The emphasis on influencer marketing in social media has reached a fever pitch in 2011 and with it a flood of tools and opinions on how to navigate the influence waters. This is interesting in that one of the most powerful aspects of social media marketing is the ability to establish connections and relationships directly with prospects and customers and not have to go through an intermediary to communicate. But we’ll leave that to the social strategists to reconcile and justify. Influencer marketing is hardly a new strategy. Through the years, much work in traditional public relations utilized influencer targeting (e.g. market analysts, financial analysts, KOLs, other customers) to help amplify and endorse a brand or a company’s products and services. So why is there so much discussion and confusion about influence in social media? Let’s explore.
A definition I like for influence is: effecting change in another person’s attitudes, opinions, beliefs and/or behavior. I believe the most overlooked word in this definition is change. Without change influence has not truly occurred. One challenge here is influence can happen without any resulting short-term observable action. Influence takes hold primarily between the ears, not necessarily with hand on mouse or wallet. This creates fundamental challenges when trying to measure the degree to which influence has occurred.
Another challenge we face is that influence is contextual not absolute. People who influence others do so primarily in areas where they have specific expertise or authority. It is common to be influential in one area but have little or no influence in others. One of the main issues with current influence tools are they do a relatively poor job of establishing contextual relevance.
The distinction between creating influence within a target audience and who/what has influence over the target has a tendency to get muddled. To clarify, determining who has the potential to influence the target audience, (the influencers), is a targeting question. Have we created influence, (changed attitudes, opinions, beliefs and/or behavior) is a measurement question.
Influence is purposeful. In real life or digital life, when we set out to change the opinion, attitude, beliefs or behavior of another person or group, we do so with a downstream motivation – for them to take a specific action. The list of possible actions is lengthy – buy a product, visit a website, tell a friend, vote, wave a sign and donate to name a few. Of course, not all desired actions are equal in terms of amount of influence required for change. Opinions might be easier to change than an attitude. An attitude is easier to change than a belief. Behavioral change can range from relatively easy to nearly impossible depending on the specific behavior. In marketing, the ultimate behavior or action we try to influence is purchase behavior. It is important to think through the specific actions you hope the target will take as a result of being influenced. This is also the sweet spot for influence measurement.
While creating an action/behavior change is the ultimate reason for influencing someone, it is helpful to think of the process of influence as two stages – opinion, attitude or belief change – and then, because of this change, did an action occur or was a behavior changed. Stated another way, the opinion change is an intermediate or micro outcome and the desired action is a final or macro outcome. Depending on the type of purchase decision there may be a time lag between the micro and macro outcomes that make it difficult to connect the dots. In his book The Business of Influence, Philip Sheldrake presents a concept called the “Maturity of Influence Approach”. Basically it melds two important concepts to use when thinking about influence measurement – focus on the influence, not the influencer (Philip refers to this as “influence-centric), and to start at the macro outcome/action and trace the path of influence back to the source(s) of influence. One simple example of this in a B2B context would be to ask the prospect at the time they are ready to make a purchase, “what sources of information or opinion were most valuable to you in making your decision to buy our product?” A similar question or two can be asked using a pop-up survey in an ecommerce situation.
Influence and Engagement Confusion
A primary source of influence confusion is failing to distinguish between a simple act of engagement and the process of being influenced. If someone in my Twitter stream sends out a tweet and I retweet it, have they influenced me to retweet or have I simply engaged with that individual’s content? Many who have written about social media influence have suggested that in RTing the tweet, I have been influenced to do so. I do not believe that is the case. I have engaged with the content, but have there been any true changes in my attitudes, opinions, beliefs or behavior? Again, the operative word here is change. Does the act of RTing constitute a behavioral change? Probably not. Engagement – yes, influence - no.
Engagement is a necessary pre-condition to Influence. (This social media measurement model addresses the distinction) Without engagement you don’t have the opportunity to influence. Influence, however, only occurs if that engagement leads to a change in attitudes, opinions, beliefs and behavior.
Influence, Popularity and Celebrity Confusion
There also seems to be some confusion about the difference between influence, popularity and celebrity. Although related, and in some cases overlapping, they are three distinct concepts. In my opinion, at least some of the confusion stems from Klout and other influencer tools that seem to measure popularity but call it influence. So what is the difference?
Popularity is the state of being popular – widely admired, accepted or sought after.
Celebrity is a famous person, renown and fame.
If popularity is about being well-liked and celebrity is about being well-known, influence is more about being well-respected, with associations like knowledge, persuasion and trust. Some of the confusion lies in the fact that some celebrities do have influence over the types of behaviors that make the cash register ring. Oprah comes to mind. Other celebrities, while very popular, don’t really have the ability to create meaningful influence. They can get content re-tweeted (WINNING!) but do they have any influence over the types of actions brands really value?
Keeping Online Influence in Perspective
As we discuss the intricacies of digital influence we should also keep in mind the majority of influence occurs in the analog world. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 70 – 90% of influence occurring by offline WOM. It’s personal. It’s about real family and friends and not Twitter friends. Influence is about a relatively small number of people (Dunbar’s Number suggests humans have a finite cognitive capacity to have around 150 social relationships with other humans), and not mass influence. The fact that most influence happens offline presents another significant measurement challenge.
In summary, I’ll leave you with a few sound bites on social media influence:
- Influence is about change
- Engagement leads to influence
- One can be popular but not influential
- Measure the influence not the influencer
- Don’t forget offline when measuring online influence.
Thanks for reading. See it a different way?