September 29, 2022

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Celebrities, Influence, and Popularity: No simple formula.

Celebrities, Influence, and Popularity: No simple formula.

On yesterday’s #measurePR chat, there was a spirited discussion surrounding celebrity, popularity, and what influence means. “What is influence?” seems to be one of those perennial social media questions, and the answer is likely too complex to stuff into a simple formula. Which makes us all crazy, because we want a number, a score–something to help filter–but when someone comes up with one, we spend all of our time discussing the problems with it.

Part of the discussion centered on celebrity and popularity, and once again the “Twitter celebrity death” campaign to fundraise came up. Most of the social media types I virtually hang out with think the program failed—the celebrities had to resort to a single donor to make the balance of the fundraising goal. But why didn’t the campaign work? These celebrities have HUGE followings. Some people, I’m sure, hang on their every Tweet. Was the ask not specific enough (e.g., “if everyone gives a dollar”)? Was it the timing (too close to the holidays)? Was it too hard to donate (for those who have become accustomed to texting a number and having it show up on a bill, perhaps clicking through to a donation site is too much to ask)? Was it the simple—but breathtaking—arrogance of suggesting that the general public would so miss their presence on Twitter that we’d donate quickly to get them back, that turned people off? Or were they simply not influential in this specific case?

The fact that celebrities carry some influence with consumers really can’t be legitimately contested—they do, or celebrity endorsements would be non-existent. I used to think that perhaps there’s a dollar amount attached: people will try a celebrity-endorsed product if it’s not too hard on the wallet—say, a perfume or something along those lines, but not a really expensive item. I don’t think that’s it though. I think that there are likely a lot of reasons people pay attention to and (important to this discussion) ACT on celebrity endorsements. For some, it’s aspirational—“I too can carry the Chanel purse so-and-so was photographed carrying.” For others, the celebrity strikes a familiar connection—just knowing the face in the ad makes one look at it. It’s the only reason I can fathom that Kelly Ripa is featured in Electrolux advertisements.

But then we get into the issue of how trust plays into influence. Several of the participants in yesterday’s chat asserted that trust is a key component of influence—that’s probably correct, depending on what the subject of the influence is. But what is the sliding scale of trust? Do I “trust” Oprah? For a book recommendation, sure—there’s not really any reason not to. I use the library for almost all of my reading material (I’m a very fast reader and it’s not cost effective for me to purchase books), so if Oprah recommends a book, and it sounds interesting to me, I’ll pick it up. (And, before all you haters start in on me about the Oprah book club, go pick up The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and tell me it is light reading.) But for something like a car or durable goods purchase, I’m going to do my own research no matter who suggests something to me. Does that mean I don’t “trust” Oprah? No, not really. It just means I trust different people for different recommendations for different purposes—and even then, my personality dictates that regardless of what others say, sometimes I’ll do my own research rather than taking a recommendation at face value. Trust then comes into play in the selection of the places that I do my research.

Issues surrounding Klout scores continue to pop up as well. Some are even asking if influence is dead, when Justin Bieber tops the list. No, influence is not dead, but when we confuse celebrity or popularity with influence, we significantly degrade not only true influence but also our own credibility if we allow dubious “scores” to pervade the practice of PR measurement. Haven’t we learned our lesson *cough—AVE—cough* yet? There is no simple formula. Get over it, and stop being lazy.

Determining who has influence is going to be specific to each program run. Here’s what influence is. Think about the end objective of your PR-Marketing-Communications program/campaign. Now think about what it will take to get there. Now think about WHO can convince THOSE people to do THAT. Those are your influencers. They might be celebrities, if you are intent on selling purses that cost more than many peoples’ mortgages. They might be local business leaders, if you are trying to convince a community that it needs a new grocery store. It might be moms, dads, grandparents, etc. As Anne Buchanan succinctly put it in yesterday’s chat: “Influence is contextual. Looking at it any other way is dangerous.”

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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    Shonali Burke

    I LOVE this post, Jen, and aargh, now I have to figure out how to write the "what is influence" post I was thinking of more creatively… or perhaps not at all!

    All the questions re: the Digital Death campaign are valid, and I think all the factors you cite might have played a part. However, my personal feeling is that while the campaign was built as a social media campaign, its premise was fundamentally antithetical to what makes SM campaigns successful; i.e. to talk more and hence DO more. Had the campaign instead been built around the celebs relentlessly tweeting about the campaign, the issue of HIV in developing countries, etc., I think it would have had more traction. They may still have had to resort to a couple of large donors, but I think it would have gone further at the outset. Certainly, they had people talking about the campaign; but in a derogatory sense.

    Did they have "influence" over their SM fans/followers? Clearly not enough.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Celebrities, Influence, and Popularity: No simple formula. « Media Bullseye – A New Media and Communications Magazine --

    Jen Zingsheim

    Thanks for dropping by and commenting, to both of you. Determining influence is SO important for effective communications, so it's unsurprising that it is such a common topic. Shonali, I think you should write that "what is influence" post–as far as I'm concerned, the more discussion on this the better! Matt, thanks for the nice words. I can't believe you are in Sedalia–I spent around a decade in Jefferson City.

  4. Pingback: On Influence In Public Relations And Social Media | Waxing UnLyrical

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