Scientist Questions Influence of Influencers
By Tom Ryan
Duncan Watts, research scientist with Yahoo and former Columbia
University professor, believes brand campaigns targeting "influencers" would
do just as well targeting a random group of consumers. Although influencers
may matter, not enough research is being done to find out who those influencers
"Everyone thinks they know what an influencer is and
everyone thinks they know why they matter, but everybody thinks something
different," Prof. Watts told Brandweek in an interview. "Is
an influencer the hipsters in the East Village or Oprah Winfrey? What makes
Oprah influential is very different from what makes the hipster in the
East Village influential. And so by failing to differentiate carefully
between all these different types of influencers you really undermine the
ability of the theory to say anything predictive."
Prof. Watts, once called the anti-Malcolm Gladwell in a New
York Times article, said that successful product breakouts are often
linked to influencers in hindsight through "simple intuitive models." But
he said breakouts are "highly unpredictable" and similar circumstances
rarely lead to similar results.
"Just because the hipsters in the East Village were wearing
Hush Puppies and suddenly everyone else started wearing them doesn’t mean
that you can go out and get the hipsters in the East Village to wear your
product and it will be popular,"
said Prof. Watts. "To put it another way: Hipsters in the East Village
are wearing stuff all the time and it doesn’t always become popular."
He calls for more scientific research, such as pitting potential
influencers against control groups. For example, while it’s
often assumed that the popular kids in school are the biggest influencers,
it may be the kids that are most into music or technology. Or it may be
the unpopular kids with friends across many groups who spread the most
As it works now, the influencer theory acts like "more
of a rhetorical device than a theory" he argued. If a breakout occurs,
influencers were successfully reached. If it doesn’t, influencers weren’t
reached or didn’t help for some reason. Prof. Watts said if it turns out
that marketers are better off seeding randomly, time and effort would be
"The irony I think is that targeting ordinary people
is probably what marketers are doing and if something takes off they say,
‘Oh, we reached the influencers,’" said Mr. Watts. "So it’s one
of these impossible-to-falsify theories because who you identify as an influencer
is always after the fact."
Discussion Questions: Are too many assumptions
being made in campaigns aimed at influencers? Is much more scientific
research required to better define influencers?