The word on social influence is starting to sound a lot different than it did a couple of years ago. Not only are people quickly abandoning the concept (most in favor of social advocacy) -- they're hating on it, too. A recently popular example comes from Tom Scott, creator of a tool called Klouchebag. The self-billed "standard of asshatery" basically flips a 180 on Klout's algorithm for a cutting -- albeit entertaining -- insta-douche-o-meter.
For marketers, the new message is clear: digital popularity doesn't matter one (c)lick when it comes to building brand loyalty.
Or does it?
Tech folk are often found guilty of prematurely calling the death of things (remember when Google thought it had put a pin in traditional e-mail with the now defunct Wave?), so before we start digging influencers a grave, perhaps it would be a good idea to zoom out and look at the bigger picture.
Social Influence 101
Social influencers have one very important thing going for them: mass appeal. They have tons of followers on Twitter, tons of fans on Facebook, tons of connections on LinkedIn -- you get the idea. They're popular.
Prior to the rise of the social advocate, the notion was that attracting the attention of these people would ultimately result in them spreading word to their gigantic network. Marketers fantasized about all their content going viral and mega dollars following shortly after.
That notion turned out to be a little deluded for reasons that should have been obvious from the get. Celebrities, for example, are great at promoting products they supposedly believe in, but that's as far as it goes. Without a genuine conversation, which they couldn't possibly have with each and every one of their fans, only association can be formed -- not attachment.
Similarly, people with large social networks can't be expected to convince every one of their followers to engage with a brand. But then again, no brand in its right mind would say no to having their name dropped.
Bottom line: influencers should be utilized for creating visibility, not loyalty.
Social Advocacy 101
Once visibility is established, brand advocates are the ones who can really drive business value. These are the people who are a using and spreading the word about products or services without being asked. They simply believe in them. Their networks might be small in comparison, but their voice is trusted because it is authentic, and that authenticity indirectly sells by communicating emotional attachment.
Bottom line: advocates should be utilized for creating loyalty, not visibility.
Just to push the point a little bit further, here's how Pat McCarthy differentiates the two:
Influence is relative to a lot of things – time, place, relation, topic, and more. It can be passive or active, like when I ask a friend who travels a lot about which airline to take. They’re influencing me because I asked them to. The dynamic changes when they tell me, unsolicited, about their favorite airline. That’s influence through advocacy. And it’s a different beast.
Circling back around to the heat tools like Klout are getting, I think Lee Odden hit the root of the problem square on the head when he wrote: "Pursuing the big influencers alone is probably one of the biggest fallacies on the web."
They key word in that statement is alone. Meaning that it is useful to target big influencers, but doing so shouldn't be a marketer's only approach. Social scores aren't the end all be all of digital worth. They're not even close.
For instance: the only person with a perfect Klout score is Justin Bieber. While I am positive that my overlords here at CMSWire would have no qualms whatsoever with Biebs dropping a tweet or two about how much he supports cmswire.com, I'm also quite sure that our audience doesn't think a 56 means I know less about the topics we discuss here:
In the end, targeting a balance of influencers and advocates seems to be the right recipe. Both are incredibly useful in their own way, and so neither should be treated as a replacement strategy for the other.
I imagine that tools like Klout will continue to refine their influencer algorithms despite the bad mouthing. Meanwhile, cool news: a new shark tank -- one for platforms that aim to increase actual brand advocacy -- is making its way out of the woodwork (see Extole -- very intriguing).