Influence follows a digital path

The humble text message and other advances like Facebook have made word of mouth the gold standard for marketing, says Charles Vallance

Do you remember when you first had text? My first was back in 1996 on a train to Leeds. Interestingly, I remember my first text much better than my first email. I think this is because email replaced two things I rather liked and rather miss – the old fashioned letter and office memo.

Texts, on the other hand, provided me with a new form of communication that replaced nothing I would miss, at the same time as furnishing me with a new way of whiling away the time in meetings and on train journeys.

At the time, sending a text was quite exotic, something that only few did or even knew of (only a fifth of people had a mobile, and many of those were locked away in glove compartments). Network interoperability had yet to arrive so, although I could talk to someone on another network, I couldn’t text them.

Five years later texting was as prevalent as buying a newspaper. Looking back, it’s one of the few times I’ve been there at a tipping point. In fact, it was more of a tipping iceberg. The years 1995 to 2000 may well be looked back on as the time when the third great revolution in modern social development hit its stride.

Just as the agrarian revolution changed forever the way we produce and consume food, just as the industrial revolution changed forever the way we produce and consume goods, the digital revolution has changed forever how we produce and consume information.

And because it has done that, it has also changed forever the way we are influenced. The advent, and mass adoption, of the new connectivity technologies that have swept us along since 1995 (email, home PCs, mobile, text, broadband, pda, epg, blog, 3G, Wi-Fi, Wiki, laptop, aggregation, Blackberry, RSS, search…) have utterly changed not just the transmission of influence, but the nature of influence itself.

It has created a whole new landscape of interactions and collective possibilities, not to mention a whole new world of brands – from Google to eBay to Facebook and Amazon. It has revolutionised markets and, above all, it has cemented an irreversible shift in the overall balance of power from the supply side to the demand side.

Never before has the consumer been more informed, more empowered, more in control. As a result, we have seen the irresistible rise of one metric above all others – word of mouth. Whether we track it as advocacy, recommendation, net promoter score, this is now the gold standard for marketing.

What really counts these days isn’t what we say to people. Instead, as Lord Tim Bell famously puts it: “It’s what they say about you when you’re not in the room.”

This devolution of influence is epoch defining, and is nowhere better illustrated than in the result of the Democratic primaries in the US. Barack Obama’s victory will go down in history not because of the remarkable nature of the outcome, but because of the remarkable manner in which the outcome was achieved. Come November, we may well be witnessing the election not just of the first black president, but also the first Long Tail president.

Obama’s victory would have been impossible ten years ago because it would have been technologically impossible to develop anything like the amount of influence on which his campaign has relied.

The facts of the matter are extraordinary. In January 2008, when he was still very much the outsider, he raised $32m (87% of it online). In the same month, Hillary Clinton raised $13.5m, despite the formidable power of the political machine at her disposal. Of course, she had the wrong machine, because it belonged to the top down politics of the industrial age. Her problem, ironically, was that her average donation was so high ($2,300), Obama’s triumph was that his average donation was so low ($45).

And just as the devolution of influence is changing the way we decide to vote, it is also changing the way we make more everyday decisions. It has profound consequences for categories that have traditionally had long decision-making processes. This has huge implications in terms of the role of different media, particularly point of sale, and the frequency delivered by media schedules. vCharles Vallance is a founding partner at VCCP

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