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.
6 CommentsLEAVE A COMMENT
Jan 29, 2011
the tricksy part is determining what defines an ‘influencer worth their salt’. the painful, yet freeing realization that there is no silver bullet. no algorithm. no simple ‘reply to all influencers’ button. thank the maker its more complicated than that. I have found that the way to find the elusive category of ‘influencer worth their salt’ is relationships. genuine irl, sticky, messy, warts and all. slow, steady, clunky, inelegant. and also much more rewarding, challenging, freeing, and authentic than I would have ever dreamed. yep, brands should be actively targeting influencers in social media, but not as a brand to influencer model, but a person to person model. most brands are in too much of a hurry to build those connections the slow wayI’m sure glad I work for one that does.
Jan 29, 2011
While I do agree that reaching out to influencers can be effective, I think it’s important not to underestimate the public’s nose for detecting sponsored material. Categories like entertainment and dining are far less likely to be sniffed out as promoted because those are things influencers commonly tweet about of their own volition. If, on the other hand, I read a tweet from Guy Kawasaki about how he prefers to wipe his nose with Kleenex brand tissues, the jig is pretty much up. As with any media, it’s a matter of the product selecting the proper vehicle. It’s important to also bear in mind that when we begin to warp the information that people get from those they consider peers or friends, we’re creating adverse brand relationships with those who are able to sniff out paid media in the arena of earned media. The more ham-handed the tactic, the less effective the advertising. Same as it’s always been.
Jan 29, 2011
But aren’t you kind of bribing someone if you give them something free to try out?You do know people are going to be predisposed to be saying something nice about something if they’ve received it as a gift?And what’s better about a person tweeting ‘Hmm, I tried X brand of hand cream and wasn’t it marvelous’, compared to Liz Hurley doing that because she does other work for L’Oreal, or whoever? There’s a big difference between you talking up Apple because you like their stuff that you bought and you talking up Apple stuff because they gave it to you for free. Of course we listen to friends in our network recommending books or networks. But would be respect those views as much if we knew they were getting freebies because they’re seen as influencers and expected to say nice things?
Jan 29, 2011
JimI think the difference here is when someone gets a freebie and is honest in things they liked and did not like about it. If you got a ton of freebies and you loved every single one, all aspects, etc then we would start questioning you review or maybe even start ignoring. We will be able to see/hear through your words if you really liked it or if it was ok and you are faking the love. We are exposed to some sort of influence constantly. The magazine covers at the checkout has some enticing headline with a celebrity (generally). We look at the clothes they have on and are wondering where they got it. Influenced. When the entertainment gossip shows get footage of a celebrity leaving a bar or restaurant, there is the group that has to go there as this person was there. The restaurant/bar did not pay the celebrity to come there (sometimes they do) but they are the benefactor of the influence because the celebrity was there. Paid endorsements like we see on tv are sometimes a tough sell. Make-up- does anyone really believe that these women are using cover girl? Really? I think with these endorsements people are more looking at the celebrities they get to pitch and equating that to a strong brand as celebrities will not just throw themselves at a brand and not that the person is using it. Same with haircolor. Influence is every where. We do not always see it so directly.
Jan 30, 2011
First of all, thanks for your comments. One thing you each touched on was the idea that the practice of targeting influencers is somehow inauthentic or unethical. I don’t think so. I think it’s up to the influencer to decide whether to say anything in their streams. Brands try to influence you all day long with messaging. Why do people wear jackets with North Face on them? Because they really enjoy helping North Face sell more jackets? No, because North Face doesn’t sell jackets unless you agree to be a billboard for them. It’s part of the unwritten contract between you and the brand. It’s not unlike how you use Facebook or Twitter. These are free platforms that you agree to use if you give them your data to use for their own benefit. Sure, Twitter hasn’t exactly figured out how to capitalize on this data yet (mostly because they don’t mine like Facebook does), but rest assured – giving that data (aka gold) away for free is a tradeoff you make when you use the service. With North Face, you actually PAY the brand to wear their billboard. Just to stay warm. What’s more valuable, warmth or connectivity? One costs money, the other is free. Sort of. Anyway, If Brand A decides to forego their 20 million dollar media buy for a year and instead decided to give product away to people who may or may not promote them via WOM, it’s a gamble that may end up paying off in the long run. All we have now is traditional mediums to gauge whether our outward communications (marketing) works. There is no other real model out there. Sure, there are emerging models that are surfacing, but it will be decades before big brands start pointing at alternative means of marketing as viable. Eventually, I believe, the idea of giving stuff away with the goal of spreading positive WOM relies on two things:1) A quality product (or service) worthy of spreading WOM, and 2) Proper filtering of influencers who will help expedite WOM.Again, there are no guarantees that anyone will ever spread any news about these brands. And there should NOT be any conditions in place that people MUST tweets or status their experiences. Which brings us back to the primary reason this thing could work – Authenticity. If the influencers remain corruption free, and they remain authentic to their constituency (network) then if they choose to tell people that ‘Snuggie sent me a Snuggie and even though I was skeptical, it really does work’ – this is WOM Gold. Only, it’s way, way unmeasurable. And that one fact alone might be reason enough for brands to shy away from his marketing tactic.This is 2011. There’s no way we as consumers can have access to all the cool new stuff coming online. As I mention above, social media doesn’t *just* allow for people to connect to people, but for brands to connect to people as well. There’s nothing wrong with brands targeting influencers. It’s just a new concept that we’d have to get used to. And change like that isn’t easy. But it all starts with dialogue.Thanks for the dialogue.
Feb 4, 2011
My novel – Minor King
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