One of the most popular concepts in the world of social media marketing is that of ‘Influentials’.

As their name implies, they are trendsetting individuals that supposedly have the ability to “influence” others into purchasing products.

As Drama 2.0 continues his assault on the flawed thinking behind many of the claims being made about social media marketing, I thought it’d be worthwhile to give my word-of-mouth recommendation about a great article in the latest issue of Fast Company.

Entitled “Is the Tipping Point Toast?“, the article details the research of Duncan Watts, a Columbia University network theory scientist who is currently working at Yahoo.

His work casts doubt on many of the ideas popularised by books such as Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, which claims that a small numbers of highly-influential people are frequently behind the hottest trends.

According to Watts, this just isn’t the case:

A rare bunch of cool people just don’t have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart.

In other words, Watts believes the $1bn marketers spend annually on word-of-mouth campaigns are a complete waste of money.

This has made Watts even more unpopular than I am and for good reason – MarketingVOX says that spending on word-of-mouth marketing is growing faster than any other form of marketing.

Agencies specialising in word-of-mouth marketing have sprung up and the whole notion that word-of-mouth can be reliably harnessed to drive results more cost-effectively than traditional marketing campaigns has fuelled much of the hype around social media services, which in theory seem like the perfect platforms for word-of-mouth marketing.

Facebook’s flawed Project Beacon originated from this.

Even if you’re unconvinced of Watts’s arguments, it’s almost impossible not to find them interesting.

Unlike Malcom Gladwell, for instance, Watts has a technical background that is related to the subject matter.

And unlike most of the proponents of Influentials, he’s actually conducted real research that has produced tangible data. This means his claims can actually be argued about on a more scientific level.

For instance, one experiment Watts conducted found that, even when the Influentials in the experiment had the deck stacked in their favour, “the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion“.

Perhaps the most important idea put forth by Watts is that “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.”

The article continues:

When Watts tweaked his model to increase everyone’s odds of being infected, the number of trends skyrocketed.

“If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one–and if it isn’t, then almost no one can,” Watts concludes.

“To succeed with a new product, it’s less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public’s mood.

“Sure, there’ll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts’s terminology, an “accidental Influential.”

This resonates with me.

As I’ve suggested before:

A great product, a great value proposition and a great story (with the means to get it out) are what brands truly need to cultivate word-of-mouth buzz.

If you have something that’s “hot” and can effectively get word of into a wide enough audience, the chances that somebody will take your message and run with it are obviously higher.

In other words, mass marketing is still crucial because you don’t know which consumers could turn out to be your “influentials”.

When looking at the world from this perspective, trying to get your product and message precisely into the hands of specific Influentials seems almost counter-intuitive.

The amount of effort, couple with the risk that you miss the right Influentials completely, doesn’t create a favourable scenario.

The truth is that the world is really complex and the way people interact socially is complicated.

Yes, there may be some individuals that exert more influence over their contacts in some fashion than others might. But this probably doesn’t apply as a general rule that can be leveraged in the real world.

For instance, you may have a friend whose advice in certain areas of fashion you find credible yet who you wouldn’t trust for advice about new tech gadgets. In other words, as Watts describes, there are far too many variables: 

Depending on how you define the specific mechanics of influence, you’d get totally different types of epidemics.

Of course, some just don’t buy what Watts is saying.

Ed Keller, author of book The Influentials, believes that Watts’s argument is far too “academic” and just doesn’t reflect reality.

He points out that before Nintendo released the Wii, it gave away thousands of demo units to Mom Influentials and therefore already had a foundation of staunch advocates for the product when it launched to the public.

Yet does this necessarily mean that the success of the Wii is tied to these specific Influentials?

As noted at the beginning of the Fast Company article, trend-setting “hipsters” adopt lots of new products every year that never become mainstream successes.

Therefore, assuming that they have some magic power to turn everything they touch into gold is faulty reasoning. You simply can’t attribute “successes” to them while ignoring the “failures”.

At the end of the day, regardless of who you believe, it’s clear that there is a real debate to be had over just how effective “artificial” word-of-mouth campaigns can be.

I tend to believe that the increasing amount of money being spent on word-of-mouth campaigns targeting Influentials is borne of two facts:

  • Many marketers are frustrated. Consumers, especially in certain demographic groups, seem more elusive and harder to “market to” these days. Word-of-mouth appears to be the perfect solution to this problem.
  • Many marketers are lazy. The idea that if you simply get your product and message into the hands of a small group of the “right” consumers, they’ll do the rest of the work for you is, for obvious reasons, appealing.

But if Watts is right, there’s a problem – the Influentials really don’t exist in the form proponents say they do. And thus, marketers are wasting their money on a pipedream.

Perhaps the most ironic thing in this whole discussion is the fact that so much money is being spent on word-of-mouth marketing.

For a form of marketing that is technically supposed to be pretty damn cheap (i.e. free), the $1bn-and-growing that these campaigns are costing marketers every year seems quite expensive.

Obviously, proponents will argue that, relatively speaking, this is a small sum compared to other forms of marketing.

But until these same proponents can truly prove that the mechanics of these campaigns really work the way they say they do and, most importantly, drive the types of ROI they claim they can, $1bn is a lot of money no matter how you slice it.