Over the last couple of days there has been a rash of conversation, discussion and analysis around the concept of "influence" — driven by the publication of Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds article on Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation. David Reich points out that the Fast Company article, Is the Tipping Point Toast, offers a little more context on Duncan Watts and his area of research; and this great post by Noah Brier drills down into the concepts even further.
Basically, Watts and Dodds are challenging the notion that influentials ("a minority of individuals who influence an exceptional number of their peers") are important to the formation of public opinion. This flies in the face of accepted marketing theory and the popularity of The Tipping Point. It also challenges the notion that marketers have of influence — and the way in which this notion of influence makes our lives easier. After all, it helps us target our messaging, our communication and our schmoozing efforts. This is why we dream of influence — it is aspirational. As marketers we like to feel that we have a finger on the pulse of society … but what happens when that pulse flatlines — or simply proves to be a phantom?
Late last year I wrote about the strength of weak ties. This fascinates me. The findings of Mark Granovetter’s research into social networks demonstrated that it is the WEAK ties that lead to action. If this is the case, then influence may only play an important role in the very early stages of branding efforts — to facilitate AWARENESS. But as consumers begin to engage with the brand messaging and various forms of communication, it appears that the power of the social network lies not in the level of influence of any select group but in the susceptibility of the audience to contagion.
Why is this relevant? Because on some level, our role as marketers, strategists or activists is not simply to raise awareness. Our job is to change the way that people think, or act — we want to prompt a change in perception or in behaviour. As marketers then, perhaps our best efforts — and probably our strongest DIGITAL STRATEGY lies in activating the weak links and leaving influence to the mass/traditional media (or to those bloggers who have mass audiences).
It is the democracy of action that drives much of my interest in social media … take a look at what is hot on YouTube or on Technorati. Think about BSP and the way in which a number of people "suddenly" begin writing on a similar topic. It is not the "influentials" who are going to instigate a new trend … they are merely documenting its early rise out of a network of weak links. So while my heart tells me that influencers are important, my head is telling me to go for the gold — and that seems to be quite a turnaround. Now … if only I could model it!