IMITATION > INFLUENCE
The concept of influence is often attributed to the study of word-of-mouth, either as a consequence or antecedent. Through the application of diffusion theory, marketing practitioners applied this logic to create strategy surrounding tactics to create opportunities to get specific consumer behaviors to spread.
The premise was that influencers, or centralized hubs, helped to propagate ideas, through vast networks of people. Network theorist essentially empirically invalidated this concept.
While the theory itself has been disproven, the concept of influence still finds itself embedded in consumer behavior, as it relates to branding activities. Influence continues to be associated with word-of-mouth and social sharing- as the “people as a medium” conversation continues to evolve along with media. For example, Brad Fay pointed out in a MediaPost article: “The single most important factor in the success of an advertisement is this: Does it stimulate consumer conversation and sharing? Nothing else matters as much.”
The question that will ultimately be raised is how influence played a role in stimulating conversation? Was word-of-mouth stimulated by brand community, advocates, etc.? Influence always seems to imply motivation: Conversing to influence or influencer-led behavior change. I am not sure this is correct. It puts the focus on the individual. When applied to marketing, it mirrors push methods. When I observe word-of-mouth online (i.e. sharing), I do not see people adopting behaviors because they were directly influenced by a motivated individual. It seems to be rooted in underlying normative behaviors.
So, while influence may be a misnomer, I was always drawn to a conclusion drawn by researchers Watts and Dodds. They wrote:
“…based on our results, we would go as far as to suggest that in focusing on the properties of a few “special” individuals, the influentials hypothesis is in some important respects a misleading model for social change. Under most conditions, we would argue, cascades do not succeed because of a few highly influential individuals influencing everyone else but rather on account of a critical mass of easily influenced individuals influencing other easy-to-influence people.”
For me, this sufficed for some time. I could imagine that old high school science video of electronics and protons bouncing around inside an atom, gaining speed (this is my vision of a cascade). It wasn’t until I came across an article relating user-generated content and imitation, that I questioned this concept. The work examined the role user-generated content played in purchasing decisions. Social media has allowed us to generate attitudes toward a brand through posts, reviews and observing the end user. For better or worse, word-of-mouth has an endogenous affect on brand identity. Now that we are able to observe others and make instant assessments, perhaps, word-of-mouth drives imitation?
Imitation as Word-of-mouth and Word-of-mouth as Imitation
“We have limited predictive knowledge…a solid shortcut strategy is to copy what others are doing. It’s less risky.”¹
Watts and Dodds statement becomes a bit more interesting if you insert influence with imitate. In fact, in an article Watts’ previously published, a very similar behavior was exhibited. In this environment, songs that were already seen to be downloaded extensively, continued to recieve lots of downloads. Participants were copying the crowd. We examine what others are doing to learn more about the world around us. In terms of behavior and consumption, the more cues that align with our beliefs, or are identity relevant, the greater the chance of adoption (or share via imitation).
Imitation can be goal directed. When it relates to consumption-related cues, we imitate to transcend or transform our current state. The Apple earbud is the quintessential example.
Without realizing it, I often use an example of how user-generated content on specific platforms (Tumblr), directed at a specific brand, often mirrored each other. Users were imitating each other. This is exactly the idea. It was the communication of branded products that created an instruction manual for others.
If we are to now assume that people are a powerful medium, it is important to understand what messages people are sending and how brand communications can be created to adapt to this behavior.
Word-of-mouth and User-generated Content
Word-of-mouth has always been about conversations surrounding products and services. Word-of-mouth marketing has always sought to harness the power of these conversations. We are routinely absorbing information from friends, families and complete strangers not traditional ads. Word-of-mouth acts as an endorsement.
With social media and more digital tools at our disposal, how we communicate has shifted. This has caused a redefining of word-of-mouth (conversations to content). What we are producing online is no longer just textual. Images can act as personal endorsements of products and services, too.
So, when we throw user-generated content into the mix, the power of word-of-mouth really isn’t about influence, per say, it is about imitation. What people create and publish, creates a template for observers to emulate. The more consumption and identity-related cues, the greater the ability to imitate. It is now about people imitating those who are imitating others. In this context, word-of-mouth has two very important components online: Who is sharing and how they are sharing.
The social landscape is not a fixed network, it is fluid. This means that the consumer is constantly moving between communities, platforms, contexts. Perhaps this is why visual content is more appealing in creation and dissemination. Users have more control over visual content because it too can be flexible in meaning. Visuals can offer a myriad of cues, that can shift depending on the context or platform they are published on.
Content: Templates for Imitation
I read an interesting paper that presented the case that advertising’s effect should be measured by what the consumer does with it. If word-of-mouth has such a powerful affect on brand performance and identity – combined with a focus on how people spread ideas – marketers should focus on content that produces action. How can content produce agency? Perhaps, it is wise to view the creation of social content meant to be spread, as templates for imitation.
Templates conjure an incomplete frame, one that provides guidance, but also allow for expansion. Visual content often acts as a template for our mind.
More cues equal more gaps to fill with our own imaginations. Our imagination adds texture, history, emotions and experiences to an otherwise flat narrative. This is called double scope blending, which is the ability to create large conceptual networks. I believe that it is under this notion that produces more ways to engage with content for one’s benefit. More benefit offers more ways to imitate through word-of-mouth.
On visually-driven sites like Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram users create portfolios of attachment to certain tastes, all born from observation and then imitation. These pieces of content do not deliver a specific USP or reason to believe. They deliver ideas that allow people to embed their own sense of self when shared.
Word-of-mouth and Social Capital
I believe a lot of our behavior is driven by our need to elevate ourselves in some capacity. Whether it is adding value to a determined audience, or signaling status of some kind, we often employ sharing to do so. In my mind, brands that can deliver authentic, relevant and flexible content, earn a better chance of that content being shared and used to elevate one’s personal status (I really want to say brand). This type of value exchange recognizes the need to remove commercial and cultural tensions and provide an appropriate template for individualistic adoption (or to share). The more successful brands become at this, the more cues people emit when performing word-of-mouth.
If word-of-mouth has an endogenous affect on brand identity, then its power lies in the ability to encourage behavior that allows imitation; people imitating those who are imitating others. Yes, we can examine the consequences of word-of-mouth in terms of volume (still important!), but I think another important consequence are the cues given off through the performance of word-of-mouth.