Everyone knows that if you’re marketing a funky new pair of trainers, the best thing to do is get a small group of trendsetters wearing them. You don’t need expensive celebrities, just the “right” people who have enough influential connections to other people to spread the word.
This theory has been the marketer’s mantra ever since Malcolm Gladwell published his seminal work on influence, The Tipping Point, back in 2000. He argued that there are three types of people influencing others: connectors, mavens and salesmen. These three groups all play roles in spreading a message to their peers and affecting their purchasing decisions.
Connectors are networkers who know lots of people and will communicate a message far and wide through word of mouth. Mavens are knowledgeable and not only consume information but share it with others; they are insightful. Salesmen are the people with charisma who use their influencing skills to persuade others.
Since Gladwell wrote about these archetypes, many other similar concepts have followed. Duncan Brown and Nick Hayes’ recent book Influencer Marketing puts forward a number of methods and case studies showing brands how to harness the power of the most influential consumers.
But are we all really connected by just a few people who can spread ideas or are we being sold nice ideas dressed up as facts? Duncan Watts, a network-theory scientist working for Yahoo! has been arguing for the past year that the theory of “influencers” is as insubstantial as idle chatter.
Watts has been analysing network patterns and discovered that the so-called highly connected few are not necessarily social hubs for the rest of us. His work – which is too complex to discuss fully here – suggests that the Average Joe is just as likely as the most funky creative type to kick off a trend.
Watts recently told Fast Company magazine how he re-ran the “Six Degrees of Separation” experiment, first undertaken in 1967, which has supported much of the later work on influencers. The original experiment gave 160 letters to people in Nebraska with the instruction to get them to a particular person in Boston by passing them to someone socially closer to the end recipient. It took around six links for each letter to arrive.
Gladwell used this Six Degrees experiment as evidence of connectors in The Tipping Point: the same three people provided the final link for nearly half the letters that arrived in Boston. These people were the “gatekeepers” or ultimate networkers, who could take trends and products out to a wider group of people.
Watts tested the Six Degrees theory on a massive scale. He asked 61,000 people recruited online to ferry messages to 18 people worldwide. Again, the connection chain turned out to be around six people but the idea of the “gatekeeper” didn’t come through. Just 5% of messages passed through these so-called “hubs”. Most connections just trickled in through individual relationships.
Watts’ problem with the influentials idea is that the concept looks at the issue from the wrong angle. In other words, worry less about creating influencers and more about why and how people get influenced. If people are prepared to be influenced, then it really doesn’t matter who’s doing it – the coolest, ultra-connected guy or the normal folks. Anyone can translate a trend to the masses if they’re prepared to be interested.
So whether you agree with Watts or not, there are some interesting lessons for brands that can be extracted:
– Don’t get carried away with identifying the “coolest” consumers. The idea works for brands that are pretty sexy anyway because people will want to talk about them and get their hands on them. But if you’re trying to get people to taste a new yoghurt, the influentials might not be the way forward. Think instead about the practical considerations: what would make people more willing to try my product? How do I reach those people?
– Don’t believe that you can control “buzz”. You cannot manufacture an outcome or predict what it will be. You need to get better at understanding, reacting to and measuring what is happening, not controlling it.
– “Influencers” are not one type, even within broad archetypes such as “mavens” or “connectors”. You cannot necessarily influence a market in the same way that you can affect individual people.
Above all, remember that theories are just that. On the one hand, you don’t have to buy into the whole “connectors” idea wholesale and on the other, Watts himself admits that some people can be inspiring. The best policy is to take a pinch of salt with everything and look for the small truths in all the different ideas that could work for you.