The Business of Social Influence

Moving information within online communities is at the heart of marketing today. As networks expand, and more content is shared, new engagement patterns have emerged.
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Social influence is one of those gray areas in the Digital Era. Many lay claim to the ability to influence as a call to attention, even inserting the title of 'influencer' in their tagline, while constantly marking their territory in the online forums. Who has the power to influence and who doesn't is a matter of individual judgment. The declaration of oneself as an influencer is easy; the demonstration of actual influence over the thought and behavior of others is quite another.

Moving information within online communities is at the heart of marketing today. As networks expand, and more content is shared, new engagement patterns have emerged. Having fully transitioned to the online world, word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) is alive and well. Revenue generation is tied to enhanced visibility on multiple social platforms, and correlates to the strength and frequency of conversations taking place.

Within the framework of this disruptive technology operates a compelling force known as influence, one that all brands court on some level. Within the social space, influencers are seen as people who can move mountains, open doors, and control fates. Regard as an influencer is a positive identification, one that altogether connotes authority, carries a high level of accountability, and hints at expanding a brand's reach.

The study of social influence encompasses socialization, peer pressure, conformity, obedience, leadership, and persuasion. In his 1958 treatise in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, Harvard psychologist, Herbert Kelman defined three modes of social influence: 1). Compliance, 2). Identification, and 3). Internalization. Separately, and in combination, these measures were intended to differentiate accepted behavior from privately-held beliefs. (Source: Wikipedia)

In his book, Influence: Science and Practice, Robert Cialdini expands on his theories of strategic communication, focusing on compliance and persuasion in a social setting. Based on generalizations and learned behavior in decision making, Cialdini conceptualizes influence as both as process and an experience, and lays the foundation for what has come to be known as influencer marketing. He demonstrates how "compliance professionals" can be deployed by brands to influence potential buyers.

The Rise of Influencer Marketing

Seeding thoughts, opinions, and emotions in others has been around since the dawn of communication. Even in a free-thinking society, there are those who need to be told what to think, how to feel, who to believe, and what to buy. Throughout the course of human history, there are countless notables who have proved an uncanny ability to establish their sway and direct action. Unfortunately, not all that wield the power of influence have used it for the greater good.

Nowadays, marketers are acutely aware that their consumer groups live online. Given the velocity with which a message can be disseminated and amplified across the Internet, coupled with the impact of mobile technologies, more economic buyers can be reached in a fraction of the time. As the uptick in active use continues on all the major social networking sites, engaging with influencers has become a key component of the marketing equation.

Influencer branding is closely related to thought leadership; both pursuits forge a path to wider recognition, increased engagement, and more business wins. For brands today, finding the right influencer to provide the right rationale that will turn indiscriminant consumers into fervent fans can mean everything. The influencers themselves are highly protective of their reputations and selective of the brands that they will tout.

Rohit Vashisht, Co-Founder and CEO of Sverve, a company that connects brands with best-fit social media influencers, believes that we have entered a new age of digital marketing, one that is driven by sharing. "Marketing today is all about authentic and engaging content shared by people that others trust on their channels of choice." He notes that messaging shared by a friend or follower is "a thousand times more impactful than a photo in a banner ad."

Monetizing and Quantifying Social Influence

Known influencers are the movers, the shakers, the people who can make things happen. They stir culture, set trends, and put forth opinions that are trusted and valued by the masses. They are also well-paid for their thinking and use of their likeness. Of course, not everybody has access to elite athletes, superstar performance artists, widely-read journalists, or other high-profile personalities, let alone the budgets to engage them.

The social sharing economy has created a marketplace for aspiring and self-anointed influencers, those who have amassed huge followings. They are perceived as creative, cutting edge, and in tune with social mores. However, their interactions can often cloud the metrics, making assessments on performance, marketing reach, and ROI difficult, if not impossible.

Whether the goal of a brand is to gain more concentrated coverage or viral spread, the challenge lies in identifying the most desirable influencers, evaluating their access to the target market, and setting realistic expectations of results. "Influencers have their own ways of engaging with their followers," explains Vashisht. "Different channels have different ways in which they inspire people to connect and share content."

Parting Thoughts

♦ The stakes are going up for marketers. In a society compressed by information overload and attention deficiency, brands know what they are up against in getting their message across to people. They understand that there is an art and science to generating conversations, shifting perspectives, and persuading others to take action.

♦ Influence is talent. Influencer marketing will unquestionably become an essential talent acquisition strategy for forward-thinking brands. They will seek to partner with social influencers who are aligned with their ideals and can create change within their communities.

♦ For brands, capitalizing on trends in buyer behavior is nothing new. When it comes to creating a consumer craving or engendering long-term advocacy, they need help. Influencers can provide that relevance, that leadership, and the megaphone that can turn a napkin idea into the next, best, shiny thing.

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