Don't Throw Your Influencers Under the Bus Just Yet

One thing the marketing industry and the tech industry have in common is that they’re both periodically swept by fad ideas (call them memes if you want to sound hip) that enchant everyone to the point of obsession. That obsession then produces a backlash that causes everyone to swing the other way and completely dismiss the original idea. We’re going through one of those cycles right now with the idea of influencer marketing. As usual, the reality is somewhere in between the hype and the backlash–influencer marketing is not the be-all that some people made it out to be, but it’s not bunk either.

The backlash against the influencer idea has been building for some time, but it was crystallized by a February article in Fast Company. In it, a Yahoo researcher named Duncan Watts gives some marvelously inflammatory quotes:

“It just doesn’t work. A rare bunch of cool people just don’t have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. There’s no there there… It sort of sounds cool, but it’s wonderfully persuasive only for as long as you don’t think about it.”

His message makes a nice double use of memes–he attacks the influencer idea while tapping into another traditional Silicon Valley idea: marketing people are dumb.

One problem for the Influencer idea is that it has been hyped and manipulated for years to the point where its meaning became seriously twisted. The process dates back at least to the 1960s, when Everett Rogers wrote the classic book Diffusion of Innovation. Rogers popularized the idea of an adoption curve in which early adopters are the first to use an innovation, and through them it spreads to the rest of the population. Rogers’ work was based on a large body of research in fields like the adoption of new types of seed among farmers, and the adoption of hygiene among rural villagers.

All of the work since then on crossing the chasm and reaching influencers is built on Rogers’ foundation. But in the process of repeating Rogers’ message, two important subtleties were lost. The first was that Rogers also identified a group of people he called Innovators, who adopt things early but do not spread them to others because they like to keep their discoveries to themselves. Marketing to Innovators is a complete dead end, because you can spend a lot of time and money on them without getting any benefit. Telling the difference between an Innovator and an Early Adopter can be very difficult, which makes influencer marketing a lot trickier than you might expect.

The other important thing to remember is that someone who’s an Influencer in one area that doesn’t necessarily make them an Influencer in another. For example, Rachel Ray is pretty influential in cooking techniques, but you wouldn’t look to her for advice on buying a car. Many of the people who jumped on the influencer idea bought into the concept that the same ten percent of the population is influential on every subject.

We think that’s baloney. Any influencer marketing company that tells you it has a standard list of Influencers who apply to all product categories is selling snake oil. Run away.

But don’t give up on the Early Adopters. If you can find the right ones for your market, and if you can separate them from the cliquish Innovators, they are still worth courting.

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