[Guest Post] Have online channels changed the nature of influence?

Determining the impact of the growth in online channels such as social media is one of the things that taxes most of us. I’m forever seeing new ‘influencer tracker’ services pop up, and in the world of analyst relations there’s continual discussion on whether and how to engage in online options like blogs, podcasts and social networking.

In response to the explosion of online influencer tracker services – there are over 100 nowadays, and counting – Nick Hayes and I wrote a paper* on how we think they are misleading marketers. The paper led to an invitation to post on the IIAR blog, to hopefully spark some discussion – thanks for the invite, Ludovic.

This first post focuses on whether influence as a concept has changed with the use of online channels. The second will look at how influence can be measured using online metrics. And the third will discuss the implications of online channels for AR and Influencer Relations professionals.

There’s an important context to any debate on influence, online or otherwise. It is that ecosystems of influencers are highly fragmented these days. Most decision makers are influenced by the traditional journalists and analysts, but also by consultants, academics, regulators, financiers, sourcing advisors, procurement professionals and other specialists, as well as peer end users.

Much of the influence exerted by this group has been enabled, in large part, by online channels. This has been an ongoing process for a decade. The web and search engines make it easier for anyone to reach the market, and easier for buyers to find what they’re looking for. Blogs and podcasts increase the reach of anyone inclined to use them. Social media is just the next step in this evolution – there’s no social media revolution going on.

But social media has provided a new channel for those people with the potential to influence, making communication between those people frictionless.  To reach a group of like-minded adopters of a technology you used to have to organise a meeting in a mutually inconvenient location. Nowadays, you organise an unconference or participate in an online forum. It used to take months to organise an event, now it can take hours.

But has the nature of influence changed? Are decision makers influenced in different ways through online channels? You’d think so, given the hype, but as Nate Elliott at Forrester observed, “the huge majority of users influence each other face to face rather than through social online channels.”

It makes sense to understand the attributes of influence – the ability to discuss and persuade, knowledge and experience, willingness to express an opinion, the authority and gravitas with which to communicate that opinion, the opportunity to convey that opinion to the right audience at the right time. And so on.

Some of these attributes are facilitated by online channels, for sure. Others are removed from online impact completely. There’s no doubt that some of the smaller analyst firms, for example, are benefitting from their online presence, in terms of reaching their potential audience through blogging and other social media technologies. But these channels are not creating expertise or authority – simply the means to communicate them.

Can social media create a new kind of influence, by collative the collective wisdom of a connected crowd? After all, there is safety in numbers in doing what the crowd does. We used to have a version of that in the IT industry – no-one ever got fired for buying IBM. Imagine the power of that kind of statement, communicated instantly over the blogosphere. Or would it be immediately challenged and rejected by real users’ experience?

So, are analysts influencing via online channels? How is influence really conveyed by analysts to decision makers? Has it moved mainly to online or is it still by telephone enquiries and face-to-face advice?

*Free registration required, or email me at duncan.brown(at)influencer50.com. Barbara French also contributed to the paper.

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7 Responses to [Guest Post] Have online channels changed the nature of influence?

  1. Barbara French Monday 1st February 2010 at 20:32 #

    Thanks Duncan, although permit me to clarify. My contribution to the Influencer50 white paper was an extensive bibliography of research reports and stats comparing online influence with offline influence, and a first draft arguing that online influence is “the tip of the iceberg”. That’s a different kettle of fish from what you’ve published, that “online influencer tracking systems are misleading”.

  2. David R Tuesday 2nd February 2010 at 10:56 #

    Duncan, thanks for this post.

    It was interesting to see the Forrester quote – especially given the emphasis that Forrester and some of its analysts appear to put on the value of social media in the influence ‘process’.

    You ask a lot of questions at the end – all good ones and I suspect that there aren’t many answers yet. Not well researched, credible and authoritative ones anyway.

    (And to all those in the AR/PR community who seem to believe that social media is the answer to everything – saying something enough times doesn’t automatically make it true).

    However, given your experience and background, would you argue that many analysts are less influencial than we believe because their real influence doesn’t stem from research but from their face-to-face interactions – e.g. consulting, presentations or briefings? Obviously you can reach far fewer people face-to-face than you can reach through written research (whether its paid for or available free of charge)…

    Or is it more a case of the emperors new clothes? Analysts are important so long as we (buyers, vendors, AR/PR people) all believe they are important – and no one can prove otherwise.

    It would be interesting to know.

  3. Duncan Brown Tuesday 2nd February 2010 at 21:12 #

    Barbara – I just thought I should acknowledge your contribution, as it was valuable, though indeed the provocative title and tone came from Nick and I.

    David – re “many analysts are less influential…”, one could argue that they are _more_ influential because of their f2f interactions. Quality over quantity. Most analysts can’t or won’t give a recommendation in their published research, but some do make a specific recommendation in a consulting capacity to an individual customer. So their (perhaps modest) online influence could mask substantial f2f influence. The point is, you can’t this tell from online indicators.

    I think analysts (or any influencer type) are important so long as buyers think they are and act on their advice. Vendors’ and AR/PR views on analyst importance should be based on buyer perceptions, rather than on ‘industry’-level outputs (such as market shares or forecasts, which are largely irrelevant to buyers).

    Measuring influence is the mechanism to prove otherwise!

  4. Marc Duke Wednesday 3rd February 2010 at 08:56 #

    Duncan

    Please can you send me the white paper! My thoughts on this have been the same for some time. Social media is merely another channel of influence to augment existing ones not replace them.

    The whole influence/social media debate reminds me a little of the ecommerce debates a decade ago (probably longer but..) where every bricks and mortar retailer would dissapear as soon as we saw the etail site. But the picture is that we ‘enjoy’ mulitiple channels as and when it suites (my personal preference re shopping is either Starbucks next to the store or online where at least I don’t have to think about parking….)

    The real issue is how as influener marketers we deal with a multi-channel influence approach. That for me is the biggest issue I stuggle with – any answers most welcome. Right back to Twitter…..

  5. Duncan Brown Wednesday 3rd February 2010 at 09:55 #

    Marc – WP is on its way.

    Your ecommerce analogy is a good one. Think about how the demise of book shops was predicted, yet Waterstones is doing just fine. More pertinent to B2B, online marketplaces are still the exception, but online procurement is commonplace. In other words, we decide offline but transact online. Hmmm – that’s got me thinking….

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