“Nothing comes out of nothing,” say the old philosophers. In other words, every effect must have a cause. Digital marketing, too, has a causal law: No influence without an influencer. If we want to understand the exercise of influence on the public — and this is true whether you’re selling sneakers, organizing for a political candidate, or trying to get a decent crowd at your next rock show — we have to start here, with the ex nihilo nihil fit of public relations. To understand influence, look to the influencer.
There are plenty of other approaches to the topic, if by “influence” you mean, with digital analyst Brian Solis, “the ability to cause desirable and measurable actions and outcomes.” Look into Robert Cialdini’s famous six principles, as outlined in his 1984 book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It makes perfect sense to strive for reciprocity, consistency, social proof, authority, likeability, and the scarcity of your offerings in all your messaging.
Or, shoot, why not go all the way back to Dale Carnegie and his 1937 classic How to Win Friends & Influence People? It was good enough for Warren Buffett, and it’s worth the price of admission just for social-media-friendly advice like this:
Begin by emphasizing — and keep on emphasizing — the things on which you agree. Keep emphasizing, if possible, that you are both striving for the same end and that your only difference is one of method and not of purpose.
But today, we’d like to take a different tack. Let’s start with the influencer. After all, the social science on persuasion makes it pretty clear that who does the influencing is crucial to success…or its lack. In this context, we can define influence as the leveraging of a community’s existing influencers to spread your message and drive agreement.
Choosing the Right Influencers: Social Identities within Social Groups
So what are the prerequisites of an ideal influencer? Researchers point to the theory of social identity, which holds that individuals understand their social being through a sense of belonging in multiple valued social groups. He’s a son, a gardener, and a socialist. She’s a hunter, a mom, and a video-gamer. Each has a distinct social identity made up of membership in multiple social groups.
Marketers on the hunt for influencers must be keen observers of social identity as it relates to broader social groups. No matter how well-crafted your message may be, if you choose the wrong messenger, you’ll miss the mark.
Take it as a given that consumers self-identify as members of various social groups. Marketers will need influencers who are recognizable within these groups. They must then tailor their messaging for consistency with the defining conditions of the targeted group. This is getting a bit thick; let’s have a real-world example.
Influencers within Social Groups: One Example
At KAOH, we do a lot of work with renewable energy developers. There’s usually some serious convincing to do within communities that have the final say over the installation of a new solar panel field or wind farm.
In that context, we would start our social media campaigns by looking for community members who identify with the social group environmentalists. Then we’d craft messaging that emphasizes the environmental benefits of solar or wind energy. Recruitment is rarely a problem; after all, you’re all pursuing the same goal.
Within the same community, we might identify a social group that doesn’t care about ecology at all. Maybe they’re more interested in economic prosperity. Our environmentalist’s word is no good here; we need influencers within the business community. For them, we would craft messages that emphasize the economic benefits of inviting clean energy providers into the area.
All of the arguments are true and given in good faith. The difference is one of speaking to each social group’s unique concerns. Luckily, clean energy projects are so rich in benefits that there’s something for everyone.
Of course, identifying social identity and social group is only the first step. You still need to find community members with the attributes to be effective influencers, and then you need to convince them to join your crusade. More on those topics in upcoming posts. For now, just remember this, with apologies to Marshall McLuhan: The influencer is the influence.