I have seen a recent upswing in influencer-related posts in my Twitter feed. I remember there was a rise in popularity surrounding influencer marketing and then there was a public scorning of the influencer myth right around the time I started graduate school.
A simple Google search will highlight this timeline.
Much of the rise in the interest of influencers was the application of Gladwell’s Tipping Point to marketing. The thesis was that there are certain people who have a certain pull over a larger number of friends/followers. These select few ultimately have the ability to sway mass adoption.
I will admit, I found myself on both sides of the argument. I found myself nodding along while reading the work of network theorists Watts and Salganik. I eventually found myself agreeing that the Tipping Point was toast. Essentially, Watts found that the social transmission of ideas, culture and technology was due to individuals that are easily influenced, influencing others who are easily influenced. This ran counter to the notion that information flowed through hubs (influentials) in a network.
I think the reason why the idea of influencers directly creating information cascades received so much criticism, was the fact that this concept was viewed through the wrong lens. Through a brand-centered lens, the end result must be mass adoption or a viral hit. But is influence a zero-sum game? Was this concept “toast” because it didn’t produce viral content (even in computer-mediated simulations)? In a sense, was this concept adopted, because it is how marketers hoped it would work?
As I read Adweek’s article on the success of Lord & Taylor’s Instagram campaign, I wondered if the concept of influence should have been viewed through more of a human lens?
Here are a couple of things that I believe about human nature, and that have shifted my view of influencers. While digital technology now allows the ability to actively consume media, I believe that we are still very passive when it comes to consuming culture. What I mean by this, is that we would rather look toward others for consumption-related cues, or normative behaviors, instead of making the effort to create our own. Digital technology makes searching for clues much easier. One of the many reasons people use Instagram and Pinterest is to help make decisions easier. We are able to see how others use products (the term used loosely) to project a certain identity, which allows others to make similar alignments.
I also believe humans are very superficial. We want to know that products fit into our lifestyle, and what they will add to it. As I was conducting my research on the performance of word-of-mouth, one pattern that emerged, was posting pictures where the experience was the focal point. It was the product that played a supporting role. I called this experience signaling. In most cases, the experience can be superficial, but it allows observers (and there are a lot online) insight into how a brand may fit (or not fit) into one’s lifestyle. For an example, follow user-generated content for specific brands or subcultures on Tumblr.
There are also a few related points that I think are important to address. First, marketers are now very quick to discuss how little people want to form relationships with brands on social media. Instead, most of our behaviors are underlined with our desire to connect with others. As Chris Baylis wrote in Digital Advertising: Past, Present, Future: “People don’t connect to share; they share to connect”.
Similarly, in Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow, Sharp addressed the need to engage those who are unengaged with your brand. The discussion follows his criticism of brand loyalist (influencers are often seen as brand loyalists). To increase market share, brands must reach those he calls “loyal switchers”. Loyal switchers offer a good analogy to what influencer-led programs hope to accomplish- to reach those who wouldn’t have received the message without the influencer acting as a hub.
Lord & Taylor’s campaign highlighted this shift in thinking about influence. First, it recognized that influence does not flow through mass media. Influence flows through the observations and interactions of others online. Second, those chosen to participate made the ease of adoption more likely. The concept of adoption threshold describes how likely the receiver of a message may be influenced. Some people may have a higher adoption threshold, meaning they are less likely to adopt or be influenced. Lord & Taylor decreased this threshold by selecting bloggers who provided lots of consumption-related cues.
@CaraLoren represents a very specific set of aspirations and exhibits a certain lifestyle (young mother, cultured, connected, fashionable). Followers can “see” what she values as she shares certain aspects of her life and family. Marketers must consider this adoption threshold and how these human insights affect one’s likelihood of adoption. The volume of connections may be less important than they cues influencers are able to create.