes the Cluetrain such a powerful manifesto).

Do influentials exist?
In her third reason Petrilli claims there is no proof that influentials even exists. She takes her cues from Steve Knox, CEO of Proctor and Gamble’s WOM Unit Tremor, who they have not been able – with 10 years of research – to find any proof that influentials exist. This actually fits with what Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds describe in their paper: Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation.

Watts and Dodds conclude their research saying: “Under most conditions that we consider, we find that large cascades of influence are driven not by influentials but by a critical mass of easily influenced individuals. Although our results do not exclude the possibility that influentials can be important, they suggest that the influentials hypothesis requires more careful specification and testing than it has received.”

I’m not convinced
I know that many smart people are doing research on this topic right now. One I’m following with specific interest and admiration for his work is Michael Wu who has recently written this Chapter on Influencers. I’m just not convinced yet, and I doubt I will be.

Although I will continue to follow the emerging research on the topic, I’m currently of the opinion that one could better focus their efforts on helping the Customer getting the job done, instead of helping yourself reaching the Customer, who prefers to find you when she needs you, not you to target her, when you want to.

What do you think?

21 COMMENTS

  1. Wim,

    Great post. Well thought out and well presented. I am not sure I share all of your sentiment, but genuinely respect and admire your point of view.

    Talk soon,
    Brian

  2. Wim,
    (and Brian & Mike)
    Thanks for the chat on this topic this week. So, I guess I probably cut to the quick too soon on a lot of things, so why stop here? In customer service, what does it matter?

    I don’t actually know quantitatively whether influencers exist or not. It seems that there is some credibility to the concept. Isn’t the pitchman/spokesperson an ‘influencer’? Alex Trebek is used to try to influence potential buyers of insurance. Ed McMahon was used in the same capacity for other products. Brands select these pitchmen as influencers because they believe some group will perceive them has having credibility, being trustworthy, etc.; thus, more likely to influence some call to action. To Wim’s point, certain journalists have become influencers in their ability to shape opinions, public policy, whatever.

    But, here’s my point. Whether influencers exist or not, I don’t believe they have relevance to service delivery. If your strategy includes tiered service delivery, using ‘influence’ as criteria for segmentation, you discount other more valuable and more directly quantifiable criteria like spend, profitability, CLV.

    Picture this scenario:

    Average Joe Accenture Partner who is a Million Miler on an airline that he flies exclusively every week gets bumped from a flight, or is put on hold for 15 minutes or is charged a cancellation fee so those special service treatments can be given to Ashton Kutcher because he has 5 million followers on Twitter and is seen as an ‘influencer’ yet has never flown that airline.

    So, does the mythical beast exist? I think so. But, I’m in customer service, that’s a sandbox for the marketing guys to play in.

  3. I also read with great interest the research that suggest so-called “influentials” are essentially based on chance. Targeting them does little good because it’s not repeatable.

    But I wonder if the same is true for B2B. It used to be that big analyst firms held sway over industry trends, vendor perspectives, etc. These are important inputs to the B2B decision-making process, but now the blogosphere provides a lot of free opinion.

    Don Bulmer recently wrote about this shift in Future of the IT Advisory Industry: Discussion by Gideon Gartner and Barbara French.

    Here’s one quote I thought was on point with Wim’s post:

    Our research (at SAP) has shown that above all else ‘peer influence’ has the highest impact or level of influence on the decision to purchase business software (our core market). Where a decision maker does not have experience, they seek out and are heavily influenced by the experience of others. As a result, we are seeing an increasing number of very high quality peer networks (by role, industry, geography, and vendor affiliation – such as user groups) and social media peer groups form to offer great depth in facilitating exchange of insight, best practice and peer advice.

    So does this mean that not only are the analyst firms days numbered (as “influentials,”) but also bloggers? If we extend Don’s argument, I might conclude that B2B vendors should focus all their attention on creating happy customers instead of courting analysts and bloggers.

  4. Hi Brian,

    Thx for the kudos. It would really help me if you could explain your caveat with some of the sentiment (or opinion?) in my post.

    Look forward to reading it.

    Wim

  5. Bob,

    That reminds me of a vendor I used to work with. Top Dog constantly talked about what Gartner was saying. I asked him “what are they saying about you?” The point, he was too busy focusing on the analysts and not enough time listening to his customers and partners

    Mike Boysen
    Effective CRM

  6. Hi Barry,

    I would not be surprised if in a couple of years, what you describe becomes “accepted” or even “best” practice..

    It happens today with so-called “influencers” of the press e.g. Based on phone-number recognition they get routed to a special agent group that has learned to deal with the press.. And with most definitions of influencers depending on volume of followers, retweets, mentions and alike, they look pretty similar to journalists, if you ask me.

    And yes, people that influence other people exist, without a doubt. The problem is that no research to date proved that trying to reach an outcome through leveraging these “infuentials” has worked. All sorts of tests have delivered results, yet they could not be correlated to the role of the influentials. To me this means that many of the other factors could not be ruled out in an academic experiment, which is fascinating because they are usually good at this stuff.

    And I think this really is what it my caveat is all about: we simply do not know exactly how the influence-dna works.. There are so many factors that influence the way we choose, when we choose and what we choose (to do), that to me it looks like a waste of time to focus your strategy on this, until now un-proven, myth..

    useless even beyond your sandbox 😉

  7. Wim,
    A very good thought provoking post.

    I am of the opinion that both influence and empowerment are critical to success. And while all of us may differ on our exact definition of an “influencer”, it is difficult to refute the fact that there are people/networks that can drive traffic to your website or business because of various factors (celebrity, expertise, peer trust etc.)

    Empowerment is important. However, I see this as a long term strategy. One thing not often talked about is that before a company goes on the path to empower its customers and constituencies, they should first empower their employees. This in itself is a major mindshift and culture change.

    And so while a firm is pursuing this long-term empowerment path, I feel it is okay if they can ‘influence certain influencers’ in the short run to create loyal clusters or drive additional business.

    As to Bob’s point on the ‘analyst firm days numbered’, I personally don’t think that is going to happen in the near future. Don’t get me wrong – the point made by Bob and Don Bulmer on the power of peer networks is very valid. As Don says, “Where a decision maker does not have experience, they seek out and are heavily influenced by the experience of others”. However, like the six degrees of separation framework, ultimately someone in the peer network is aware of what the analyst firms are saying and other fact/data based inputs and so his/her opinion is primarily not based on peer influence.

    Enjoyed the read.

    Regards,
    Ned

  8. Hi Bob,

    Thought provoking comment. Thx!

    Of course analysts shouldn’t go away. They create value with what they do together with their Customers and vendors. And yes, they influence buying decisions too. I agree with your extension of Don’s argument nevertheless. If only for the fact that analysts will not recommend products of companies without happy Customers.. (I hope 😉

    Thus, any company (in B2B or B2C) should understand that creating Customers who create Customers is not realized through influencers, but through creating happy Customers. And those stories may just be picked up by a wider audience. And yes, the connectors might spread this message for it to reach an even wider audience.

    But, because they are connectors, the message will reach them anyway. And if it’s good enough they’ll forward it..

  9. Hi Ned,

    Thx for the balanced comment 🙂

    To narrow down my view on this: Influencing is not about simple forwarding, it is about generating action, it is about putting in some “meat”. There should surely be something at stake for the influencer too..

    Thus: I’m talking influencing the “targets” into buying or recommending buying to others (by the target that is)..

    If influence is about forwarding, “retweeting”, liking and mentioning, than I may stand corrected 😉

    What do you think?

  10. Wim,
    This is why ‘influence’ is such a complicated and interesting topic :-). Also, it is my personal opinion that ‘influence’ and ‘influencers’ is a misunderstood topic among many in the public and marketers.

    I understand what you are saying about influencing is not about simple forwarding. However, not sure if I agree with that statement completely or not.

    Not to get into semantics, but in a matter of speaking forwarding is in some ways similar to recommending. At the end of the day, the thing to keep in mind is that influencers cannot promise sustainable cash-flow for the simple reason that the decision to buy or use a product or service is very much dependent on user-specific characteristics. So while an influencer might recommend a product/service or even initially influence the targets into buying something, they have the power over that mainly for that first interaction. Further interactions would depend on the UI, UX, quality of product/service etc. And this is where empowerment comes in — but that is another discussion.

    Further, influencing in my opinion can take various shapes and forms – influencing of behavior, influencing of actions, influencing of opinions, influencing the virality etc. In this sense, forwarding in certain context is influencing.

    Coming to your retweet examaple. Yes, I do consider it to be a form of influencing — but it is very context specific. As an example, one of my tweets was RTed by person X and it stopped there. The same tweet was then RTed by person Y which then was picked up by 23 other folks and RTed again. Is this a case of forwarding – yes. However, it is also [a form of] an influence example as one of the 3rd tier folks who got my tweet was deliberating on topic tied to my tweet and the tweet along with the fact that it was RTed by person Y helped her make the decision on which direction she should go. So in a way person Y was an influencer. But as you said, this topic can be debated back and forth.

    Anyway, sorry to be rambling — one of my drawbacks :-). One thing for sure — we can have a slight difference of opinion on influence, but that does not take away the importance of the core concept in your post — and that is , we should slowly be moving to a model of empowering others on various fronts.

    Regards,
    Ned

  11. set aside the discussion on what influencing exactly is, what I think is very interesting is to understand what conditions need to be in place for an idea/message/recommendation to cascade all over the place..

    Watts and Dodds make a very interesting point about this:

    “the ability of any individual to trigger a cascade depends much more on the global structure of the influence network than on his or her personal degree of influence; that is, if the network permits global cascades, virtually anyone can start one, and if it does not permit global cascades, nobody can”

    Whilst all the focus on influencers is currently on the attributes of the person, one should potentially be looking at the attributes of the network connecting the “targets”..

    Grateful that you agree we should move to a model of empowerment, not influence 😉

    Thx for engaging in this discussion!

    Wim

  12. Wim,
    While I agree with Watts & Dodds and you about the importance of global cascades, I would disagree (with utmost respect) with the statement that “anyone can be an influencer”.

    The mechanism of influence is complex and additional empirical studies will shed more light into it. And in this respect we have to careful not to take Watts & Dodds out of context. Full credit to them, they have repeatedly pointed out that they are not rejecting the influecer hypothesis, nor saying it is right or wrong. What they highlighted (and with which I totally agree) is that when talking about influence we have to be very careful in articulating the assumptions, context, validity constraints etc. There is more to it than just saying somone is an influencer.

    As to global cascades, imho this forms one of the parameters for influencing. The ability to cascade absolutely has an effect on the network connectivity, velocity and virality of an event. However, there are other parameters that dictate the effect one would have within a network on how an ‘influence’ might be transmitted within the network (and hence my point earlier that anyone cannot be an influencer even in a cascading network unless certain conditions are satisfied).

    There are lots of other fun and interesting discussions around this – like for example why an influencer might be able to better leverage a global cascade than a non-influencer in the same network etc.

    Overall, I really enjoyed this discussion Wim. Thanks for the post and your responses. I think we are both on the same page in that it is important “to understand what conditions need to be in place for an idea/message/recommendation to cascade all over the place”.

    And yes we should empower — but who should we empower, the influencers or the masses or both for different reasons? Had to pull your leg on that one knowing your view on influencers 🙂

    Regards,
    Ned

  13. Wim,

    Great stuff, really. I have also been following this whole influencer ‘thingy’ as some like to call it for a while, but not as focused as since the FastCompany project, and now the SXSW panel votes (Oy!)

    I will say that I am in total agreement, and that in our white paper (with Chess, released in June) we stated the following (no link spam, people can find the rest of the paper if interested):

    “In order to succeed in this hyper-connected environment, companies will need to adapt their business strategy, apply new technology, expand their marketing and PR efforts, and alter and adapt their internal culture. Formalizing a Social CRM strategy will allow a business to locate, educate and engage their current and potential customers where they prefer to communicate. Empowering the Social Customer is crucial to the success of any social business strategy.”

    -Mitch

    Mitch Lieberman
    President and CEO
    Comity Technology Advisors
    comityadvisors.com

  14. Wim,

    So honored to have been included in your post and I love the discussion that ensued here in the comments! In particular, I agree with Ned’s point that before a company can empower its customers it must empower its employees. Ultimately, your employees must be passionate advocates in order for your customers to feel valued and important.

    It’s exciting to see the conversation about influence and empowerment continue!

    All the very best,
    @LisaPetrilli

  15. Hello Wim,

    Nice follow up on Petrilli’s post. I must say that I have a slightly different view point. I agree that empowerment is important, but influence and empowerment are really two orthogonal concepts that do not need to be mutually exclusive.

    I’ve was trying to write a reply here, but it just got so long that I decided to turn it into a blog post, which you can access here.

    http://lithosphere.lithium.com/t5/Building-Community-the-Platform/Do-You-Empower-or-Influence/ba-p/9992

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts and insights from your unique customer service perspective.

  16. Wim,

    If I follow you, you’re describing influencer strategies as the mass media model with an intermediary stuck in the middle of the communications loop.

    That is not an influencer strategy; that’s a 1-way message morphed with a pyramid scheme.

    Just as email is more than spam, influencer marketing is more than finding mules to carry a payload.

    Best,
    Barbara

  17. Good you bring that up Barbara,

    I purposely did not get into the definition of “influencer strategies”. Much like any strategy there will be many “shades” of the “infuencer” one too..

    Too avoid misunderstanding:
    – I do not deny that influence exists and is important
    – I do not deny that there are people with more influence over other peoples opinions, ideas etcetera..

    I do think that strategies (for B2C) focused on trying to influence influencers into influencing the targets, are (this is not a definition!):
    – focused on getting the targets to act (whatever the desired action is)..
    – difficult, if not impossible, to drive intentionally and repeatedly
    – dependent more on other circumstances, such as the density of the network the targets are in, than the influencer characteristics on which much of the focus currently is..

    I’d love to hear your view on what an influencer strategy is or should be about and how they (should) embrace conversation, to further my understanding of best practices out there..

    Thx in advance,

    Wim

  18. Wim, love your posts and I believe I’ve said that before, but the view I take about influence, power and control is that influence does NOT equal control OR power.

    Manipulation is about power and control where one person attempts to affect others without their consent, and using non-transparent methods.

    Influence is completely different, in that it operates with implicit or explicit consent, and the process is relatively transparent and free from hidden agendas.

    Bringing empowerment into it is just going to confuse, since it has nothing to do with influence.

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