If generating word of mouth about your brand is the holy grail of marketing, then having influencers spread that word of mouth means strapping booster rockets on your word of mouth (WOM) efforts and sending them into the stratosphere. Let’s start with the basics. I’m going to use WOMMAs definition of an influencer:

“A person who has a greater than average reach or impact through word of mouth in a relevant marketplace.”

McKinsey in its recent WOM report predicted that influencers have 50 times more impact than non-influencers. This shows the enormous value of building relationships with influencers and including influencers in marketing programs.

The next questions that I’m usually asked, when I demonstrate the importance of influencers to clients are, “What defines an influencer?” and “How do I find them?”

Influencers differ for every category. What is an influencer for one, is not necessarily an influencer for all. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, The Tipping Point, defined a few types of influencers: the sales people, the maverns and the connectors. This was a great start to get people thinking about influencers. Here are a few of the criteria we use to define an influencer for our programs:

  • Connectivity (diversity): likely spread/reach of the message and this is where we can look at both offline and online reach depending upon the objectives of a campaign,
  • Early adoptive behavior: willingness to try something new and pass it on,
  • Persuasive personality: ability to communicate a message,
  • Category involvement: how involved influencers need to be, and
  • Networks of influence: we need to understand the types of networks they belong to and how susceptible they will be to the message.

So how do you find them? One of the common myths about influencers is that they live in niche publications and websites that we don’t yet know about. In fact, they consume more media than the average person and a broader range of it too. They are definitely more active in blogs and forums about their particular interest areas. Influencers are more observant of the world around them; they are sponges, take in more and as a result have more to give. For WOM marketing campaigns at Soup we use a sophisticated profiling tool to identify influencers when they join our community and are able to classify them by category. The difficulty in finding and identifying influencers is the basis of our business. One simple thing a brand can do is profile its own customer base. This can be done by developing a simple survey based on the principles outlined above, finding the people who are more influential in your customer database and spending more money on building a relationship with them. They are your most important media channel.

I can’t talk about how important influencers are without mentioning the other side of the debate. Duncan Watts has made a name for himself in trying to debunk the myth of the influencer. He believes that his theory and models show that influencers and non-influencers have just as much sway in starting a WOM chain reaction and tipping the market. The weakness in his argument comes down to the incredible limitations of trying to model real world scenarios (see Ross Dawson for his great discussion). Duncan’s model is only based on the reach of an influencer and this is only one dimension in the influencer equation. One thing I agree with Duncan on is that the susceptibility of the network around the influencer is also key to understanding how impactful and WOM message will be from peer-to-peer.

The final thing I want to mention in the influencer debate is that we need to get a grip on just how influential online influencers are to us. Most conversations about the products and services we buy will happen offline in our real lives, down at the pub, the mothers’ group or out to dinner with friends. I recently read a blog by Nic Hodges which struck me as a great insight from a digital strategist. Here’s a snippet:

“When we talk about ideas spreading via social networks, it’s easy to fall in to the trap of thinking that means a ‘Share on Facebook’ button. It doesn’t. The way I share things like Guvera with my social network is by telling them about it over a beer, showing them on my iPhone.”

Next time, I’ll tackle how to engage influencers and give them something worth talking about.