18th July 2007

Influencing Influencers: Is online influence real?

I’m too slow getting back to this…

In May, Bill Johnston blogged a response to an article in Information week and suggested they should have talked to me as well - thanks for the compliment Bill.  I put this on my "to-blog" list and just didn’t get back to it.  Here’s the original article in IW, titled "Online Influencers: How The New Opinion Leaders Drive Buzz On The Web." 

I had forgotten about the article.  The irony is when I did go back to it, I re-discovered that the story quoted (among others), Dave Balter, Ed Keller, and Ben McConnell - all of whom I’ve had the chance to talk to and learn from the past month.  It also brings in some research by Duncan Watts, published in HBR, that concludes:

Understanding that trends in public opinion are driven not by a few influentials influencing everyone else but by many easily influenced people influencing one another should change how companies incorporate social influence into their marketing campaigns. Because the ultimate impact of any individual–highly influential or not–depends on decisions made by people one, two, or more steps away from her or him, word-of-mouth marketing strategies shouldn’t focus on finding supposed influentials. Rather, marketing dollars might better be directed toward helping large numbers of ordinary people–possibly with Web-based social networking tools–to reach and influence others just like them.

The article introduces debate on the true influence of influencers or opinion leaders in the blogosphere.  I think this is actually quite a good article that gets at some of the real issues underlying successful influencer program development.  Way to much thought leadership on the topic of online influencers is focused on the value proposition of marketing and/or buzz generation.  As I introduced in my post about community ROI, companies should invest in community and influentials not just for marketing benefit, but because it can change how you support and how you build products and services.  In fact, I believe it can be detrimental to a brand to overly focus on just the marketing/viral side of the story.  These initiatives need to work in concert as part of a business transformation, not stand on their own. 

There are two generic methods of generating positive buzz / Word of Mouth.  First off is a combination of serendipity and trial & error.  The second is as a by-product of systematically supporting, listening to and engaging with your users through communities.  Both are valid strategies I would endorse, but #1 takes some patience and an acceptance that batting averages are never 1.000.  The second method takes a more persistent, long term view of transforming how you connect and engage with your users.  It requires changes in business processes.  It may require changes in policies.  That said, done in a consistent, systematic and long term fashion it is a near guarantee.  Where you may be disappointed is that all your competitors are either doing this already or will do it as well.  You may have some advantage to be a first / fast mover, but in the end, I’d argue not doing this is a going-out-of-business model in the new media era. 

oh…and obviously, if you can hit on both #1 and #2, they are catalysts for each other.

Had I responded to this article a few months ago, I think my view would be different than it is today as I was rigid (and too simplistic) in my support of the two-step flow of communicationThe reality today is that those who are raving fans of the influencer effect and those that are dissenters of the model, are both wrong (and both right).  Taken in one dimension (marketing), the evidence of the revenue effect of influencer driven models is easier to disprove than prove (I’m with Duncan).  It’s only in taking a more holistic view of the influencer effect on a company (across support, product feedback/research, and marketing/buzz) can you truly evaluate the impacts of the influencer model.  I haven’t seen that study done yet, but my own experience running an influencer program that impacts all 3 pillars suggests that this is a very different way to evaluate the model.  None of this runs counter to the wisdom of Word of Mouth, it just means that in practice, things get a little more complex if you want to think about the opportunity end to end.

Interesting how research is often confined in the same ways that organizational structures are - hey marketing, go talk to support! (vice verse - and while your at it, invite product planning!)


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 18th, 2007 at 11:36 am and is filed under Business Strategy, Influencers, web 2.0. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. 1 On July 19th, 2007, Chuck Boyce said:

    Cool stuff.

    I have been greatly aided by those who would be identified as “influentials” and I was greatly shocked when I started a user group back in Philadelphia to have been identified as one myself a few years ago. It’s been a long strange trip being identified as an influential, but I still look at the dynamics of what happens in community (online or offline) through a historical perspective: Ben Franklin’s junto).

    To me, what Ben established with his junto is still today what community is really all about. People need each other to get better and improve and everyone benefits. Enlightened companies who see this dynamic occuring around their technologies will foster its growth.

    Executive Producer, ASKaSQLGURU.com

  2. 2 On August 6th, 2007, Mobile Technology in TAFE » Blog Archive » 8 Random Facts said:

    […] do not be offended if I do/don’t tag you. I tag Sean, Lee (I really love this post), Kathryn, Gabriela, Con, Vicki, Judy, […]

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