Thursday, January 29, 2009

Death of the Influentials?

In the flat world of web communication networks, is the old marketing strategy of seeking out influential opinion-leaders really dead?

Some digital digerati (like Guy Kawasaki) suggest that in today’s world of blogging and tweeting, mass reach is the name of the game. Guy’s argument is that the internet and social media have eliminated or substantially reduced any semblance of information dissemination hierarchy. As such, if you extend your reach as far as possible through as many network nodes as possible, you will reach more prospective customers and thereby optimize your results. In this view, focusing on reaching “influentials” who might effectively distribute your message to an audience of more likely buyers is a waste of time. Just blog away and let anyone and everyone carry the message.

On the other side of the issue are people like Ed Keller of Keller Fay, who literally wrote the book on the influentials. Ed’s research into both online and offline WOM suggests that A) online WOM is still only a small fraction of offline WOM volume in most categories, and that nothing is more effective at driving behavior than the objective recommendation of a known, credible source. This would suggest that pursuing sheer volume of reviews and opinions flying around the websphere may be a potentially distracting pursuit to the marketer seeking highly effective leverage of their limited resources.

I see some parallels in marketing history here to how first network television and then direct mail each boomed on the strength of message delivery efficiency, and then busted under the declining marginal returns as clutter and CPMs rose and response rates declined. Each respectively then fractured further (network TV to cable TV; direct mail into database marketing) in search of targeting efficiencies. The idea of targeting “influentials” was born out of a desire to focus the increasingly constrained marketing team resources on the points of greatest leverage in the market.

Granted, there are substantial differences in the evolution of web communications, not the least of which is the no/low cost of pushing out messages. But it strikes me that the real cost of communicating with a flat world is the time and energy it takes to respond to all the feedback you get, much of which is irrelevant (owing to the reverse-application of the flat world theory back on you). This is just one of the dimensions of measuring WOM effectively.

So I suspect that the futurists forecasting the death of the influential-centric strategy are just that, futurists (and, somewhat paradoxically, influentials themselves). If you’re selling Coke or Crest or something else that practically anyone in the world (including emerging economies) would buy, maybe the flat world model works. But until we have appropriate technology for effectively and efficiently sifting/sorting and managing the feedback from the flat world, most marketers would probably be better off concentrating their efforts on reaching the right “nodes of influence” within the websphere.

Presumably that’s what you and I are both doing right this very moment.

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