Opinion leaders have always been a subject of interest for marketers who hope to build awareness and credibility for their brands.
Whether it is Oprah Winfrey, the editors of Vogue, or a successful blogger, earning the recommendation of a third-party with an established audience is a well-known route to building brands.
More recently, however, some marketers have been extolling the value of catching the eye of another kind of “influencer.” These seemingly average consumers lack any media platforms or measured audiences of their own. Yet they are thought to act as anonymous opinion leaders who wield outsized influence in shaping the choices of friends and colleagues who turn to them for advice. The iconic example of the influencers in the crowd is the East Village hipsters who began wearing Hush Puppies in the 1990s and may have helped spark a return to popular fashion for that dormant shoe brand.
Many consumer trends do spread by word of mouth, and in a break-out trend, there may indeed be some mouths that turn more heads than others. The problem, however, comes in assuming that you can identify a trend’s influencers in advance and target them for marketing. That was the warning in a speech given Friday to the Marketing Association of Columbia by Duncan Watts, the principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research and director of their Human Social Dynamics group.
Watts called the pursuit of unnamed influential consumers the “Holy Grail” of modern marketing and, much like the original grail, the object of an impossible quest. Based on recent scientific research into social networks and consumer influence, Watts raised several critiques, including:
“Influencers” are hard to define.
The term “influencer” is used interchangeably to describe mass media voices like Oprah, celebrity brand endorsers, and anonymous opinion leaders (three very different models of influence). Without being defined, the term becomes a catch-all for any fan of a well-liked brand.
Many different factors may give weight to an “influencer.”
A customer may wield influence due to their expertise in a subject, their gregarious personality, their ample network of relationships, or their social status. In different contexts and for different brands, almost anyone might become the “influencer” in a crowd.
Cognitive bias causes us to give too much weight to “influencers.”
We all remember how East Village hipsters started a craze for Hush Puppies; no one remembers the dozens of other fashions that hipsters adopted which never became popular with others.
Consumer influence may, in fact, spread more like a forest fire.
Small fires start in the wilderness every day. When one of them turns into a raging forest fire, the difference is not in the type of spark that ignited it, but in the conditions of the forest (recent drought, the density of fallen timber, angle of slopes, prevailing winds). Similarly, trends that spread quickly may do so because of broad conditions within customer networks that are receptive to the trend – not because of a special type of customers who were the first to adopt.
So is all hope lost for influencing customer networks?
Not necessarily. Watts and his colleagues continue to research the rich data on social influence now becoming available thanks to technologies like Twitter.
In the meantime, he advocates that marketers pursue a strategy of launching many ideas into the marketplace at once, measuring the response in networks carefully, and being ready to respond in real-time if one of your ideas starts to catch fire. Clothing retailer Zara, for example, makes no effort to divine what will be “the” color for each upcoming clothing season. Instead, Zara starts producing products in every color it can imagine, measures what catches on in its stores and uses its famously nimble supply chain to instantly shift gears and pump out more of that season’s hit.
As the availability of real-time customer data grows, more and more businesses may be able to follow Zara’s approach.
In the meantime, remember that customer advocates are a powerful driver for any brand. Just don’t base your strategy on thinking you can figure out in advance who your most influential customers will be.
Read the original piece on Columbia Business School’s Ideas and Insights blog.