Targeting Influencers Is Bogus, Except When It’s Not

In the soft and squishy science that is marketing, it doesn’t take much to declare a trend. My own rule of thumb is to say that two seemingly related data points drifting past me in the cultural flotsam within one week of each other are enough to declare a full-blown Mega-Trend. And so I declare the trend of Influencer Demystification, whereby we marketers finally admit that we have glutted ourselves on an idea that, while tasty and filling, may be half-baked, and is therefore causing some gastrointestinal distress. I refer to the idea that mass marketing has now been replaced by the much more refined business of targeting key influencers.

The two data points that drifted past me (actually they were sent by colleagues who are more diligent than I am about watching the data stream) are the Harvard Business School study Do Friends Influence Purchases in a Social Network, and Brandweek’s interview with a research scientist on the Yahoo! payroll, amusingly titled “Scientist: Influencer Theory is Bogus” (well, as long as a scientist said so).

Both of these studies belong to the time-honored genre, Simmer Down Now, Marketers, in which we marketers take jibes at each other over how mistakenly excited we got about something. As a native Midwesterner, I’m genetically disposed to feeling that everyone needs to simmer down all the time, so I like this genre.

To summarize their respective arguments: the Harvard study showed that users on social networks fall into three categories in terms of how easily they’re influenced: The low-status group members (48%) aren’t heavy networkers and are not easily influenced. The high-status group members (12%) are super-connected and actually respond negatively to influence. But the soft creamy center, the middle-status group (40%), is moderately well-connected and shows a strong propensity to influence and to be influenced.

This cranky research scientist at Yahoo! is, by contrast, pretending to throw cold water on the whole concept of influence, claiming it lacks empirical data, but ultimately he’s promoting Yahoo!’s own set of empirical data–soon to be productized, no doubt–that shows that “the network attribute that was conducive to diffusion [of social influence] is: Easily influenced people influencing other easily influenced people” (emphasis mine). Hey, same conclusion as the Harvard study, just one week later! How ‘bout that!

I think this points to a very interesting idea: we get all worked up about finding the “alpha,” the uber-influencer who decides what’s cool for everybody else. But to the extent that these alphas exist, they’re not easily persuaded (indeed, perhaps negatively persuaded) by our marketing messages. But that soft, creamy center looks very appealing. The people in the center care about their status, and they work hard at staying current and connected. They easily flip roles between influencer and influenced within a single transaction: somebody sends them a funny video, and they send it on, pleased to be the “alpha” within their own network for people who hadn’t seen the video yet.

And that’s how the alpha thing really works. We’re not operating within one vast network of coolness here, where a bunch of permanent alphas define things for the rest of us: we as marketers are talking to a vast number of ever-shifting micro-communities of mutual influence, trying to get the message to the people most likely to care about it and pass it on. That target shifts with every product and every network, but defining the target in terms of connectedness is a good place to start. If you want to influence tea purchase, you target people who like tea and are moderately connected. Am I missing something about how the difficulty of doing this? Let me know.

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