Understanding the profiles of consumers and those they engage with more personally in their social graphs is only step one in the Customer-Centric Influence Model. Be they online or in person, personal interactions are affected by external factors that impact—positively or negatively—the reception of a recommendation from any influence. Known as “situational influence,” they’re factors that exist independent of the communication between influencer and prospective customer but also impact the customer’s decision-making process. The theory is deep rooted in the study of psychology and sometimes referred to as situationism, which has proven that people are as influenced by external, situational factors as they are by their internal traits or motivations, if not more.6 These situations act as a disruptive force in the brand and influencer communications, which further derail current amplification-based influence models.
Four types of external situations may impact the influence that macro- or micro-influencers exert over their social connections, discussed in the following sections.
The nature of the relationship or conversation between people morphs when they are experienced in different communities, even when it’s the same two people engaging in different communities. A conversation about mobile phones, for example, between a person and a coworker will take on a different meaning, and potentially result in a different outcome, than if that same conversation occurred between the person’s spouse or friends on social networks. The community situation coworkers find themselves in skews the conversation toward the mobile phone’s use in a professional environment, such as its capability to easily sync to the corporate email exchange server or how it meets security requirements. The same conversation with a spouse might focus on the monthly costs, availability of family call-free plans, or connectivity with home computers. When discussing the choice with friends on social networks, branding and status enter the discussion with specific groups advocating for the brand they believe is “coolest.” The coworker, the spouse, and the social networking friend are all micro-influencers that directly impact the decision-making process, but in different ways based on the micro-community they belong to.
Economic forces, defined as personal, business, or national financial considerations—real or perceived—that affect purchase decisions made by consumers, also interfere with the normal communication path between influencers and consumers. This is a broad category that can be impacted by something as specific as the individual’s credit card debt to something more generic such as the international debt crisis that most countries are struggling with currently. In either case, consumers weigh the impact of their needs and desires, regardless of the recommendations and social pressures, against their comfort level at spending money in the face of financial pressures. Economic uncertainty is a powerful force in the decision-making process and in most cases effectively halts influence marketing messages from converting to purchases.
What should be of further concern to marketers is that economic situations don’t need to be as overt as the U.S. “debt-cliff” crisis of 2012. They can be more subtle and personal. For example, in the spring of 2011 Apple, Inc., and Samsung Electronics, two of the world’s biggest mobile device manufacturers, went to war. Apple struck the first blow with a multinational lawsuit against Samsung, claiming it infringed on many of Apple’s technology patents. Devices listed in the lawsuit included some of Samsung’s most popular and high-profile devices, such as the Galaxy S2, Galaxy S, and Nexus S, as well as the Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet.
In July 2012, a U.S. judge awarded Apple a preliminary injunction pending the outcome of the trial that could have forced Samsung to remove its Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet from stores. News of the injunction spread like wildfire through blogs, social networks, and news channels. Influencers speculated that by being served an injunction, Samsung devices would start disappearing off store shelves and/or technical support would not be provided to those who managed to scoop up one of the extremely popular Android-based tablets. Fear and uncertainty was echoed by the journalists, bloggers, and analysts who publicly predicted that a successful suit could lead to higher costs and diminished user experiences on Android-based phones from all makers. “Consumers may pay more for these devices. Consumers may have a device that solves the same issues in a less elegant feature set,” predicted Jefferson Wang of IBB Consulting Group. According to Anthony Scarsella of Gazelle, a popular phone trade-in company, “consumers seem to be jumping ship [and] we expect this trend to continue.” Regardless of the initially fast-paced sales of the Samsung mobile products, fueled by the positive advocacy of influencers across social channels and the fact that no final court verdicts were in, consumers were fearful and making decisions based on that fear.
On April 24, 2012, a federal jury in San Jose ruled that Samsung infringed on multiple Apple patents, awarding the Cupertino, California, maker of the iPhone and iPad more than $1 billion in damages. However, during the same time period other jurisdictions such as South Korea, Japan, and the United Kingdom ruled in favor of Samsung. Regardless of the rulings in favor of Samsung, the market was still concerned; the uncertainty was deep rooted, especially since the one jurisdiction that favored Apple’s suit was in the large U.S. market. Gazelle reported that the company had seen a 50% increase in the number of customers looking to unload Samsung devices during this period, regardless of the continuing positive product reviews shared by Samsung advocates.
Social and Cultural Groupthink
Another disruptor in the influencer’s amplification path is social or cultural groupthink that consciously or subconsciously contradicts technical influencers. Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that describes how the need for harmony within a social group forces its members to assume a belief, opinion, or attitude, even when some leaders provide a genuine evaluation of the virtues of the alternative. Originally explored by Irving Janis, a research psychologist from Yale University7 in the early 1970s, the concept has been given renewed importance due to the mass adoption of social media communication by the global community. A modern application of Janis’ groupthink is the “wisdom of crowds,” which represent the sentiment: If enough people post something online—regardless of whether or not you know them—what they say must be true. Crowdsourced opinion has become fact. Consumers are almost blindly accepting commonly shared opinion (via online posts) without seeking alternative viewpoints or assessments.
Keeping with the theme of mobile device manufacturers, let’s consider the case of Research in Motion (RIM), maker of the landmark BlackBerry smartphone. RIM, credited for inventing the smartphone industry, was once the most valuable company in Canada and essentially owned the world’s smartphone market share. In 2011, reported profits were more than $1 billion, but RIM’s fortunes reversed almost overnight; it recorded a net loss of $753 million in the first half of 2012. While technology analysts continued to advocate for the vastly superior phone, email, security, and instant messaging (BBM) service available on the BlackBerry, the once dominant mobile phone manufacturer lost its market share to rivals Apple and Samsung in meteoric fashion. Pundits argued that the decline in market share was a result of the company’s fixation on the phone’s business function, resulting in a small ecosystem of personal and gaming apps and the lack of innovation in the device’s graphical user interface, two areas where the company’s rivals excelled. Eventually, even security-concerned IT managers bowed to the pressure of their employees demanding they adopt Apple’s iPhone or the plethora of Android-based mobile devices by Samsung, Motorola, and others.
The one certainty is that the public perception of the Blackberry’s brand declined even faster—and with more verve—than its stock price. BlackBerry owner Rachel Crosby, in an interview with the New York Times8 in October 2012, referenced her BlackBerry phone the way someone might speak of an embarrassing relative. “I’m ashamed of it,” claims Crosby, a Los Angeles sales representative who acknowledges she no longer publicly uses her BlackBerry at cocktail parties or at conferences. In business meetings, she admits to hiding it behind an iPad so that clients won’t judge her. This was not a case isolated to individuals but businesses as well. To upgrade Yahoo’s failing public image, the newly appointed CEO, Marissa Mayer, offered employees the option to trade in their BlackBerrys for iPhone and Android devices.9 Owning a BlackBerry or publicly praising the device’s functions branded you a social outcast and the butt of everyone’s jokes.
In some cases, the need for harmony isn’t about the group publicly sharing the group’s belief but not talking about it. During her 2005 tour of Japan, worldwide music superstar Madonna publicly praised Japan’s “Washlet,” an “intelligent” toilet that provides—among other features—posterior-cleaning water jets, hot air dry function, ambient background music, and odor-masking technology. “I’ve missed the heated toilet seats,” the pop-diva promoted upon leaving the country. She was not alone in her praise, many famous and well-connected people have gone on record promoting the virtues of the ultra-modern toilet.
It’s the earned media and public advocacy that brand marketers would die for, the type of public promotion many try to emulate when accessing social celebrities and socially active people with high Klout scores. Find people who are perceived to have a popular voice and get them to talk about your product, and their audience will beat a path to your door, open wallets in hand.
Yet, while the ingenuous toilets are found in 70% of Japanese homes, hotels, and businesses, they’re one of world’s best kept secrets. Hiromichi Tabata, head of the international division at Washlet-maker TOTO does not hide the company’s desire to become a major player in international markets. The company has attempted to crack foreign markets, including the lucrative U.S. market, for more than 10 years with little success despite the volunteer endorsements by many internationally known celebrities (such as Madonna) and business executives. “It’s because of the cultural taboo over talking about toilets,” reports Tabata. “Americans avoid talking about those kinds of things so we can’t expect success from word-of-mouth, even if they recognize our products are excellent.”
Psychologists and social scientists continue to explore this phenomenon by demonstrating how groupthink impacts collective avoidance as well as collective advocacy.10 Interestingly, there is growing evidence that groupthink’s impact is moving beyond publicly shared beliefs and impacting the decisions people make.11 Clearly, this is a critical consideration in planning influence marketing strategies.
Ideology, such as political and religious affiliation, is becoming an increasingly disruptive role in influence marketing. This is not a new concept: Politics and religion have always been divisive forces in society; however, as with social and cultural groupthink, social media and pervasive communications have increased our ability to both amplify and share personal views. In fact, it has emboldened people to share those views more than ever before across social channels and, more to the point, reject and rebel against the views others share.
Consider the comments made by Dan Cathy, the chief operating officer of fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, opposing same-sex marriage in the middle of 2012. Cathy publicly opposed gay marriage rights in an attempt to influence his followers in the months leading up to the November 2012 U.S. presidential election. The buzz around his comments escalated when it was reported that his company’s family-run charitable foundation donated millions of dollars to political parties that opposed same-sex marriage. His attempt to influence voters was seen as a “line in the sand,” and people gathered on both sides based on religious and political affiliations. Protesters called for a permanent boycott of the restaurants. In reaction, counterprotesters organized mass “eat-ins,” encouraging supporters to purchase more of Chick-fil-A’s food and more frequently.
The effects of ideological disruption can be calculated and planned as part of an influence marketing strategy designed to earn much desired viral marketing effect and earned media. In the case of Chick-fil-A, the public reaction was definitely a disruption in consumers’ purchase decisions as evidenced by the company’s statement in July 2012, which stated “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.” However, ideological disruption can work in a brand’s favor, as exemplified by the Kraft Oreo campaign in June 2012, which saw a picture of the iconic Oreo cookie posted on Facebook with the typical white cream center replaced with rainbow colored cream layers as a show of support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender events being held later that week. The post received 150,000 likes and 20,000 comments on the company’s Facebook page; most were positive comments with a few negative ones calling for boycotts of the popular cookie. Analysts called the threats by would-be boycotters “empty threats” and reported no negative impact on sales.12