Blame Malcolm Gladwell. He managed to make The Tipping Point sound so simple and elegant, a panacea of digital connectors and mavens for just about any kind of communications challenge.
Gladwell talks of the rule of 150 (aka Dunbar’s number): the optimal number of individuals that someone can have substantive social relationships with. The average number of Facebook friends we have? 150! (At least then. Inconveniently since revised to 245 or so).
“Epidemics” he notes “are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.” Yet in the rush to make products or ideas viral, the context of how audiences – especially business and governmental opinion-formers – make their decisions often seems to be overlooked.
It is clear that IT decision-makers, for instance, actively share content with each other. However, the most shared types of information remain email and articles from the trade media, according to a recent IDG study. This suggests a relatively narrow scope for ‘digital influence’ in this category.
And while the Internet and social media latterly played a significant role in Greenpeace’s lengthy and ultimately successful campaign against Nestle (amongst others) over its alleged use of unsustainable palm oil, research shows that the key voices actively shaping online discussions were the specialist and mainstream media, together with ‘traditional’ stakeholders such as NGOs. ‘Digital influencers’ (however these are defined) were notably absent from the conversations.
Understanding the context is critical when designing any communications programme, and especially issues-focused influencer programmes due to the wide range of stakeholders and potential outcomes.
Specifically, you need a good feel for:
- the topic itself and its drivers
- the different stakeholder audiences involved and their beliefs/standpoints, informational requirements and potential impact on the issue
- the most credible and trusted media sources, as well as
- the most active online voices, across all stakeholder segments.
Below is a talk on digital influence that I gave at a conference last week in Hong Kong, which makes the case for a contextual and integrated approach to influencer outreach.
Digital/social media play an important role in consumer and business decision-making, to a greater or lesser extent.
Time to drop the term ‘digital influence’ and get back to influence?