During an interview I conducted with BL Ochman of What's Next, on my Blog Talk Radio podcast show, she brought up the topic of Social Media Influencers. She said that this is all the rage now, people are seeking to identify who the key influencers are in social media. Companies want to reach these influential pundits and gurus, as a short cut to reaching a broad market for their products.
Reach the key influencers, get them excited about your product or brand, and they will reach your target market with your sales message. Makes perfect sense, right? Sure it does. If you don't care about your customers, that is.
Trust is the rarest commodity on the web, as web analyst Jakob Nielsen said. People are not seeking to be "influenced", they are seeking solutions to problems, or they are seeking ways to enhance a lifestyle. They are not looking for people who are influential, but people who are trustworthy, credible, reliable.
Adam Singer solidified what BL Ochman was alluding to in her dismissal of Social Media Influencer campaigns. His article "Don't Influence, Connect and Build Trust", which my Twitter pal Dave Land @dland linked to today, prompted me to express my own thoughts on this subject.
Influence is the antithesis of community
Web community building is hard work. Anyone who says the opposite hasn’t actually built one from the ground up or is lying to you. And if you do have a thriving web community, well you know the work that went into creating it. So would you really risk attrition of your biggest competitive advantage and throw away years of hard work by attempting to covertly influence them?
If your efforts are based purely on trying to influence others or simply court “influential” users you are building your community on a house of cards. Eventually it is going to fall down because your community will see through your efforts.
When you need a solution, whether it be a lawyer, dentist, doctor, landscaper, nanny, or business coach, you go to someone you think is smart and friendly to give you advise. You also want that adviser to tell you the truth, with no hidden agenda, no finder's fee, no compensated opinion. You seek an honest and completely selfless opinion about who is a good lawyer, dentist, doctor, landscaper, nanny, or business coach.
You don't want to go to some celebrity product spokesperson and ask them for a provider of what you need. You go to a brother, sister, parent, friend, neighbor, or other trusted individual. You value their opinion because you know they have your best interests at heart. You are confident in their kindness and honesty. You are quite sure they won't lead you astray for some selfish motive.
There are individuals who exert far more "influence" than your friend, but do you trust the influential person? Does influential equal authoritative? Does influence translate into credibility? You can fake credibility, and if you don't believe me, look at Bernie Madoff. He had tremendous influence. He seemed credible, but he was a con artist who robbed many people of millions of dollars.
True credibility is not achieved overnight. It's not based on numbers of followers, but on veracity of content. Truth is not always the most popular, but it eventually wins.
Let's return now to social media and marketing your products to members of online communities. If you seek to influence them, will you be accepted or rejected? Nobody joins a social network to receive sales messages. I repeat this fact over and over. People join social networks to be social on a network. They seek others that share their values, beliefs, or interests.
If you want to reach people with a sales message on social media, you must abandon the idea that these social media participants are sitting ducks with fat wallets. You must give up the concept that social media is loaded with suckers who are easy to seduce and low-hanging fruit that's easy to pluck.
You can't be effective in social media marketing by assuming that social media has the same rules as mass media. You must comply with the core values of social media: sharing and caring. Influence is not sharing and caring, it is a form of bullying, or at worst, deceiving.
A politician can influence you to vote for him or her, but when they betray your confidence, you may then turn against them and work to remove them from office. Don't you hate it when someone "influenced" you, then you awoke from the spell and discovered that you were tricked? You then despise them, or at least you never support them again.
What's the answer? What must be done in social media if you have a brand to promote? How can you use social media to present your product to the people who need it?
By not talking about it very much, that's how. Sure, you need to publicize the fact that you have solutions that others may need now or in the future. But blabbering on and on about your precious little product is a guaranteed way to sound too commercial, overbearing, hard sell, a huckster, or a vending machine.
Instead of pushing product, provide information that's related to your field. Establish yourself as thought leader, instead of chasing after established thought leaders like they're a secret to success.
If you impress industry makers and shakers, fine. But if you main goal is to suck up to people with influence and big numbers of followers, you're not really concerned with customers. You only want to sell as much product as possible, which is a good way to destroy your credibility in the potential market for your product.
Influence is often just another word for bullying, manipulating, or making a false impression.
As Adam Singer says, ""I don’t write articles to gain fans, just to share ideas (which you’re of course free to disagree with)."
This is my philosophy in a nutshell. If you seek to be popular, you'll just be annoying. If you seek to be helpful, you may become popular, but you won't care one way or another. Popularity may signal to you that what you're sharing is of value to others, but it won't be proof that what you share is wise or good or true.
Some of the worst junk on earth is wildly popular and "successful", while some of the really excellent, innovative, beneficial things are obscure and have yet to be understood and accepted by the masses -- and may never achieve a wide following or accolades from the elites.
One of the biggest influences I know of, in my own field of marketing and social media, is Seth Godin. He is one of the top selling authors and most popular bloggers in the realm of marketing.
What does he recommend? He says it's better to be stumbled upon, than to engage in relentless, obnoxious hype and self-promotion. Seth Godin says he prefers to accidentally discover a great product or person, than be pestered by a self-promoting nuisance.
Adam Singer again.
Forget finding specific influentials, find real people and connect
Those who are the most influential usually are willing to help your brand the least. Don’t ignore those who are actively seeking to connect with you in favor of those who seem to have greater sway. It’s backwards to do this anyway. Because to some extent, the most influential people want to promote things that already are popular and have social proofing behind them. By building a close, interested community you create the right environment that influentials will come to you anyway.
Influence at scale dies with Oprah
Oprah was influential, and exerted her influence very directly. But I don’t trust Oprah. I’ve never spoken with her. I haven’t been exposed to her raw, unfiltered and unscripted feed of thoughts. Do you really trust those with the level of influence as Oprah?
For me, the difference between Oprah and Steve is trust. But it actually goes deeper than that. It’s the difference between direct, conscious influence and merely sharing ideas due to passion and not anticipating an action would be taken. Oprah knows an action will be taken. It is conscious and while influential there is no way for us to seriously trust it. It’s not that Oprah is disingenuous, we just can’t possibly connect with someone at that sort of scale. Steve’s scale is more workable to build trust.
There won’t be more like Oprah. She was the peak product of a mass media society, but in our fragmented media society the notion of Oprah is a dinosaur. Everyone isn’t praying to the same media deity any longer, people are organizing themselves around each other. We have to change our notion of influence because it now happens at the micro level and not the macro level.
Well said, Adam.
Okay, now get out there and provide value to your Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and blog fans.
Let the influencers come to you and beg you to pay attention to THEM.