March 2.0 Column

While the column format would not allow a full discussion, I was thinking about blogs and social networking sofware while composing this piece. The focus is on "influencers" and marketing for this column, which by the way is the last of this kind. Next month I'm switching to an interview…

While the column format would not allow a full discussion, I was thinking about blogs and social networking sofware while composing this piece. The focus is on “influencers” and marketing for this column, which by the way is the last of this kind. Next month I’m switching to an interview format (first up is Tivo’s Mike Ramsay…)

The Net of Influence
Influencers are critical to business success. But the last thing you want to do is treat them like a mass market. Instead, do the hard work of cultivating them in a personal network.

By John Battelle, March 2004 Issue

The era of carpet-bombing your brand into existence through a shock-and-awe network TV campaign is over. So what now? Marketers struggling for meaning in a post-mass-media world are turning to the concept of “influencers” — people in a position to shape others’ opinions. Get them to give your product great word of mouth, the theory goes, and your business will flourish.

Push a bit on this particular noodle, though, and it feels all wet. According to The Influentials, a 2003 book from market researchers Jon Berry and Ed Keller, you can target a cohesive set of influencers — 21 million strong — as a single group.

But the idea that one large überclass of community leaders determines the fate of all products seems utterly silly to me. So allow me to posit a different approach: For any product you’re selling, there is a unique set of roughly 150 such leaders, each of whom you can and should get to know personally.

Hard to believe? Paul Rand is developing proof. Rand, an executive at Ketchum Communications, is launching a program to identify the folks critical to a business’s success and target them with intimate and relevant programs and messaging. What Rand has found, time after time, is that the number of influencers for any given product is about 150.

This reminded me of a concept advanced in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. We tend to max out social networks at about 150 individuals (it has to do with group dynamics and how our brains are wired). Below that number, a group is small enough to operate on personal relationships rather than rules and hierarchy. This rings true for villages, military units, corporate divisions, and, I’d argue, communities of interest. A smart marketer will capitalize on that fact.

(more in extended entry below)

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I challenged Rand to prove that connecting to just 150 people would produce results for, say, a packaged-goods company. “Hot cereal!” he responded gleefully. A large client (Rand asked me not to identify the company) found that folks were avoiding hot cereal because they thought it was too heavy on carbohydrates. To reverse that trend, the company might have spent millions on ads featuring steaming bowls of porridge. But it decided to test Rand’s assertions, and together they identified and interacted with opinion leaders in the health, diet, and fitness worlds. While Rand can’t give away details, he says his customer is happy with the results, which led to, among other things, a national association of dietitians recommending eating whole-grain foods for breakfast. To help make that happen, Rand cultivated his client’s influencers with handwritten notes, face-to-face meetings to discuss their work, and awards recognizing their roles in the health community.

So how do you find your own influencers? In the entertainment business, for example, they’d include the obvious elite — media critics and senior executives in the business, but also well-respected reviewers on Amazon (AMZN), crossover voices like Wil Wheaton (a sometime actor who now has a wildly popular weblog), and outspoken critics of Hollywood. In technology, your influencers would include large corporate customers, industry analysts and journalists, selected policy wonks, and a sampling of early adopters — the folks who eagerly try out new technology.

Instead of hiding behind marketing programs, make it your business to create a personal network. Identify the communities that consume or champion your product, as well as the controversies (like the health value of hot cereal, for example). Then start talking to people. Don’t try to sell them anything, just ask for input. Most people like being asked for their opinions, particularly if their ideas affect how the product is made. Include critics — if you can learn why they dislike your product, and integrate their input, they may become your greatest champions. Over time, this network will start to spread positive word of mouth, and good things will happen.

The act of maintaining a network of influencers may not come naturally, but if you don’t already have one, you’re out of touch with the very people determining your success. Get out and meet them — it’s a lot cheaper than a Super Bowl ad and, I’d wager, a lot more effective.

John Battelle directs the business reporting program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He founded the Industry Standard and was a co-founding editor of Wired.

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©2004 Business 2.0 Media Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

8 thoughts on “March 2.0 Column”

  1. That is exactly the thinking behind my company, WhizSpark. We promote events by identifying key people to spread the word and then providing them with free access and the possibility of making money.

    This is the future of marketing: marketing through “connectors”. This is where social networks should be focussing.

    Besides Gladwell’s Tipping Point, A good read is Seth Godin’s, IdeaVirus.

  2. John — interesting piece, thanks for writing it, your stuff is always good. (You should read my blog posts on Irish Oatmeal btw, which is perfect in the morning if you use your rice cooker to make up a pot of the hot stuff.)

    Peter — I like your comment, but the trick is really good word of mouth endorsement, that’s NOT bought and paid for, right? That’s a long standing truth, but is there a way to give WOM a nudge?

    As a blogger, I write about things I like — Vanilla Diet Coke, The Body Shop’s Blueberry Body Butter, the movie School of Rock — but if I were to receive any compensation for such stuff, isn’t my opinion bankrupt?

    Surely with new untried products, I’d be happy to get my hands on something new before others can to try it and critique it. That feels more legit for some reason. It feels more like “bring me into the product development cycle” and less “pay me to shill for you.”


  3. Our research for the book “Creating Customer Evangelists” (which is all about this very subject you’ve written on) found that about 20 percent of your very satisified customers can become your evangelists. These true believers, if somehow emotionally engaged with you, will freely promote your product/service. No points, rewards, rebates or miles required.

    As such, I would NOT say a company’s sphere of influence tops out at 150 people. Look at — it’s a self-organized online group of 55,000 TiVo enthusiasts. Since it is outside of TiVo’s control, the site’s how-to instructions for people to train retail store employees on doing a better job of selling TiVo is far more authentic than what TiVo could produce.

    Speaking of which, I would be interested to know from Mike Ramsay at TiVo (whom you mention in another post), what percentage of the $50 million campaign it announced today will be geared toward encouraging word of mouth among its evangelistic customers?

    From MediaPost:
    “TiVo plans a $50 million investment to build subscribers in the next year. Ramsay declined to spell out the initiative for competitive reasons, but said it would include targeted advertising, public relations, rebates, and other promotions, particularly in the second half in the runup to the holiday season.”

    Ben McConnell
    Co-author, “Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force”

  4. “”Peter — I like your comment, but the trick is really good word of mouth endorsement, that’s NOT bought and paid for, right? That’s a long standing truth, but is there a way to give WOM a nudge?””

    Halley – I think you are partially correct. The product must be of high quality and meet the needs of the people. And It remains to be seen how big of a nudge is required. When it comes to an event, it isn’t difficult to build good buzz, because the people make the party, whether it is a nightlife event or tech trade show. Getting the buy-in from the right people is the key. And I think by understanding social network theory (the math), on a large enough social network, buzz can be purchased. This is the theory we are testing.

    We will be blogging a big portion of our biz plan in the next month.

  5. Completely agree. This 150 varies in quality as one progresses along the career curve – adding in those more aligned with one’s career, and letting drop off those that aren’t.
    For any in the Bay Area, is a good, free database of companies and executives useful for anyone for job search, selling, executive search, or journalism. It’s been a great resource for me.

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