Most Social Media Influencers Have No Influence

When we speak of influence, particularly in marketing, what are we talking about? Do we even know what influence is? If we don’t, then we’re chasing something we may not understand; in turn, we may be paying for results that make no sense or are ineffective.

What is influence?

Let’s say we have a prospective customer who doesn’t like our brand. Perhaps they had a bad experience with us, or perhaps they don’t like our marketing. What’s our business goal? To influence that customer to purchase from us again.

If we examine classical definitions of social influence, we find three general levels as defined by Dr. Herbert Kelman in 1958:

  • Compliance: when someone changes their behavior (even if temporarily) but not their beliefs.
  • Identification: when someone accepts new beliefs based on input from others, especially someone liked or respected.
  • Internalization: when someone changes their beliefs and behaviors.

When we talk about influence as marketers, we’re often talking about very superficial influence, the influence that leads to compliance. For example, if a celebrity or a peer group convinces us to buy something or do something, they exert influence over us that leads to compliance. Compliance is what most marketers and sales professionals are chasing – can we get convince prospect to buy so that we make our numbers this quarter?

Compliance is a temporary behavior change – we hold our nose and buy from a brand because of a great sale or because we have few viable choices. If we had another choice, we would purchase from a competitor. The brand is a last choice.

The second level of influence is much stronger, where we accept different beliefs and inputs from others. This is far beyond “buy our crap”. Identification changes how we feel. Suppose we’ve had a bad experience with a brand, or been exposed to enough negative perceptions about a brand. We identify a certain set of criteria, characteristics of that brand.

Changing a brand’s identity requires significant effort, to overcome what the brand used to stand for. As marketers, we must change the inputs to our audience on a sustained basis, such that the new inputs overwhelm past inputs.

  • T-Mobile no longer has crap service and coverage everywhere. (it’s actually quite good, esp. in cities)
  • Apple is a valuable, progressive company. (in 1997 it was on death’s door)

With enough positive inputs, our beliefs, our understanding of a brand’s identity changes. That said, our behavior might not change immediately, but our understanding of the identity is a bigger shift than mere compliance. When identity changes, a brand becomes a parity choice; for example, we consider Android and iOS peers and choose based on commodity factors, rather than buy anything but Apple. Most brands occupy this space, a neutral ground in which they compete on benefits and features.

The third level of influence is the most powerful of all: we internalize new beliefs. When our beliefs change about a brand – when we fully accept the brand’s new identity, then we can be convinced to permanently change our behaviors. We now actively seek out the brand and prefer it, even if some features and benefits are not optimal. We even evangelize on behalf of the brand, representing it positively to others, exerting the brand’s influence over us to others.

For example, Starbucks has a brand strength that permits it to sell coffee at significantly higher prices than peer competitors. For brand advocates, they’ve been influenced so much that they’ve internalized the brand.

Fans of sports franchises are the ultimate brand internalizers. They will literally tattoo the brand’s logo on their bodies. The brand’s identity becomes so internalized that their own identity merges with it. Try convincing a New England Patriots fan to be a Buffalo Bills fan or a Seattle Seahawks fan.

This is the height of influence, and the goal that marketers aspire to. How do we build influence such that people want to tattoo our logo on themselves?

Social Media Influence Isn’t (In Most Cases)

Understanding these levels of influence, we now see that the vast majority of what marketers call “influence” in social media is anything but. Instead, social media influence is really little more than advertising in its current state, which has separate goals. Advertising builds awareness and affinity, but is highly unlikely to change identity.

Social media influencers won’t change the beliefs of our audience or convince them to internalize a brand as part of their identity. What will? Our own actions and values. In the same way that no friend talking about us will change the interactions we have with a customer, no social media influencer is likely to change the interactions of a customer with a brand, no matter how many followers they have.

How do we use social media to create influence, then? We use social media as a communications channel to deepen relationships directly with our customers. If we have a great product or service, exemplary support and care, and a willingness to create positive interactions with our customers on every channel including social media, we will influence our audience to compliance, identification, and internalization.


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