Sometimes things just seem so right, so correct, so intuitive that we don’t even bother questioning whether the underlying assumptions are valid. But assumptions can be dangerous. Could this be true for the significance placed on the role of influencers in public relations work?
Of course, we can all think of someone who has had some level of influence on us, thus the underlying assumption that the power of an influencer must be true.
But it’s worth taking a step back and looking at some competing views on the subject. What if influence doesn’t really matter that much?
Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point first popularized the role of the influencer in marketing, although I’d make the argument that identifying people who can persuade certain audiences far predates the publication of that book. Politicians and lobbyists have long known the power of securing the backing of someone prominent to further their cause. Does this necessarily transfer over to purchasing habits, what one eats, what one wears, and what films one decides to see? Do “influencers” really cause a “tipping point” for an idea or product, causing it to go mainstream?
Researcher Duncan Watts says no. I first came across his ideas in a Fast Company article titled “Is the Tipping Point Toast?” that ran in 2008. In the article, Watts asserts that highly connected people have no real role in the spread of trends at all. To those of us who spend a lot of time examining the role of influence, especially the role of influencers online and in social networks, this is close to heresy.
So Watts sets out to prove his theory that information is spread through far more democratic methods than the reliance on “super-connected” people. His experiments continue to show that what we all know about influencers–or actually what we all think we know about them–is wrong. He recreates Stanley Milgram’s “small world” experiment, but he does it online and comes up with different results. Milgram’s experiment had the same three people passing nearly half of the letters on to their final connection in Boston, leading to the conclusion that these were highly connected people. Watts’ experiment had very different results, and his explanation is that Milgram’s sample size of 160 letters was too small.
More telling is another experiment Watts conducted that is described in the article. He set up a computer simulation of a rudimentary “society,” and watched how trends spread. Repeatedly, the “average Joes” were just as likely to kick off a trend as were the simulation-specified “influencers.” When an influencer sparked a trend, it did have more reach–so one point there for the role of influence. But the fact that the influencers weren’t the ones to kick off every trend is an important point. Watts suggests “this is because a trend’s success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend–not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded.”
This, to me, is a very interesting point and one that cannot be easily glossed over by marketers or PR pros or anyone else who is staking the success of a campaign on identifying influencers. If people aren’t ready to pay attention to something it doesn’t matter if your identified and targeted influencer has a great Klout score or a million followers on Twitter, the trend won’t stick.
I’m sure that Watts has his detractors, but I think there is a lot to digest in the Fast Company piece. Here we are, nearly four years later, and we’re still up to our eyes in analyses of online influence tools, arguing about the merits of deals and perks and trying to assist clients through this murky water.
What if we’re all concentrating on the wrong thing?