The future of influence

The future of influence

I went in to Hotwire PR yesterday to talk about influence, sharing some of my experience as a person on the telly/radio and as a writer/blogger/podcaster. I also talked about the changing nature of influence, as has been highlighted in some of the work I’ve done.

Though I studied engineering (Mechatronics), my first job was in PR. I spent five years working on behalf of a range of tech firms, large and small. Given my understanding of the tech, a lot of my time was spent acting as a translator for the engineers, turning their words into stories we could sell. But I still spent a good chunk of time trying to sell those ideas in to the intermediaries between our client and their customers.

Initially this meant primarily journalists and analysts. But the founder of the firm I worked for became increasingly interested in other influencers, eventually founding Influencer50 and writing the book, Influencer Marketing.

Influencer marketing

I got involved in many of the early influencer marketing programmes that were joint projects between the agency (Noiseworks) and Influencer50. Now we were looking at 25 categories of influencer: user advocates, resellers, systems integrators, bloggers, conference organisers and frequent speakers. And we were wondering, how can we reach all of these influencers and make them advocates for our client?

We found ways. But it was very different from the linear model we started with. Then we would pitch a story to a journalist, the journalist would (or wouldn’t) write the story, the prospect would read the story, and we would tell the client how many prospects had read it. Our measurement used to be on the last step: really a measure of reach, rather than influence. Now we were being measured on our ability to reach people we had already shown carried influence.

This was complex. But the world of influence is getting more complex still.

The rise of the peers

Three things have happened since 2005 when I left the agency and started out on my own. Firstly, the publishing power at everyone’s finger-tips has increased dramatically, giving anyone the power to reach an enormous audience. Secondly, but not unrelated to this, the diversity of media has grown exponentially. Thirdly, trust in the media has fallen to an all-time low.

The result of this is a re-balancing of the influences that drive us, particularly when it comes to purchasing. The chart below shows the UK slice of some research we did with Salesforce Commerce Cloud for the futurereadyretail.com programme.

The exact question asked was: “Which 3 of the following have the strongest influence on which items you end up buying?” The score is a percentage of respondents giving that answer.

If you aggregate the columns for friends, family and peer reviews, what you can see is that peer connections are far and away the most powerful influence on buying decisions — way more than traditional media, television, or celebrities — some of the most commonly targeted forms of influence.

Influence is messy

The reality is that the process influence never looked like that neat, linear picture I had in my head as an engineering-minded 21-year-old. Influence is messy and complex. We absorb a huge range of influences and assign them different weights depending on the time, context and decision at hand. But what is clear is that now, more than ever, it is the people around us — physically and digitally — who are the primary arbiters of influence.

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Tom Cheesewright