PR professionals are in a fortunate position in today’s world, in that we have all manner of tools at our disposal to spread information – online advertising, social platforms, content distribution tools, and of course online ‘influencers’.
For as long as there has been an internet, internet marketers have been using this powerful tool of “The Influencer” to help spread messages. The idea of ‘Influencers’ are a appealing prospect for the online market – instead of having to influence millions, if we can only find and influence a handful of influential individuals, and harness their personality and charisma, then those influencers can do the hard work for us. It’s almost too easy.
In his popular text on the spread of ‘viral’ information, “The Tipping Point” Malcolm Gladwell advocates exactly this approach to influencers;
“The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts”.
Yet, research shows that this advice is not exactly an accurate portrayal of how ‘influencers’ exert their influence. In fact, research from Social Scientist Duncan J Watts in his book “Everything is Obvious” shows that exactly the opposite is true. People do not typically pass or seek ideas, recommendations, or information from people we consider ‘special’ but from people we think have something in common with us.
Watts’ research shows that what drives successful propagation of ideas is outside the control of the holder of that idea. In fact, the most important condition to whether piece of information spreads is not the presence of influencers, but instead, a critical mass of easily-influenced people who in turn influence other easily-influenced people. Just as the smallest spark can start a wildfire when the conditions are right, it is the conditions into which an idea falls which determines the success of the idea.
Ordinary individuals, therefore, are just as likely to be capable of influence as exceptional people. Real social networks are more complex and more egalitarian than we ever thought.
In spite of all the evidence, however, when we think about how social networks work, we continue to be drawn to the idea of “special people”. Marketing strategies that focus on targeting a few influential individuals are bound to fail as often as they succeed. As counter-cultural as it may be, PR professionals must raise some serious questions over the claim that social epidemics are the work of a tiny minority of “special” people.
So, what’s the answer? Rather than try to target a smaller number of special people, try instead to target a larger number of ordinary people who share ideas with small groups. They are just as likely to trigger a cascade of information as the perceived ‘influencer’, and by targeting a large number of them, you can even out the variations caused by the unpredictability of the online environment.
In other words, when you have a science as random as “going viral” – it’s better to hedge your bets, rather than putting all your eggs into one potentially-ineffective basket.