William Randolph Hearst provides one of the earliest examples of large-scale media influence. In 1898 Hearst was attributed with influencing the Spanish American War by publishing articles that moved the American people toward war with Spain. This made Hearst the father of yellow journalism. This moment -- a turning point in the history of propaganda -- provides an example of the power of influence. In the past 100 years, has much really changed beyond the medium with which we can influence?
Walk a few blocks east of what is now Hearst Tower in Midtown Manhattan and you encounter the advertising world of Mad Men, a knowledge worker factory of carefully constructed and controlled messaging. The social web has changed Madison Avenue -- and the challenge of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce -- forever.
Today there's a debate raging over marketing budgets. Should they be spent on influencers, individuals who have a celebrity-like following around specific topics and industries? Or should budgets be spent on brand advocates, customers who talk favorably about a brand or product, passing on positive word-of-mouth (WOM) messages to other people? While some say proactively engaging influencers (rather than advocates -- or everyone else) is unfair, I believe it's a marketing opportunity that can only be missed by those who are "above it all." In the show Mad Men, character Don Draper did things others would not. He broke rules, went to extremes and took seemingly unforgivable risks. He consistently created ideas that were contrary to popular opinion.
Draper knows the power of relationships, persuasion and brand perception. I believe the Draper of 2013 would focus on influencers before he would focus on advocates. Marketing experts Mark Schaefer, Wendy Lea and Michael Brito weigh in regarding where marketing budgets should be spent.
There's a First-Mover Advantage in The Influencer Space
Mark Schaefer is the author of The Tao of Twitter and Return on Influence. He sees the merit of influencer engagement and says every CMO should at least know enough about the influencer trend and its potential to make the right decision for their company. "There is a first-mover advantage in this space. Starting to build strong connections now with those you can identify as powerful word of mouth influencers is important," Schaefer said. He cites Audi's influencer engagement case study as the best example. Audi created a series of events for people in the tech and design community who would not necessarily be writing about cars.
Create the Environment, Observe the Community, Engage the Influencers
Wendy Lea is the CEO of Get Satisfaction, a CXM (customer experience management) company offering branded customer communities. She is also an angel investor, strategic adviser and board member for a long list of startup companies. When asked about engagement, she said she believes in focusing on brand engagement first, and influencer engagement second. "Think about a party. You bring attendees to a big tent where they check in. Then you're able to observe what kind of influence they have within the party [community]," she said. "Influencer engagement is middle of the funnel. Engage your brand with many to many. You then see the total people engaging on the site and you can identify those that have the most influence in those assets as well as in their own networks." She added, "I don't care about the[ir] Klout scores."
Empower and Enable Existing Fans to be Awesome for the Brand
Michael Brito, SVP Social Business Planning at Edelman Digital and author of Smart Business, Social Business, believes influencers provide only short-term business value for brands. He said CMOs should focus more on brand advocates and less on influencers. "Influencers usually require an incentive before they engage. Advocates just love the brand and will pretty much do anything you ask," Brito said. He does see the merit in leveraging influencers for short-term campaigns, such as product launches and events, but said, "Advocates drive long-term business value because they talk about the brand day in and day out, without incentives." Brito believes advocates often get ignored -- which is a problem. He's a fan of the advocate program run by restaurant chain Chili's. According to Brito, Chili's "built systematic and scalable programs that empower and enable... fans to be awesome for the brand. They've gamified the entire experience, extracting the competitive edge from their fans."
It hasn't actually been that long since the Spanish American War in 1898. Human nature doesn't change. We will always have influencers in the community who can sway people. What has changed is the technology making relationship building easier.
While brand advocates are important, you can't get around the fact that if you're in business and you don't know the names of the top 20 people who influence your market, you've got some work to do.
This post is part of a series co-produced by The Huffington Post and Blogworld, in conjunction with the latter's NMX BusinessNext Social 2013. That event will feature some of the world's leading social-business luminaries and influencers, each of whom will be speaking at the event to provide an up-close look at how the world's most successful businesses harness the power of social.
Blake Landau runs the Bay Area marketing services firm Artemis focusing on influencer engagement, social media and content strategy. She serves on the board of SOCAP as the VP of Programs for the Bay Area. Before Artemis she built Customer Management IQ. She lives in Oakland, CA with her boyfriend Jacob and her dog Athena.