Tuesday, September 09, 2014

influencer theory is the wrong end of the stick

The idea that brands can pick out and target a small group of social media users with large 'followings' and then imagine that they will direct everyone else is still prevalent however this influencer theory is a myth and its protagonists have got things the wrong way round.

There are a couple of reasons marketers still like to believe in this idea of the 'influencers'.

Firstly, a little bit of laziness. It’s a lot easier to believe that a message can spread by the brand tapping apparently popular individuals - those special few to whom we all turn to in order to make decisions as Gladwell-ian rhetoric would have it - rather than get down with the messy business of continually reaching a mass of distracted, disinterested consumers.

Secondly, just by implementing these ‘influencer’ strategies it’s actually the brands themselves who appear to be the ultra influentials!


They, after all, are now the ones who influence the influencers.

Sadly neither of these things are true.

If they were our jobs as advertisers would be so much easier and predictable.

What is true, is that you're just as likely to spread a message or product by targeting a mass market of random consumers as you would by going after so-called influencers, as long as the conditions are right.

If people are ready to adopt a product, message or trend, then just about anybody can start one, but if the conditions aren’t right, then no one can.

Indeed, most of what we should call real influence is much more accidental and principally involves easily influenced people influencing other easily influenced people, without either party being particularly cognisant of the influence.

There’s bad news and good news.

The bad news is that the specific conditions in which any given trend might emerge are very hard to predict and success only looks like success in hindsight.

The good news is that the psychology literature explains the general conditions for copying behaviour pretty well.

All day long people unconsciously mimic the behaviours of others they interact with, including facial expressions, accents, postures, gestures, mannerisms and emotions.

And the simple act of observing others’ behaviour can induce behavioural mimicry, particularly the behaviour of others who appear similar to us, and all of the above are unconscious automatic processes.

Likewise, simply observing others’ choices induces choice mimicry - just like behavioural mimicry it occurs automatically - and collectively when we are uncertain about which behaviours or choices are acceptable or accurate, then we use the ‘social proof ‘ heuristic to be on the safe side.

Or in more simple terms, ordinary people copy other ordinary people without really noticing they are doing it.

Speaking of hindsight, we’ve never held much truck with the old Gladwell ‘Hush Puppies’ story.

The legend goes along these lines; some East Village hipsters began wearing Hush Puppies in 1994 and then suddenly everyone else started wearing them, too.

What Gladwell failed to notice is that Hush Puppies were a staple of just about every UK subculture from the early sixties onwards, worn by mods, skins, hippies, punks, soul-boys and ravers right through to 3rd generation mod brit-poppers in ermm.. about 1994.

Even if Gladwell’s theory were true, it still doesn't mean that if East Village hipsters did wear a specific product then it would automatically be popular.

Hipsters in the East Village presumably wear all kinds of other clobber that never becomes particularly popular anywhere else, or even in the East Village.

It depends on whether anyone else was open to copying at that time.

This belief in ‘influencers’ can be simply explained using a particular logical fallacy.

Rosenweig’s ‘delusion of the wrong end of the stick’.

This is the tendency to get causes the wrong way round.

For instance, in observing that successful companies tend to have a corporate social responsibility policy, should one infer that these pro-social activities are contributing factors to their success, or is it simply that that profitable companies tend to have money to spend on CSR?

The former makes for a better story – and is therefore lapped up by the purpose-before-profit lobby and more recently proponents of the so-called ‘sharing economy’ - however the latter explanation is much closer to the truth, if somewhat less sexy.

Similarly, ‘influencer’ theory makes for a better story than random copying of each other by ordinary people.

The final irony is, of course, that the so-called ‘traditional’ mass marketing that ‘influencer’ type strategies seeks to discredit is actually far more effective at reaching accidental influencers than activity focused on reaching those with some sort of perceived influence.

Therefore smart marketers could, in effect, have their influencer cake and eat it, too.

As it is impossible to know which person, if any, is going to start any given cascade of influence, then activities should be aimed at as broad a market as possible to give it the best possible chance.

And then if something does catch on they can correctly say ‘we got the influencers’ because the random nature of accidental influence means that ‘influencers’ can only really be identified after the fact.

Article influenced principally by Gigerenzer, Rosenzweig, Watts, Earls and an unspecified number of random conversations and unconscious influence over time.

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