Scientist Questions Influence of Influencers

Discussion
Jun 22, 2009
Tom Ryan

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
are.

"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
influence.

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
saved.

"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?

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16 Comments on "Scientist Questions Influence of Influencers"


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Dick Seesel
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

Mr. Watts paints the “influencer” theory with such a broad brush that his own theory needs to be questioned just as sharply. He may be trying to be provocative but needs to back up his premise with more facts.

As with any ideas about consumer behavior, there are nuances and subjective factors to be considered…most importantly, what kind of product is being marketed? Surely there is a lot of evidence that many new tech products benefit from the identification of “early adapters” and “influencers” before a mass rollout.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

A couple of notes here. First, professional “hipsters’ in the East Village don’t stay “hip” very long. Jack Kerouac, the original hipster idol ended up first denouncing beats, then hippies and ended up as a drunken anti-semitic flag waver. In fact, nothing turns the truly hip off faster than seeing their role models turned into spokespeople.

Next, there is an assumption that hipsters are causing change rather than being the canary in the cave to change.

There’s also the fact that the mass-market incarnation of a trend rarely looks like the version the hipsters adopt.

Finally, how many of you are still wearing those Hush Puppies Malcolm made his name with?

Marc Gordon
Guest
Marc Gordon
11 years 10 months ago

One of the best articles you guys have posted.

The truth is that as much as marketers would like to quantify and formulate the very process of marketing, at the end of the day it’s still just about getting people to like what you’re about.

And we all know that people will not like something just because they’re told to.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
11 years 10 months ago

Well, I definitely agree that more research is needed, and that more rigor should be applied before more money is thrown at it. It is easy to see the evolution of a trend in hindsight, but that doesn’t necessarily help you predict the next breakout.

I think the biggest trap in marketing is thinking that you are your target market, and so therefore what you like is representative of what the target market likes. The concept of influencers is this exact concept, transferred to another group of people. A soccer mom in Kansas is not representative of all soccer moms. And just because she might happen to blog, does not necessarily an influencer make.

And to make matters more complicated, there’s the whole line of influencer vs. pusher. Even assuming that the influencer model works, successfully translating that into product promotion has hardly been perfected.

Joan Treistman
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

Richard is quite right. I have done work with the “influentials,” the 10% of the population that anticipates attitudes and behavior of the remaining 90%. And what I learned is that the category and product matter. It’s just common sense that products that appeal to one segment of the population might not work for another.

Can it be true that marketers are still looking for the Holy Grail and a strategy where one size fits all?

Phil Rubin
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

There is such a willingness on the part of marketers and business people in general to want to believe various theories, whether they are Gladwell’s or Watts’. Far too few question something commonly accepted as true, whether it is fact–or merely opinion-based. And of course, if it’s in a book, so much the better.

Influencer strategies are nothing new and used to be called referral programs (and still are in many places). Same with viral marketing, although people will argue that there are subtle and esoteric differences. The issue and opportunity here are to develop effective campaigns that get people to talk and take action that lead someone to actually buy something.

The reality is that consumer behavior is not so well understood that blanket strategies such as “influence the influencer” universally work. Professor Watts is absolutely right in that there needs to be proper testing and measurement done in order determine the viability of any strategy and link it to what ultimately matters: profits.

Bruce D. Sanders, Ph.D.
Guest
Bruce D. Sanders, Ph.D.
11 years 10 months ago

Although Duncan Watts may have been called the anti-Malcolm Gladwell, the two are much the same in one respect: They get us thinking by making extreme claims about something that in truth is a more nuanced reality. What Watts describes as his “network theory of diffusion” makes good sense. Yes, the extent to which innovations diffuse among people depends on the nature of the innovation, the nature of the relationships among the people, and much more.

But when Watts says that, because the model is so complex, we could do just as well to introduce innovations to random populations…that’s disingenuous. After all, he’s also making a case for experimental studies of the dynamics of the model, and robust experimental studies require experimental hypotheses at the start. When Watts says, “History is a very poor guide to the future,” that’s inaccurate. When he says that because we can’t predict with absolute accuracy which product introductions will work, this means we’re not doing better than chance, that’s silly.

Max Goldberg
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

I’d have to disagree with Mr. Watts. We have repeatedly seen that a small group of people can influence the choices of others. I’m not sure just how scientific this research can get.

Marketers will identify and then try to reach the influencers in a target demographic group. The influencers from group to group can vary widely, whether they are hipsters or Oprah. Both have influence within their domains.

This may be one of those topics that cannot be broken down and analyzed by researchers.

Ben Sprecher
Guest
Ben Sprecher
11 years 10 months ago
Clearly, consumer behavior is a complex, nuanced, and ever-shifting system. The problem with many of the theories floating around is when people try to treat them as proscriptive rather than descriptive. Just because you can trace a particular trend back to a particular group doesn’t mean that the group catalyzed the trend, nor does it mean the group is the right one to catalyze a new trend. We are a long way from having the data to back up either side of the debate. Shopper loyalty programs capture individuated sales data, and can sometimes be cross-referenced against real-world information about people (age, gender, income, etc.), but we have a long way to go before there’s any easy way to connect a person’s social graph on Facebook to their (and their friends’) cereal purchases at the grocery store. And even if the data existed, there are so many unknowns (such as a person’s offline activity, their shopping in other channels, etc.) that I can’t foresee any conclusive findings from the effort. So, how do you incorporate… Read more »
Dan Raftery
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

In this age of overexposed celebrities and scripted “reality” shows, we lose sight of the simple fact that everyone is an influencer. Neighbors talk about the restaurant they just experienced, the great deals they got at [fill in your store name here], etc.
And it is not just good news they are spreading. To paraphrase James Cash Penny, a satisfied customer may tell two or three people about their positive experience, but a dissatisfied customer will tell 25 people.

Sara Palin’s glasses were a fad. A successful long-term marketing strategy needs to built on more solid fundamentals.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

One individual is not an influence on all topics. Until the research is more specific and focused, the conclusions will not fit well.

Warren Thayer
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

63% of all “facts” about influencers are just made up.

Carol Spieckerman
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

All of this confirms the brilliance of Walmart’s (almost) singular focus on moms…a nice, broad group whose diversity is only exceded by its influence and spending power. Sometimes you don’t need to drill down much more than that in order to move the needle!

Mark Johnson
Guest
Mark Johnson
11 years 10 months ago

First off, Malcolm’s theories have great validity to them, yet to think that all of the precepts in his work such as “Tipping Point,” “Blink,” and “Outliers” are to be accepted without question is absurd.

We live in an era of very fragmented media, and although “Small is the new Big,” and we all want “Raving Fans,” or “Tribes” of followers, we need to make sure we are actively engaging and listening to our constituents, and the ability to listen to, assimilate, process and analyze multi perspectives is imperative in this “new media environment.”

Ivan W. Burwell
Guest
Ivan W. Burwell
11 years 10 months ago
A generation ago there was one sure way for a marketer to contact a large number of people who had the desire and money to purchase your product: The marketer produced a big, expensive television commercial and played it during a popular television event. Apple Computer did that on January 22, 1984 during Super Bowl XVII when they introduced the Macintosh via the iconic “1984” television commercial. The spot was great. The product was unique. The Apple name was a departure from its competitors and, therefore, already helped the company differentiate itself. Another way to reach people and increase sales was to run a nationwide radio campaign. Motel 6 did that starting in 1986 with the folksy Tom Bodett telling listeners that, “We’ll leave the light on for you,” in an effort to draw them to the chain’s clean, comfortable, low-priced rooms. Today, marketers can’t just throw money at a national advertising campaign with the expectation of hitting the right demographic and increasing sales. Back in the mid-’80s marketers could reach people via network or… Read more »
Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
11 years 10 months ago

The existence of influencers is beyond dispute–everyone knows one (if not more)–a person who seems to be “in the know” and has insight on the newest restaurants, newest technology, hottest neighborhoods, etc. The challenge is, “how do you influence the influencers?”

The same savvy awareness that influencers possess make that group terribly hard to target for marketing. Anything that smacks of falseness, of “slick” communications, is destined to fail miserably and could even backfire.

But treating those customers as Best Customers, providing them with recognition and access inside your company, can yield great benefits.

Influencers DO exist–that should not be disputed. Now, how to market to them? The best way is by NOT marketing to them, but bringing them into the fold and helping them achieve their own personal goals.

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