18th November 2007

Influencer Marketing: An Oxymoron?

I recently found myself in a roomful of Brand marketers, Agencies and Boutique consultancies discussing the growing authority of influencers.  As social media has amped and marketing eyes a mixshift of investments to new media and Word of Mouth, the importance and debate around the role of Influencers has exploded. 

Just last week, Ad Age reported on research by PQ media that Word of Mouth Marketing crossed $1B in 2006…up from $76M 5 years earlier, in route to $3.7B by 2011. 

…in 2006, according to an independent research report on the field that will be unveiled during a session at the annual Word Of Mouth Marketing Association conference in Las Vegas today. The analysis, believed to be first in-depth look at word of mouth, reports that spending on the emerging discipline has increased from $76 million in 2001 to $981 million in 2006 and is expected to grow to approximately $3.7 billion by 2011.

These influencer conversations generally fall into a couple of buckets:

  • Data and examples designed to convince you that Influencers matter
  • How to find and "activate" them in the brand conversation
  • How to measure

I find myself invited to participate in a lot of these discussions as I have pretty strong views on the topic after 5 years of building one of the largest Influencer programs (www.microsoft.com/mvp).  Probably more important than the strong views, is the practical lessons learned from operationalizing a global program designed to find, thank and engage influencers both online and offline.  Like most things, the best way to learn about something is to go and personally engage in it.  I estimate that I’ve talked to over 3000 influencers of our brands from over 50 countries during the past few years. 

So, back to the conversation at the conference…As we sat in the room having the discussion, several people used the term "Influencer Marketing."  Each time I heard it, I cringed.  Something about this phrase seemed wrong.  In the moment, I couldn’t articulate why this phrase dug so deep, but by my afternoon presentation I had to discuss this topic.  I like to keep the following core assumption in mind:  Influencers don’t do what they do in order to help you (the brand)…they do what they do to help other users.  Forgetting this core point is probably the fastest path to a failed influencer initiative.  The term "Influencer Marketing" to me feels like it is attempting to get a direct response from an influencer.  Find the right people, tell them about "A" and they will go tell everyone about "A."  In my experience, it just doesn’t work this way.  There are a few "influencers" with whom this works - but they rarely influence much or sustain over the long term - they may just be loud.  Perhaps my issue with this is that most marketing feels very one way.  If you really want to get influencers talking, it’s about a two way, trust based conversation. 

Wrong model (marketing dream):  I tell you about "A," you tell everyone you know about "A"

Right model:  I tell you about "A," you tell me about "A1, B and C."  I listen, I make some changes or I don’t make changes but I tell you why.  This creates outbound conversation - but it’s a by-product of a relationship, not a channel for push communications.

In truth there probably isn’t anything wrong with the term itself.  There are influencers and brands will invariably market to them - and that’s not evil.  What might be "evil" is thinking there is a shortcut here - forgetting that this really only works when social media is creating a conversation between a brand and the users…and remember, "listening is not just waiting for your turn to talk!"

And finally, the right model makes another strong point - that the conversation isn’t just between your influencers and the marketing department - it’s the influencers and your company - cross functions.


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This entry was posted on Sunday, November 18th, 2007 at 11:14 am and is filed under Business Strategy, Influencers, MVP, Microsoft, Social Media, Voice of Customer, 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.

There are currently 7 responses to “Influencer Marketing: An Oxymoron?”

Why not let us know what you think by adding your own comment! Your opinion is as valid as anyone elses, so come on... let us know what you think.

  1. 1 On November 18th, 2007, Kip Kniskern said:

    Influencers influence whether “social media is creating a conversation” or not. Real model: “I tell you about A: you cut through the crap and tell others about the real value of A (positive or negative)”. Perhaps your “right model” can help to minimize the “crap”, refine the message, and improve not only the product but the community. However if the product is good, influencers will provide their service regardless of any interaction with either marketing or the producer. Can influencers be nurtured? Of course. Can influencers be coerced into shilling for products they don’t believe in? Not ever.
    As you allude to, influencers “work for” the users, not the producers. The real “wrong model” is to think otherwise. While the conversation between influencers and the company may be important to the company, it is almost immaterial to the real conversation; the one between the influencers and the users.

  2. 2 On November 19th, 2007, Tom O'Brien said:

    Hi Sean:

    I think Kip has it just right above. Influencers work for their peers. They don’t work for the producers. It is a very fine line for an influencer to collaborate with a producer, and often results in their shunning by the peer group.

    The powerful conversations going on in forums, newsgroups and blogs happen within a social construct of authority, authenticity and trust. Influence is built over time (sometimes years) and is cautiously guarded as the valuable asset it is.

    Best way to influence the influencers is to design stuff they love. Give them what they want. (Which is most likely revealed in the conversations.)

    This is a critical dimension for marketers to understand.

    Tom O’Brien

  3. 3 On November 19th, 2007, Sean spells out part of myITforum.com's success - Rod Trent at myITforum.com said:

    […] spells out part of myITforum.com’s success He makes some good points about slow-and-steady word-of-mouth marketing. […]

  4. 4 On November 19th, 2007, Filiberto Selvas said:

    I guess I read Sean’s post in a different way than Kip and Tom above (though I agree with the base points they express); I read Sean’s post as a warning for companies moving into this space feeling it could be a pure manipulative and no skin in the game play.. they (we) need to know that in order to reap the value they (we) need to be willing to listen, and change.

  5. 5 On November 20th, 2007, John Bell said:

    We are all still looking for language to describe the relationship-based work involved in word of mouth. Could it be ‘relationship marketing?’ Then you run into unflattering comparisions with old-school CRM. Or you cringe at the association of ‘relationship’ which we like and ‘marketing’ which can often be abused. ‘Influencer marketing’ is subject to th same misunderstanding as any term we might use. I see it as Sean’s “Right Model” - that’s what my team does. If it were as easy as the wrong model - just alert high-traffic bloggers about new tea flavor and watch them go wild - then we wouldn’t be in business.

    Too many brand marketers think word of mouth engagement is as easy as the wrong model. Sean’s point is clear - influencers want to help peers (and sometimes themselves) and are not lying in wait to serve the brand. We have to be willing to be ‘of-use’ to them and respect their contribution.

    An undertone of Sean’s original post is clear - he and his team are the proud stewards of a substantial community that took an awful lot of work and discipline to grow to this point. It didn’t happen overnight.

  6. 6 On November 20th, 2007, Ryan said:

    On the agency side of things, we deal with the “shortcut” mentality all the time. Someone publishes a report about the importance of WOM and influencers, someone else creates a turnkey technological solution to identify them, and the next thing you know, brilliant brands act like silly teenagers vying for a date with the popular kid. “If we just flatter them enough, they’ll go out with us….”

    Thanks, Sean, for: “Influencers don’t do what they do in order to help you (the brand)…they do what they do to help other users.”

    That’s a heck of a great insight. I’ll use it (and give you wisdom credit).

  7. 7 On November 20th, 2007, Sean said:

    Wow…this is a lot of great dialog from all of you…thanks for contributing here! It feels like we all have the same basic view and fears about brands/suppliers doing it the wrong way. I definately appreciate the comments as it helps me think about ways to even better express the overall points. Thanks for the contributions!


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