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Influencer marketing: Effective or defective? (Part two)

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8th Aug 2008
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In the first part of this special report into influencer marketing, Neil Davey explored the history and controversy surrounding the practice. In part two, members of the marketing community and word of mouth advocates share their thoughts about the criticisms that are dogging influencer marketing - and whether it is more than just rhetoric.

By Neil Davey, editor

So do the criticisms levelled at influencer marketing hold any weight? Paul Gillin is a media consultant and writer, whose latest book – 'The New Influencers' – looks at how marketers can use social media. He believes that Watts' research has been valuable and believes there is some anecdotal evidence to back it up. "He has started a conversation about whether this really is an appropriate or useful way to market and it is an important point to discuss," he says.

"He has proposed that viral marketing is just inherently unpredictable and no marketer should be relying on it for the success of their campaign. So you have to look at this as being just one of a variety of tools that you use for marketing and shouldn't even be that important a tool. I can't say whether he is right or wrong but he has certainly caused a discussion and I would say that it is true that nobody I know of has come up with a predicable method for using influencer marketing that delivers reliable results."

"The question of whether influencers can influence or move markets in meaningful ways is still an open question. But we do see lots of anecdotal evidence."

Paul Gillin

Others are more dubious about Watts' findings, however. Brad Fay, for instance, has been working at the coal face of influencer marketing for years, including his roles in the Keller Fay Group with fellow expert Ed Keller and at WOMMA. When asked about the challenge to influencer marketing he is keen to emphasise both the strengths and limitations of influencer marketing as part of a wider word of mouth campaign.

"I don't think it is as simple as Mr Watts has made it out to be," he explains. "We certainly have a great deal of empirical evidence based on data that we have collected and analysed that suggests there are some people who are more prolific than other people in making recommendations about brands. We find that if you look at the top 12% in terms of influencer characteristics, they are responsible for about a third of all word of mouth. So that is a tremendous over index, if you will, among a certain segment. If you follow that to its logical conclusion, that means that two-thirds of all word of mouth is not really involving what we would term 'influencers'.

"So what makes this complicated is that a word of mouth strategy should not be solely reliant on influencer marketing. Influencer marketing in my mind is an opportunity to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of a word of mouth programme but it should not be the sole element of what you're trying to do. Everybody influences everybody else. It just happens to be that some people - by virtue of having a larger social network and having more of an inclination to make recommendations - end up having a disproportionate impact."

Mass confusion

But it seems it isn't so much the existence of this small minority of influential individuals that is in question, as it is whether they can actually be harnessed by marketers to any meaningful end. It appears it is commonly accepted that influential social connectors account for a certain percentage of the population. Yet Watts believes his research demonstrates there is no predictable disciplined way to use the channel and even some within the marketing community concede that firms have yet to come up with a method for using influencer marketing that delivers reliable results. But Fay insists there are plenty of case study examples.

"There is hype about hype, but rather than just swallow it whole, companies need to understand how the dynamics of word of mouth and influencers work within their particular sector. "

Alex Bollen, Ipsos MORI

"There are many marketers out there who are using influencer marketer as part of a strategy to great success," he emphasises. "Very recently Nintendo was named 'Ad Age's' marketer of the year and it was based on a campaign that had at its core an influencer targeting strategy. They made a decision that they were going to go after socially connected moms, and they did it."

Gillin, however, is slightly more wary of the issue of influentials. "The question of whether influencers can influence or move markets in meaningful ways is still an open question," he says. "But we do see lots of anecdotal evidence. The site Yelp, for instance, is very popular for restaurant reviews because a group of people who come to a consensus are probably going to have better and more valuable information than the opinion of one reviewer. It is the 'wisdom of crowds' idea. So it may not be that the power of influentials isn't so much with a small number of people, two people, as it is in 15 or 20 or whatever the number is that applies to the situation. So the status of marketing right now with regards to influencer marketing is just mass confusion. But I think best practices are going to emerge gradually."

Bollen believes that companies will have to do the leg work themselves if they are to establish whether an influencer marketing strategy is going to have practical applications for their market. "There is hype about hype, but rather than just swallow it whole, companies need to understand how the dynamics of word of mouth and influencers work within their particular sector," she suggests. "If you are in something terribly dull like insurance, how much impact will influencers really have? I do think that there has been some really interesting stuff around influencers to support the discipline in marketing, but it absolutely has to be grounded in the dynamics of their own particular market."

Influencer marketing on the up

Despite the well-publicised criticisms of the influentials hypothesis, Fay insists that for those organisations that are executing influencer marketing in a disciplined approach and as part of a wider word of mouth strategy, there are benefits to be had. Furthermore, he also believes that the debate that has been stirred up will have ultimately benefited the industry.

"This debate is already having some benefits for marketers as they think a little more sharply about why they do influencer marketing and how they can do it better."

Brad Fay, Keller Fay Group

"This has helped to reinvigorate interest in the topic and discussion," he says. "And it has provided some challenge for the industry to be clearer about what it is and what it isn't, how it works, and I think it is already having some benefits for marketers as they think a little more sharply about why they do influencer marketing and how they can do it better."

For his part, Watts also believes that influencer marketing will continue to be embraced - despite his reservations. "My suspicion is that ultimately the influentials hypothesis is so popular not because people actually try to implement it, but rather because it serves as a rhetorical device – a way to explain away what you don't understand," he concludes. "In a nutshell the argument goes: 'We know that influentials are important, so when important things happen, they must have been caused by influentials'. As a theory about reality, this statement is a logical tautology, but as a rhetorical device it's perfect – it sounds like it is explaining things without ever opening itself to empirical falsification.

"'Influentials' are a rhetorical device that people invoke to legitimate whatever actual plan it is that they have in mind. As we have discovered to our chagrin over and over again, the dynamics of social influence are extremely complex and counterintuitive; so taking a scientific approach to understanding it is a major undertaking. What the influentials hypothesis enables people to do is to effectively suppress all that complexity while retaining the veneer of scientific legitimacy: 'We're not just doing any damn thing because we don't know what works and what doesn't; rather we're reaching out to the influentials, because we know that's who matters'."

The debate over the influentials hypothesis may rage on, but one area of common ground remains - influencer marketing will continue to gather momentum.

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  • Influencer marketing: Effective or defective? (Part one)
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