Influence. It’s something that all advertising since the beginning of time has aspired to do. So should brands target influencers in social media? Not just yes, but hell yes. The data available to (the highest bidder) brands today directly identifies audiences in ways that Don Draper could only dream of. If they had the information we have back in the 60s, they’d’ve sent cartons of cigarettes to people who they believed could influence others to smoke a certain brand. Despite what you might think about ethics, authenticity and all that, it’s perfectly natural, and even expected, for brands to target influencers in social media. Everyone knows that word of mouth (WOM, or viva voce, if you want to get fancy) is the best advertising. That’s day one of Marketing 101. Therefore, if you can identify influencers who may help expedite your brand via WOM, it’s a perfectly viable marketing tactic to target them. The problem is, identifying the influencers.

Sure, it’s easy to pick the ‘rock stars’ or ‘celebrities’ in social media and call them influencers. But if you’re Snuggie brand, and you send Chris Brogan a Snuggie, he may very well use it. And love it. But there’s no guarantee that he’s going to push his positive experience into his valuable social media streams. In fact, there’s never any guarantee anyone will. But even less so for obvious influencers who are probably inundated with unsolicited offerings in hopes they get talked up. No, the trick is to discover influencers who aren’t inundated and who represent a better opportunity for positive WOM.

I talk up Apple. I didn’t even have an Apple product until 2008. Now I’ll never go back to PC. Why? Because I’m a fan of efficiency. Apple didn’t pay me to say this. Nor did they comp me a product. I say this because it’s true, and the people who follow me (or who are reading this post) will likely take some value from this statement – as they possibly do with other things I say (this, after all, is the core idea behind following people in the first place.) Let’s say that I have a negative experience at a restaurant and I push that into my stream. When someone who follows me hears this, they’re less likely to choose that restaurant based on my negative experience. That’s how influence works. And no, it’s not neatly measurable.

A major risk for targeting influencers isn’t that the influencer doesn’t push anything, it’s that the influencer says the wrong thing. If Chris Brogan’s Snuggie catches fire while he was frying bacon on the stove, and he pushes that experience into his stream, Snuggie’s got a problem. Likewise, if a brand doesn’t do its due diligence and ends up sending a prospective influencer a product that doesn’t align with the influencer’s beliefs – this could also result in very bad things.

The main reason targeting influencers works in social media is because of the credibility of the influencer – not necessarily the quality of a product or service. People gain influence by being consistently authentic. If someone you admire starts tweeting that they love Red Lobster when you know damn well that they support the end of destructive bottom trawling, guess what happens? That person loses credibility and Red Lobster’s attempt to target an influencer fails. Less credibility = less influence. It’s that simple.

I don’t think there’s any question that approaching influencers in social media makes sense. I think the question is how to determine who the influencers are. There’s been a lot of chatter about Klout lately. And for good reason. So far, it’s the one tool that has seemed to figure out how to identify influencers based on some pretty incredible data parsing. Data that’s out there for the taking by anyone, but not easily concatenated. I could be wrong, but Klout’s algorithms don’t seem to be based on number of followers or tweet volume. Rather, they know how often people act upon content and how far the content moves across the internet – as well as other factors that are way too mathematical for me to understand. Anyway, the point isn’t that Kout has it solved, it’s that as long as brands are out there looking for this data, the company that can serve it up to them wins. Identifying influencers is big business and important for brands who want to generate WOM advertising.

Like I said, it’s a huge risk. But one worth taking. You’re going to succeed more often than not when you give people an opportunity to experience your brand for free and with no strings attached. 20 years ago what did you do if you had a great new product or service? You bought TV ad time and hoped that your audience A) saw it, and B) believed you enough to act favorably on it. Sure, this approach resulted in some comfortable numbers to look at (and depend on), but really the media buy alone was just as big of a gamble as giving stuff away to influencers in hopes of generating positive WOM. Also consider this – 20 years ago if someone liked your product after they bought it because they saw it on TV, where does that WOM go? To the next door neighbors? People at the PTA?  Office mates? Yes, it was still positive WOM, but it was slow. Today’s WOM moves at the speed of clicking send on a status update.

Look, no influencer worth their salt is going to wreck their credibility by being bribed into saying something good about a brand, but they definitely can say whether they endorse something. You know how we say here that social media has given us the opportunity to connect with people we’d otherwise never even know about, much less engage in dialogue? Well, the same is true of brands reaching out to prospective customers. The most credible people I see within social networks are those who aren’t paid to say anything. I care that my friends liked (or didn’t like) a certain movie. I listen when someone I trust in my network recommends a book or restaurant. These people are influencing me daily. And I’m ok with it.

There’s nothing wrong with brands targeting influencers to gain positive word of mouth advertising. In fact, it’s a natural marketing progression in an age when people are more closely connected than ever.


Jim Mitchem

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Jim Mitchem

Writer. Father to daughters. Husband. Ad man. Raised by wolves. @jmitchem on twitter. First novel, Minor King, out now.