Aside

Power of the Influencer — Who is Yours?

When you want to buy a new bbq, who do you ask? If you want to know which smartphone to buy, what blog do you go to? And if you’re looking for a school to enroll your kid, whose advice do you seek?
Those people that you’re calling, emailing with or reading, they’re special. Not special like they took the short bus to school. Special, my friend, because they are the alpha crowd, they are influencers. They are not 1 person or type, it’s many people who all form a unique profile. Parts of that profile are common across the entire group of “influencers” and a bunch that are specific to the category we’re talking about. The school advice might come from the bbq expert but probably not.
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In this web 2.0 era of ready access of information everywhere, anytime, we’ve got a new class of people business and marketing people can and should pay attention to. For those of you that are old enough to remember, there was a time when you couldn’t google up information to find out what the opinion makers and advocates were thinking. Amazon didn’t exist so we could see what others, worldwide, thought of a book and learn its sales ranking. Instead, we had to go to places like churches or synagogues, grocery stores and book clubs, and ultimately hanging around with neighbors to find out what “the news” was. That’s because influencers were active, engaged members of local communities. They’ve always existed — opinion makers and opinion leaders. What’s different now? Today they have a bullhorn available to them — it’s called the web. Where they once talked to 100 people in a month, they can now reach thousands or tens of thousands with a single click, comment, ranking process.
These alpha consumers or influencers (either term is fine with me) are the key to awareness, consideration, preference, purchase. They advocate, rank, sort, evaluate, and ultimately create marketplace adoption. They come in the form of users, developers, channel partners, and press people. Many PR people have thought of influencers as “their audience” or writers, but influencers are way more than analysts and writers. They are ultimately the tip of the market.
I recently read the book, Influentials by Ed Keller and Jon Berry. For getting some frame of reference on the core aspects on influencers, this is a great resource. Influencers are key conduits of informations. They know many people, and are in contact with many people in the course of a week. They have a powerful multiplier effect, spreading the word quickly acrosss a broad network when they find something they want others to know about. General guidelines: they are well traveled, almost always have a religious life, they hold the status of leaders (civic, business, non-profit), and generally hold an activitist approach to life. They almost always have a general sense of optimization because they believe in the power of good, they like people, love to orchestrate ideas and they tend to be (but not always) great at building relationships. Interesting statistic: 4 in 10 have a connection to their professional association. This is a sign of their restless intellectual interests. Influencers continuously take input from what they see, hear, read, and keep turning it over in their mind for new insights and ideas. They are sometimes entrepreneurs. Typically they start to be an influencer by getting involved in the community. My husband is not traditionalaly a mover or shaker (his words, not mine) and yet he’s gotten involved in the Los Gatos chamber. His vocabulary has changed. he refers to the city we live in as “our city” now. Influencers and alpha consumers are people who place importance on values : enduring love, knowledge, authenticity, stable personal relationships, learning and freedom. When you can get them to pay attention to your offer / product / solution, you have the opportunity to shape the market.
SO, the big questions:
How can we better understand them?
What makes them tick?
How to they spread influence?
Can I persuade them to spread the word for my product / service / organization / idea?
Most companies don’t know what to do to systematically to guide these consumer marketing advocates. But we’ve been designing a few leading-edge programs for some notable brands and here’s what I know to be true:
1. Selection /sort matters.
Influencers need to be sought out. They do not run in packs. They are more likely to be running the pack but it’s not necessarily the case. These are also not the early adopters (who often like technology stuff or new stuff for its own sake and are willing to be irritated to be the first). So the key is to figure out what would make a good influencer for your product / service / category / idea. Then think hard about where they would hang out and how can you find them. You can go to online forums to see who is commenting. You can check amazon profiles as sometimes this is the “recommended list” guy or gal. For each market, you need to find the few amongst the many.
For one project we did, we found 100 and then sorted them down to 8. It took us two weeks of online activity, recruiting from established forums, asking who else was good, etc to get the 100. It’s a time-intensive, judgement-intensive process. While it might be tempting to delegate this to your most junior staff member, this quite likely belongs to the most senior person. Getting a group of the key folks is the key to building a strong program.
Developing a screener for what you are looking for will help you avoid getting lost in the forest.
2. Size Matters
Yes, it’s true. Size does matter. Having 8-10 in a group is the right mix. Any more and people don’t listen well to one another. Any fewer and the momentum and energy isn’t there. That said, make the term of your influencer program about 6 months and then rotate people off and on that can keep building your point of view and market access. In addition to the 8-10 users from the market, you want to involve 5-10 people from your business unit or company to listen, engage and commit to nurturing this group with ideas, content, etc.
3. Two-way flow is Critical.
THe key to building an influencer program is communication. The specifics of that are dependent on the influencers and the product. For a software product, it might be getting clear on industry standards, vertical understanding, and / or doing beta reviews. For a mobile audience, it would be a different list of program requirements. But fundamental to all that is communication. And just to be clear, it’s person to person not company to person. Doing the corporate speak, highly vetted program will only make influencers despise you. You want to have someone on your team be their advocate to listen, learn, ask and probe. Because influencers are fundamentally good relationship people, you want the person on your team to be good communicators, bloggers, writers and all that. You want to build trust with these influencers because…well, just because. While your executive team will want “results” you need your evangelist and advocate for this audience to buffer that and focus on building an information flow that benefits both the company and the consumer. Have them test drive beta products and critique it. Have them take a look at your market positioning statements and fix it. Etc.
4. Without Listening, you’re dead already.
Make sure your door is not shut when these opinion leaders, alpha consumers, and influencers come to you with a complaint or a question. You should pay attention to what’s happening because when they are telling you this, you are getting an early indicator of what others are thinking. True to form, influencers swing into gear and hit their best notes when they can solve a problem. Remember that influencer are helping you with their “noise”. In return, they want respect, communication, social validation / approval in front of others, liking, any form of authority, and … (drumroll, please) the opportunity to influence YOU. Perhaps that was too obvious? Perhaps not.
5. Spread the word is a calculated set of steps.
To know whether you are doing a good job on an influencer strategy means knowing that the opinion leaders are getting their ideas circulated. Find out the kinds of publications, reviews, articles, radio stations they listen to, websites they go to. Learn where they are going because that will tell you where the next concentric circle of influencers are. When people make decisions today, it’s a conversation. The internet has broadened the conversation, allowing people to research purchases, post questions to companies, and to link to other consumers, email their friends, forward Web links, and develop bulletin board relationships with peolple of similar interests.
The conversation level between users and consumers is rising. In times of change, people naturally seek a guide, someone who’s been out ahead of them, who’s already identified the issues, addressed them in his/her own life, and can offer good, reliable, informed perspectives, advice and information about what’s going on now and what’s to come, … in other words, someone they trust. That’s the influencer. Harness that guy or gal into your offer and you’ll have a strategic advantage.
Who is yours?

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0 Responses:

  1. Duncan Brown. January 18, 2007 at 6:19 am  |  

    You make some great points here. Ones that jump out include:
    - Influencers are not (necessarily) journalists and traditional PR targets. In the B2B world we’ve identified more than 20 influencer types.
    - Influencers are specific to the market under examination. Just as school advice wouldn’t come from the BBQ expert, so security software influencers don’t normally come from the printer industry. We see that market specialisation also applies to geography and company size (SMBs are different in their influences than enterprises).
    - It takes hard work to identify true influencers. Our experience shows that an intuitive guess is no better than 20% correct. Research is the only answer.
    Your post seems consumer-focused. I reckon most of what you say applies also to B2B markets, with one key exception: in B2B markets, influencers are usually not customers or prospects, but third parties.
    Agree?

    Reply
  2. Duncan Brown. January 18, 2007 at 6:19 am  |  

    You make some great points here. Ones that jump out include:
    - Influencers are not (necessarily) journalists and traditional PR targets. In the B2B world we’ve identified more than 20 influencer types.
    - Influencers are specific to the market under examination. Just as school advice wouldn’t come from the BBQ expert, so security software influencers don’t normally come from the printer industry. We see that market specialisation also applies to geography and company size (SMBs are different in their influences than enterprises).
    - It takes hard work to identify true influencers. Our experience shows that an intuitive guess is no better than 20% correct. Research is the only answer.
    Your post seems consumer-focused. I reckon most of what you say applies also to B2B markets, with one key exception: in B2B markets, influencers are usually not customers or prospects, but third parties.
    Agree?

    Reply
  3. Nilofer Merchant. January 18, 2007 at 5:50 pm  |  

    Duncan -
    I do agree that while my post is mostly consumer focused, what I�m trying to say is that influencers are so specific to any market. The firm where I work does pioneering kinds of these enthusiast / market building / user community programs for Palm, or Handmark, or Adobe or Symantec. And, what I can categorically say is that while they have some qualities in common, the goal is to figure out who is the influencer. That could be the customer, or not. In IT buying it’s likely not, but in say a product like Akamai, the customer is almost always the influencer alpha dog in the market doing adoption.
    Hope that adds some clarity.
    Nilofer

    Reply
  4. Nilofer Merchant. January 18, 2007 at 5:50 pm  |  

    Duncan -
    I do agree that while my post is mostly consumer focused, what I�m trying to say is that influencers are so specific to any market. The firm where I work does pioneering kinds of these enthusiast / market building / user community programs for Palm, or Handmark, or Adobe or Symantec. And, what I can categorically say is that while they have some qualities in common, the goal is to figure out who is the influencer. That could be the customer, or not. In IT buying it’s likely not, but in say a product like Akamai, the customer is almost always the influencer alpha dog in the market doing adoption.
    Hope that adds some clarity.
    Nilofer

    Reply

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