Influencer marketing has found itself center stage again in recent weeks with the provocative Fast Company article on research conducted by Duncan Watts while at Columbia University and now at Yahoo.
Watts investigated whether the influencer concept of a few leaders and a whole stack of followers really operated in practice. He sent out thousands of email invitations to individuals and then watched who connected with whom. He found that so-called “super-connectors” rarely existed and, when they did, who they were couldn't be predicted.
His summary was contrary to Ed Keller and Jon Berry's supposition in their pioneering book “The Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat and What to Buy”(Free Press, 2003), that one in 10 people influence almost every decision made by the other nine.
This portrays two diametrically opposed views—and ignores the common sense that the truth is almost certainly neither. Watts' research looks to analyze why “the tipping point” occurs. What sends one idea, product or value into overdrive, gaining mass exposure and/or adoption, when another, almost identical one is left all but ignored. This model may well apply in the consumer world where fashions and trends are impossible to manufacture with any certainty. In this space, there's no pressure on any of us to act rationally; and so we're free to follow others' thoughts on a whim. In the b2b marketplace, however, few buyers are allowed this luxury. Experience, evidence and demonstrable value all play major roles.
On a simple level, few would question that a person's boss at work typically has a greater influence on what they buy for their company than a junior employee reporting to them. So it's nonsensical to think that influence is random. It's a factor of position, credibility, independence, frequency of voice, closeness to the decision-maker and many other criteria. And, yes, luck or fate can play a part, too. But neither do we believe the “nine-in-10-people-are-sheep” view. Influence is frequently morphing from one source to another, and all of us play different roles in different decisions.
As we talk to companies throughout the U.S. and Europe, we see almost total acceptance that every day, behind-the-scenes influencers are affecting sales decisions worth billions of dollars. It's usually the sales force that has opened the eyes of the marketing team to this in the first place.
What's surprising is how limited is marketing's understanding of the role of these influencers. And when it comes to media outlets or industry analysts, most marketers believe they're already working with the key influencers. Maybe a decade ago that was the case; but today, those making buying decisions are being influenced by a far broader spread of individuals—most completely unknown to the vendor.
Nick Hayes is president of Influencer50 Inc. and co-author, with Duncan Brown, of “Influencer Marketing: Who Really Influences your Customers?” (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2008). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.