Questioning the Power of the Influencer

First published October 2, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Word of mouth is powerful in marketing. In the last two weeks, we’ve seen how the opinions of others can cause us to change our own beliefs to match. We’ve also seen how the speed at which the word spreads is a function not only of the structure of the network itself, but also the value of the message and its impact on the people in the network, as well as how much they stand to gain (or lose) by spreading the word.

Influencers: Our Connection to Opinion?

In the world of marketing, one of the most cherished concepts has been the idea of an influencer or opinion leader, the super-connected individual who acts as a hub in an information cascade, rapidly disseminating the idea to many. According to this theory, most of us (90%) play relatively passive roles in information cascades, meekly accepting the opinions of these influencers and following the herd. Katz and Lazarsfeld introduced the two-step influencer model in the middle of the last century, showing how media first influences these influencers, or opinion leaders, who then act as a conduit and “infection agent” for the greater population.

It’s Not the Influencer, It’s Our Willingness to be Influenced

For the past 6 decades, marketers have allocated a lot of effort in reaching these influencers, assuming that once you capture the influencers, you capture the entire market. The assumption was that information cascades depended on these influential hubs. Malcolm Gladwell’s “TheTipping Point” brought this phenomenon to popular attention.

In the past few years, a number of researchers, including Duncan Watts from Columbia University, have questioned the impact of influencers on information cascades. They’ve created several network models which have shown that in most cases, ordinary individuals are all that’s required to trigger a word-of-mouth cascade. We are not merely sheep following the herd. We are all influencers in our own right, but only when we feel strongly about something. The necessary ingredient is not a hyper-connected influencer or super trend-setter, but rather a group of people willing to be influenced.

Passion by Word of Mouth

Which brings us to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” When promoting the film, Gibson knew the most receptive audience would be church-goers. So he arranged for private screenings and the distribution of free tickets in churches throughout North America. We had Watts’ ideal model, a low variance network (similar levels of influence) that shared a vulnerability to influence, given the nature of the message. Word spread quickly before the launch of the movie (which also resulted in a firestorm of controversy), making “The Passion of the Christ” one of the most successful movies of 2004.

This example also leads us to a possible error in analysis of information cascades that has perpetuated the “influencer” theory. It’s relatively easy, when looking in hindsight, to make the assumption that if a cascade happened, the individuals at the beginning of the cascade had to be unique in their ability to influence others. A proponent of the Influentials Theory could look at the example of “The Passion of the Christ” and say that it was the pastors and ministers of the selected screening churches that acted as the influencers, spreading the word to their congregations.

But Watts’ theory offers an alternate explanation. The everyday, commonly connected members of the audience were willing to be influenced, and once captured by the message, went and spread it within their other social groups. It was the willingness to be influenced that was the critical factor. To use the analogy provided by Watts in his paper, assuming some unique level of influence by the catalysts of a cascade is like assuming that the first trees to burn in a forest fire are somehow able to spread flames farther than other trees. Often, the fact that the tree was combustible in the first place is overlooked.

Starting a Brand Fire

So, when we talk about brand, what makes a tree ready to catch on fire? Here we have another important insight from Watts’ work. Too many marketers make the assumption that influencers are the critical component of success. Proctor and Gamble has made influencer marketing a cornerstone of its strategy. But the fact is, if “The Passion of the Christ” was an unremarkable movie that audiences couldn’t connect with, all the influencers in the world wouldn’t have caused the word to spread. It was a powerful message connecting with an audience primed to accept it.

Watts’ models show that the success of a cascade depends on the vulnerability to influence. If that is present, ordinary individuals can cause the word to spread as far and just as quickly as hyper-connected influencers. And the vulnerability to be influenced, the “combustibility” of the audience, depends on many factors, perhaps the most important of which is the back story of the brand.

The Combustible iPhone

Look at what has been one of the most successful cascades of recent times: the Apple iPhone. The iPhone is a tremendously combustible product. It’s not technology mavens causing the word to spread (although they do have influence. Watts is quick to point out that they have impact, but it may not as disproportionally large as everyone believes), it’s the person sitting next to you on the plane who says she loves it. And we’re receptive to that message because we have that magic connection of brand (Apple makes cool products) and a remarkable product. We’re ready to be set on fire.

I’ve spent the last few columns detailing the aspects of word of mouth because they have a tremendous impact on brand and how we create our own brand beliefs. And it’s these brand beliefs that are triggered when we interact with search results. Next week, we return to more familiar territory and see how this interaction plays out.

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