Today, How Does Informal Peer-To-Peer (Influencer) Communication Influence Brand Advocacy? 


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Twenty years ago, in their seminal, powerful book The Influentials, authors Ed Keller and John Berry stated:  “One American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy.”  Keller and Berry identified these individuals as holding a huge amount of sway within the communities and audiences they reach.  With the dramatic increase in daily digital social media consumption and usage, impacting virtually everything in our lives (whether we like it or not), two decades later this impact has only multiplied.

Influencers play an increasingly active role in shaping the social media and marketing landscape. Not only are they defining the types of content we view and enjoy, and where we find it, but brands are recognizing influencers as both social commentators and professional publishers with valuable audiences.

Especially among GenZ and Millennial consumers, we’re seeing more and more attention being paid to offline and online influence.  Loosely defined, an influencer (as distinct from someone who makes, or is likely to make, a recommendation) is “a person who has a greater than average reach or impact through word-of-mouth in a relevant marketplace”. 

Although there are certainly exceptions that prove the rule, influencers are often ordinary people, not celebrity actors or pro athletes, government officials, or corporate executives.  Some influencers are casual enthusiasts for a product, service, or sport.  Some influencers are zealots for their interests and perspectives. Some influencers are, or become, so powerful they have become de facto, vocal advocates 

Influencers are individuals who have the means and motivation to interact with others through their social network, who actively use multiple channels to seek and distribute information, and who are frequently sought out for their opinions. In ham radio terms, they actively send and receive brand-related messages. For marketers, understanding why influencers do what they do (and getting them to be consistently positive about your brand)is a key consideration in communication planning and stakeholder strategy.

Over the years, we’ve seen decision-making influence almost completely shift from outbound, managed corporate media and editorial advertising and punditry to informal peer-to-peer communication, through digital contact, social media, and face-to-face means. There is lots of current research evidence to support the roles, and power, of an influencer.  For example, in results reported by the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey which measures the public’s trust in business, government, and institutions, it was found that, overall, 78% of consumers trust family and friends communicating on social media compared to 49% for corporate executives.

Ambassador, a word-of-mouth marketing company in Detroit, has identified other key b2c consumer trust and informal communication statistics:

– 68% of consumers trust online opinions from other consumers (Nielsen)
– 88% of people trust online reviews written by other consumers as much as they trust recommendations from personal contacts (BrightLocal)
– 74% of consumers identify informal, neural word-of-mouth as a key influencer in their purchasing decisions. 32% feel this way if there are multiple customer reviews
– 72% say reading a positive customer review increases their trust in a business. It takes, on average, 2 to 6 reviews to get 56% of them to this point (BrightLocal)
– 77% of brand conversations on social media are people looking for confirmatory advice, information, or assistance (Mention)
– Millennials and Baby Boomers ranked word-of-mouth as the #1 influence in their purchase decisions about big ticket items (travel and electronics) and financial products (Radius Global)

And, as also reported by Ambassador, word-of-mouth influence is perhaps even more impactful among b2b consumers:

– 91% of b2b purchasers are influenced by word-of-mouth when making their buying decisions (USM)
– 61% of IT buyers say that informal colleague communication is the most important factor in their purchasing decisions (B to B Magazine)
– 56% of b2b buyers use offline word-of-mouth as a source of purchase information and advice, which increases to 88% when online word-of-mouth sources are included (BaseOne)

Peer-to-peer influence consultants have determined that brands can generate up to four times more sales through campaigns which encourage ordinary individuals – you and me – to talk about preferred brands. And, brands that inspire more emotional response receive three times the word-of-mouth activity compared to less emotionally engaging brands.

The influential people exhibiting this connective and vocal communication behavior are amplifiers, who can be highly persuasive when it comes to the behavior of others. In fact, they prove the economic value of word-of-mouth when, as amplifiers, they socially communicate with high volume, have authenticity and credibility, influence others who would purchase, and are actively involved in social media.

A recent Forbes article reported on some key influencer marketing trends, including:

Being ‘Real’ Is Critical – Gen Z and Millennial consumers, who are digital natives and divining rods, are especially adept at spotting online sales pitches. They will tune out, and even recommend boycotting, content they perceive as covert advertising, but they will also seek out the influencers with whom they feel a genuine connection. Brands associated with influencers perceived as honest brokers profit the most.  The trendiest platforms right now capitalize on the ability to be grass-roots and authentic. 
–  Personalization/Niche Content Will Become Even More Important –  Audiences are looking for the content they access to be personally relevant, so influence niches are becoming ever more specialized.  A balance, however, must be struck between content authenticity and over-targeting, lest consumers feel that there is threat to their security.

Finally, we’ve often discussed, and presented compelling research and analysis on, how customers can be vocal advocates for a brand if their experiences have been positive. And alienated customers can be ‘badvocates’, even saboteurs, if their experiences have been negative. Likewise, and historically under-leveraged, employees can significantly impact customer behavior toward their employer through a range of attitudes and actions on behalf of the brand, company and customer. These attitudes and actions, like customers, range from highly positive to highly negative; and it is most evidenced in whether employees have direct, indirect or minimal involvement with customers.

Employees have real influence both inside and outside the company. When assessing that impact, we most typically concentrate on what drives active, positive, vocal commitment to the enterprise, the value proposition, and the customers, i.e. employee advocacy; however, it is at least equally important to identify where employee indifference and negative attitudes and communication behaviors exist, why they exist, and how they can be mitigated or eliminated. If employee advocacy is the North Pole, then employee alienation is the South Pole.

To summarize, stakeholder influence and brand advocacy are functions of human emotions and memory of experience. And, influence and advocacy is typically positive or negative, rarely neutral. Each component of the customer and employee journey needs to be analyzed and contextualized for its brand-building impact. The important thing for marketers and marketing strategists is that ordinary people, especially employees and customers, can be a pivotal component of a campaign or communication strategy, an opportunity to drive profitability and growth for a brand.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.



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