Tag Archives: influentials

Beware of confusing a social network’s weak mojo with Gladwell’s powerful Mavens

Is someone who blabs about a brand on Facebook or another social network site any more valuable to a retailer than the passive “fan” of that product? And if yes, what is that new value? This was discussed at an Email Insider Summit earlier this week. It’s an important question. But as panelists used the format to think aloud, they began confusing two phenomena. One is the real-but-weak power of social network influence. The other is the strong-but-possibly-nonexistent “Gladwellian” Maven.

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point talked about Mavens as hubs of influence. These folks are strong connections in a social ecosystem. As mavens on this subject or that, their opinion means much in persuading others. Gladwell based much of his book on the research by Duncan J. Watts, described in his book Six Degrees of Separation: The Science of a Connected Age.

This research, which was itself predicated on Stanley Milgram’s small world experiment, suggested that strong ties do most of the work in spreading a message.

The only catch: When the actual pathways were traced in Watts’ experiment, he found that only 5% of the work was actually done by these supposed hubs. He finally concluded that messages can be spread nearly as efficiently without hubs (i.e., Gladwell’s Mavens), and in fact, these myriad weak connections are the key to a social network’s real power to influence.

Can I Endorse Some Tupperware?

The marketers on the panel at the Summit should have kept this in mind. If MediaPost reported their collective thoughts correctly, they were crowded together on thin ice indeed. According to the MediaPost account (free registeration required), “They agree that a person who simply visits a ‘fan’ page and is a static follower is of minimal value. But people who can be tagged as influencers — who forward information to friends or other contacts that result in transactions — have tremendous value.”

When I first read this, my thought was, “Sure, of course people who refer other people to a brand and get them to buy are valuable.” But it sounds like the power of a pass-along is being highly overvalued. Continuing from this account of the discussion:

Email marketers are working hard on algorithms to quantify the worth of those influencers operating via social media outlets. Tim Schigel of ShareThis.com, who spoke on a panel at the MediaPost Email Insider Summit on Wednesday, said: “We’ll see a better understanding of that (soon) … the industry is trying to figure it out.”

Also on the panel was Craig Swerdloff, CEO of LeadSpend, who said the value of a social-media influencer should be “another variable that you put into your algorithm to determine the lifetime value of a customer.”

What is that amount? A back-of-the-envelope calculation could be as follows: If a Netflix customer is worth $9 alone, but that person has 500 Facebook friends, and is able to drive even 1% of them (5) to make a purchase, that individual’s value could be as high as $54.

Yow! That $54 would confer my full value in Netflix’ eyes to everyone else who also becomes a Netflix subscriber. I see the following flaws with even approaching such a calculation:

  1. Lifetime value is a predictive number. It’s a break-even cost of finding someone else to replace me if I should stop using Netflix. That value was probably calculated over a year’s worth of use of the service — probably more. Could these five friends each be as loyal from Day One? And if we waited a year, would I be able to cough up five more Facebook friends who join the service?
  2. How can my friends’ association with me — or even their consideration of an endorsement I send their way — be given credit for their conversion into customers? Are they not Facebook friends of other people who are fans or active ambassadors for the brand? I would guess that they are. And if so, do I get full credit just because I messaged these five about the service? What about the force of these weak connections? Are these many mutual friends who are fans worth nothing?

The value equation being discussed certainly works if I was actively recruiting and selling for a pyramid marketing business (example: “How’d you like to host a Tupperware party and keep half the profits?”) But for something as passive as “You should consider this product,” it would be hard to value an active Maven much higher than the passive fan.

Maybe not any higher at all.

In a world where many weak connections can trump a few strong ones, a better value equation may be an aggregate of all passive fans — where they are also Mavens or not.

This Thursday’s Interactive Marketing Assoc. speaker weighs in on Influentials, NPS and social media

The Milwaukee Interactive Marketing Association has come back to life, and its first event of what promises to be a fascinating season will be Thursday night, at the William F. Eisner Museum of Advertising. Bryan Rasch of Hanson Dodge will discuss how to meet the online needs of what his firm calls Brand Champions. It’s a somewhat ironic term, since the sites his company creates for their core clients (including Trek Bikes) are for “active lifestyle” consumer products. These sites cater to champions of all stripes — some of the most active consumers, including triathletes, pro fishermen and other avid outdoors people.

I spoke with Bryan to get a feel for his company’s approach to online branding. I wanted to know his thoughts on three topics that are being hotly debated today. They are as follows:

  1. Influentials: Do Malcolm Gladwell’s Influentials really exist? And if not, aren’t any efforts to court brand champions ultimately wasteful?
  2. Net Promoter Score (NPS)*: Where do you stand on the topic of this metric?
  3. Social Media As Brand Promotion: Isn’t the potential for negative online reviews too harmful to warrant opening your brand to public discussion?

JL: First, Bryan, I’d like to know what you think of those people, such as Bob Garfield (the AdAge columnist) and Clive Thompson (in his February Fast Company piece) who have claimed that there is no validity to the concept of courting a product’s Influentials?

BR: They have a point in that you can’t identify a small number of extremely influential people, to whom everyone else turns for advice on a brand. Brand champions are a much broader base of product users. They are vocal, and they particularly prefer the web as their megaphone. But aside from their passion for the brand, they are no different from other customers. They may make up large numbers — upwards of 10% of the total number of visitors to a typical brand site.

JL: I’ve heard you talk about Net Promoter Scores (NPS) as a metric. Do you encourage this type of evaluation, or do you agree with those who think it’s too simplistic?

BR: I do encourage the use of NPS, but primarily as a measure of true customer satisfaction. The strength in this measurement lies in knowing that it doesn’t predict a user’s likelihood of being a brand champion, but the likelihood of that customer buying from you again. But I think this score can also help you understand the likelihood of your consumers to speak out … to write positive reviews, recommend your brand to others online, etc. Thus the metric is helpful as a barometer of how your brand may perform within Social Media formats.

JL: If you want to encourage brand champions online, you have to open the gates and let in all opinions. A minority of brands are comfortable with a certain level of negative buzz. But most refuse to provide forums for discussion because they’re afraid of getting flamed — of being host to unfavorable reviews. What is your response to those fears?

BR: The negative reviews will happen, and often they’ll happen first. But reviews seek an equilibrium, just like water. Initially, a negative review may show up, because a consumer is angry. But over time, other consumers who love the brand tend to prevail. Over time the sum of the reviews reaches the proper level of consumer opinion.

I’ve never come across a set of reviews where it wasn’t an accurate barometer of how the brand fulfills consumer expectations.

Do join me Thursday night at what promises to be a provocative and informative presentation. Visit the Milwaukee Interactive Marketing Association site for details.


* NPS asks customers one question: “How likely is it that you would recommend us to a friend or colleague?” Customers reply with a score on a scale of 10, with 10 being “Extremely likely.” The net score is the sum of all customers scoring nine and 10, minus those scoring six or less. Incredibly high scores are in the 75 to 80 percent range of your customers. The average is only 15%.