The Rise of the Digital Influencers and why brands must listen up

By / August 3, 2012




Brian Solis is the author of the new book, The End of Business as Usual. He is also a principal analyst at Altimeter Group. AT&T has sponsored the following blog post.

It seems that everywhere you go the subject of digital influence always finds its way into conversations. It’s a deeply personal subject and one that affects us as human beings who live more and more online and also as business professionals trying to reach people like us.  Let’s get something out of the way. Digital influence is important if not critical to your business…perhaps more than we realize at this moment. Starting with Klout and now expanding to a full universe of tools and services including Peer Index and Kred, the state of digital influence can be measured. To what extent or effectiveness is under debate. But nonetheless, understanding influence and how it affects your business is more important than ever before.

For years, I’ve studied the art and science of digital influence.  In recent months, I published an in-depth review of cause and effect online and this new crop of tools that purportedly measure influence in a report entitled, “The Rise of Digital Influence.”  After all this time I’ve learned that not only do digital conversations and experiences affect impressions and decisions, but everyday individuals are also earning notable positions of stature within their circles of trust. Online, these “trust zones” are better known as social networks or social graphs. You have them. I have them. We form these circles of relationships with people we know or follow and they have become whether we realize it or not, the new Consumer Reports. Shared experiences on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, Yelp, et al. become a currency in a vibrant peer-to-peer or people-to-people economy. And here trust is earned, tested, and documented over time.

Let’s take a step back for a moment to ask and answer an important question. What am I talking about? Well, it’s about how what other people say and do affects us whether in the moment or over time. Digital influence is an online form of real world influence where the ability to cause effect or change behavior is possessed by certain individuals or groups. In one such application, understanding what digital influence is and how it works allows for brands to market products in networks of people who might not otherwise see traditional advertisements or campaigns.

Who are these so-called influencers? In social media, these influencers could be you and me. Of course, there are individuals who have earned a reputation for consistently sharing interesting information or experiences on any given topic. Or, there are those who become popular online because they for various reasons are entertaining or educational to follow. Then are those who simply share similar experiences by coincidence or by design to the point where those who appear to be doing or buying the same thing surround us. For example, there was a time when I’m sure you couldn’t log on to Facebook without seeing someone talk about buying or wanting to buy an iPhone.

The study of digital influence seeks to better understand how information is exchanged and the impact it has along the way. In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book “The Tipping Point” that social trends could be sourced to uber-influencers that he referred to as the “The Law of the Few.” As he wrote, “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.”

Recently, Duncan Watts, a former Columbia professor and a principal research scientist at Microsoft Research, argued that unlike Gladwell’s findings, people influence behavior en masse. Rather than information passing mainly through “hubs” or highly connected people, reach is often linked to the “pass-around power of everyday people.”

In an Advertising Age report, “How Content is Really Shared: Close Friends not ‘Influencers’,” researchers found that information was passed through millions who share in small networks. In this case, BuzzFeed and StumbleUpon looked at the 50 top stories shared on Facebook and Twitter and found that the numbers aren’t as great as you might think. On Facebook the ratio of sharing was 9 to 1 and on Twitter, it was only 5 to 1.

 

That’s not insignificant however.  In traditional marketing, the idea was to reach as many people as possible. If you ran a TV or newspaper advertisement, what you are essentially buying is the ability to reach a great audience using a one-to-many formula. In relationship marketing, such as email newsletters for instance, the goal was to reach consumers one-to-one hoping that individual engagement would have a mass effect. With digital influence, businesses can theoretically reach wider audiences of connected people through conversations or explicit sharing where information spreads in a one-to-one-to-many process.

In my work and research, I’ve learned that influence can happen in both cases. This is important to you because as a business, leaving marketing or word-of-mouth to “chance” isn’t well worth your time or investment. But, by design, engagement with the right people, usually with the right few and the right many, word-of-mouth can indeed go viral, however you may define it.

This is a complicated subject, but it’s not above you. To help, Crowdtap, a company that helps businesses run influence marketing initiatives, published a friendly infographic and accompanying reportto visualize the impact of digital word-of-mouth. I dissected the graphic to zero-in on why following this article, you should learn more about how influence can help your marketing, branding and sales efforts.
Here, Crowdtap polled 1,000 people to share how they were influenced to make a purchase in the last three months. Not surprisingly but certainly revealing, 92 percent claimed that they were influenced by people that they know. Have you ever posted or read a review of a product or business online? You’re not alone. 70 percent stated that shared opinions online affected purchase decisions.
To break it down a bit more, Crowdtap looked at the each medium. This is helpful because it gives us insight into where we may want to prioritize future marketing efforts. Of the 1,000 surveyed, 70 percent were influenced online. In second at 61%, word-of-mouth was still at the top, but in a different form; either in person or by phone. Third, which to me can still be linked to word-of-mouth, 59 percent reading an article online influenced 59 percent of consumer purchases. Think about the growing role blogs, reviews, and YouTube videos will play here.





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