Repositioning the Customer at the Center
The current paradigm of influence marketing places the influencer at the center of the marketing universe. The popularity of social influence scoring platforms listed in Chapter 4 has helped propagate this belief. The scientific truth that the status quo is hiding is that the customer, not the influencer, is at the center of the marketing universe; ultimately, it’s the customer who makes the purchasing decision, not the influencer. Our strategies must be dictated by that truth, not the fanfare over current technologies. Influencers, along with business brands and their marketing messages, are simply planets circling the customer, vying for his attention.
Let’s break down both theories. With influencers at the center of the influence marketing strategy, as shown in Figure 5.2, marketers must identify people who have a wide reach and/or a deep reach within communities focused on specific interests or keywords. To be effective, they must then attempt to understand the nature of each community and the role that the influencer has within that community. Brand messages and campaign tactics are then crafted in such a way as to piggy-back on that relationship. Influencers amplify the brand’s message or offer recommendations to a wide cast of characters in hopes that some will embrace the message and, in turn, share it with their audience.
Figure 5.2. Fisherman’s Influence Marketing Model
Even with a great deal of research and preparation, such campaigns are always a gamble because the basic tenet of the campaign is amplification with little knowledge or design toward converting a prospect to a customer. It’s what we call the Fisherman’s Influence Marketing Model: Identify the fish you’re trying to catch; choose the right body of water; and then cast the widest net possible and hope for the best.
Good marketers may choose to use the Fisherman’s Influence Marketing Model as a first step only. The model can help identify potential influencers and their communities, which in turn may be used as the basis for further research and analysis into those relationships and their context. That additional insight and data may help create a more targeted customer acquisition campaign to fill the sales funnel with better leads. This is certainly a better strategy than sending product samples to a mass of loosely qualified followers; however, the campaign life cycle is long and still based on a faulty foundation: the influencer.
Now let’s consider what happens when we shift this universe, as illustrated in Figure 5.3, to position the customer at its center. The first thing we notice from our Customer-Centric Influence Model is that it’s not a direct reversal of the former. When influencers are at the center, the orbiting planets are their various followers. When the customer is placed at the center, an entirely new universe opens up. In this universe, the people, institutions, technologies, and communities that impact purchase decisions orbit the customer.
Figure 5.3. Customer-Centric Influence Marketing Model
When marketers orient their campaigns and technologies around the influencer, the focus becomes their attempt to drive awareness or possibly even sway purchase decisions, instead of addressing the decision-making process. Placing the customer at the center forces us to look at the decisions he or she makes and what impacts those decisions. Referencing the pervasive communication theory discussed earlier in this book, we can visualize the many interconnected factors that impact those purchase decisions. This model enables us to drill down to the people that directly interact with decision makers when they are making decisions. In this model, influencers can be seen as contextual relationships, not just broadcasters. In fact, the very flow of communication is different. In the Fisherman’s Model above, the focus of the strategy is outbound or push-communication to the influencer’s social graph. In the Customer-Centric Model, the focus is on identifying the context and impact of the influence flowing in from the various players in the customer’s social graph.
To better illustrate this concept, consider a mobile phone provider that wants to introduce a new phone model to the market. The manufacturer could choose the Fisherman’s Model, in which case it would seek the favor of individuals and communities perceived as influential across their target market.
The first step involves the identification of the target audience’s demographics and the communities they engage in most often both online and offline. Typically, experienced brand marketers will invest in analyzing the subject matter and tone of the conversations occurring in those communities to identify the opportunities and challenges in promoting the new product. Individuals with the greatest reach and perceived authority are identified in hopes of converting them to brand ambassadors or, if they’re current customers, to advocates. These are macro-influencers, people with a large, general audience made up of communities with whom they have varying levels of relationship. Today’s trend has marketers turning to social influence scoring tools discussed in Chapter 4 to help quickly identify these macro-influencers or to help further segment them into specialized groups.
Once the communities and their influencers are identified, the manufacturer’s marketing team attempts to educate, encourage, and incentivize the chosen influencers to broadcast encouraging brand messages through the influencer’s media channels (radio shows, magazine columns, etc.) and social channels (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Leveraging gamification strategies, they further engage the audience with awards and status gimmicks to encourage them to rebroadcast and share those same interactions with their own social graphs.
Gamification, the use of addictive game mechanics in nongaming scenarios, has proven effective in many marketing campaigns.1 Marketers create tactics and leverage technologies to motivate specific behaviors in selected influencers by appealing to various human needs and senses. Some of the common tactics are the use of badges awarded in exchange for a required action, an achievement status bar demonstrating progression along a desired path, or virtual currency earned and exchanged for other products, services, or future considerations.
When completed, the Fisherman’s Influence Marketing campaign is typically measured by the earned media it acquired for the product. Earned media is the free, favorable publicity gained through promotional efforts as opposed to paid media, which is publicity gained through paid promotion and advertising.2 Success is also gauged by the increased website traffic, volume of online discussions, and positive sentiment in those discussions. More sophisticated marketers and software may track sales volumes to the amplification created by their chosen influencers; however, in most cases these measures are unreliable.
If the manufacturer chooses the Customer-Centric Influence Model, the first step is the same: Identify the target audience’s demographics and the communities they engage in most often; however, that’s where the similarities end. The subsequent study of the subject and tone of conversations within those communities take on a different meaning. This analysis isn’t undertaken to identify keywords and sentiment to fuel influencers’ amplification but to identify the individuals and categories of individuals who are engaged with the target customer on specific subjects.
By using social monitoring technologies, the marketing team first looks at trending topics and sentiment of conversations within the target communities. Once grouped, they can drill down to the individuals engaged within those conversations. By applying user profile filters or by appending third-party data, they can tag customer profile types to the individuals engaged in those discussions. As shown in Figure 5.4, this provides the phone manufacturer in this case study a unique insight into who is talking to whom.
Figure 5.4. Conversation/influencer profile segmentation
Our experiences support this scenario and point to the fact that true influence—that which impacts a purchase decision—is based on dyadic relationships. A dyad is a group of two people, the smallest possible social group. A dyadic relationship refers to discussions or communication between two people involving their mutual ideas, thoughts, behaviors, or ideals. A chance meeting between two persons at a trade show or between the host and participant within an online webinar, for example, that does not continue after the initial event does not have a lasting effect on each other. The theory suggests that the impact of personal interactions between two people with shared culture, ideals, or circumstances is greater than the looser interactions such as someone reading another’s blog. Because of the dyadic relationship between coworkers, for example, a product recommendation is more likely to be acted upon than a recommendation by a well-respected journalist in a trade publication. The power in these relationships is based on the time the individuals spend together and the emotional intensity of their connection.
Identifying dyadic relationships among a brand’s audience is not easy, especially for larger organizations with many prospective customers and followers. However, the goal is not to identify each individual and all those they speak with most. Instead, we identify user profiles and formulate models that can be extrapolated across the entire audience, as illustrated previously in Figure 5.4.
This study allows us to plot connections around specific individuals’ profiles. For example, instead of knowing that John is talking to Karen, Sue, Joe, Acme Co., and TechVibes, this model allows us see that a prospect is having conversations with peers, a coworker, parishioners, and a blogger. Overlaying the roles of the people engaged in this conversation begins to apply context to the conversation, which, in turn, allows us to establish the context of the relationships.
Extending this exercise across other discussions and communities creates a powerful, contextually oriented database of users. The lesson learned by applying this filter in the Customer-Centric Model is the identification of user profiles and relationships that most influence other decision makers in specific conversation types (subject matter, tone, and sentiment of conversation). In contrast to the Fisherman’s Influence Model, we can narrow the prospect’s social graphs and apply a new, more accurate metric for the identification of influencers. Much research has been done on the greater impact of one’s close social circle over celebrity dating back as early as 1944. That year, Paul Lazarsfeld published his book The People’s Choice in which he outlined his study of women in Decatur, Illinois. Lazarsfeld’s study proved the women’s decision-making processes were more influenced by interaction with personal contacts over prominent media personalities.3
Marketers Kevin Casey and Ed Roche, owners of The Idea Factory, a full-service marketing agency, shared a case study that demonstrates this fact is still true today, even in our highly social world. This popular marketing firm boasts many national clients including Corby Distilleries Limited, which produces and distributes many popular brands of spirits, liqueurs, and wines across the world. The agency was tasked with the promotion of one of Corby’s brands: Lamb’s Rum. Market research identified that the product was mostly popular within the Canadian Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, so the campaign created sought to capitalize on its local popularity. The campaign titled, “Lamb’s Nation,” featured endorsements by celebrities and well-known citizens. When initial results fell short of expectations, the agency surveyed customers and learned that its sales growth was attributed to the brand’s die-hard fans not speaking about their love of the product publicly but among their “buddies” at in-person gatherings. Lamb’s Nation, the sentiment behind the campaign’s theme, was accurate and on-target, but the product’s growth was based on a one-on-one personal experience between friends—who wanted to keep it that way. The resulting shift in tactics from online influence strategies to traditional, offline word-of-mouth ground-swell campaigns proved successful at driving up sales.
Understanding that prospects are engaged in direct conversations with specific types of social contacts such as peers, coworkers, family members, journalists, or bloggers is more meaningful to the purchase decision-making process than identifying individuals who have a large online following. Today’s influence marketing strategies are typically based on identification of influencers, including social celebrities, popular bloggers, or any individual with high scores on social influence scoring platforms. While this model might be quicker and require less effort, it’s also less effective. The value of broad amplification and recommendations is lessened by the unidentified quality of relationship, context of conversations, or accuracy of the target audience, all leading to a lower conversion and purchase rate. Forrester analyst Michael Speyer confirms this analysis in a published report4 where he states that to be successful, “vendors need to identify and characterize the influencers in their specific market...which requires a comprehensive influencer identification program.” Determining the characteristics of influencers within a community becomes critical to success.
Robert Axelrod, professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan, produced another study on social influence, which claimed that people are more likely to interact with others who share many of their cultural attributes and that these interactions tend to increase the number of cultural attributes they share (thus making them more likely to interact again).5 In our model, these people are called micro-influencers, meaning they’re individuals with whom prospective customers are more closely engaged at the time a purchase decision is being made. Because of the dyadic nature of their relationships, these people are the key to a successful influence marketing effort in our hyperconnected digital world. But before we discuss micro-influencers, we need to better understand the situations that impact those relationships and our decision making.