Influencer marketing is on the rise, with more and more brands realizing the power of influential voices, particularly in our increasingly social media driven world. But there’s more to influencer marketing than just paying the best-known celebrity you can to say nice things about your brand.
Which are the most influential voices in your target communities? How can you reach them and turn them into advocates? How should you be focusing your efforts to maximize your influencer campaign performance?
Here are some science-backed tips on how influence works, and how you can use it to advantage.
The first thing to recognize in this shift is that the buying journey has changed. Word of mouth has always been important, people have always turned to those they trust when considering purchase decisions. But now, people have access to a much broader range of opinions, which can be accessed for virtually every purpose.
Whereas in the past you might have spoken to your immediate family and friends about a potential purchase - those within your closest relationship or geographic circle - now you can pose a question to your social media communities of hundreds, even thousands, of people you know, and get quick feedback. But more than that, every day you’re reading the product reviews posted by your friends - holiday snaps, health advice.
In the past advertising used to be more overt, but now the factors that influence your decisions (the opinions of those you care about) are being presented before you every day – you may not have realized you want to purchase a new pair of boots, but that Insta post from your friend, including their trusted opinion, has started you on that pathway.
The capacity for everyone to share their opinion, on anything, had changed the product discovery, and subsequent purchase process. That’s why influencer marketing has become so powerful – and why it’s important to look beyond just big name celebrities.
Limits of Connection
But there’s far more to it than this. Yes, you can now see the opinions and thoughts of everyone you’re connected with online, but the gradual implementation of algorithms has put restrictions on this. And more than that, the human brain already limits your input, and dictates the opinions you’re going to find most valuable.
Look at any study of influencer marketing effectiveness and you’ll find that, logically, the opinions of friends and family are the most influential. A study by Forrester in 2013 found that 70% of consumers trust brand recommendations from friends, a Nielsen study from 2015 put that number at 83%, while others have indicated that up to 90% of consumers trust peer recommendations - well higher than any other source.
It’s clear that the opinions of those in our closest family and friend circles are the most influential, but that golden circle of influence is actually probably a lot smaller than you’d think.
According to research, the human brain is only capable of maintaining around 150 actual relationships at any given time. You can know well more people than this, but you’re likely to only be able to maintain effective, engaging relationships with 150 people at a time.
The theory, called ‘Dunbar’s Number’, is based on the work of anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar, who, in studying primates, found that the size of the animal’s brain is relative to the social group they're able to maintain.
“Primates have large brains because they live in socially complex societies: the larger the group, the larger the brain. Thus, from the size of an animal’s neocortex - the frontal lobe in particular - you could theoretically predict the group size for that animal.”
That theory also extends to humans, for which Dunbar's theory indicates that the limits of human relationship capacity is between 150-200 people.
Dunbar’s Number has been a key element in sociological theory, particularly since the arrival of social networking, and the gamification of audience size. You want to have more followers, more connections than your friends – but based on this methodology, if you’re following anything above 150 or so people, they’re likely subsidiary, and their opinions, consequently, are also likely less influential.
Facebook has toyed with Dunbar’s Number, which played some role in the development of their News Feed algorithm (and may play a bigger role in future) as have other social networks. It’s worth noting that concept is still a source of debate, particularly among social media researchers, but still, they theory holds weight.
And that’s important to recognize when considering digital influence – if you want people to respond, you need to understand what the real triggers are.
Which leads us to our next point.
Social Tipping Point
According to a new report, around 25% of people in a group need to take a stand before large-scale social change occurs.
This ‘social tipping point’ applies to standards in the workplace, any type of movement or initiative. The same is also relevant in terms of building brand resonance.
This most obviously relates to challenger brands – if you’re looking to take market share from an established player, you need at least 25% of consumers of the incumbent to be advocating on your behalf before you’ll start seeing a significant shift.
On one hand, that’s intimidating – a quarter of an entire audience is tough. On the other, it’s not the whole group – based on this theory, if you can identify audience segments you want to promote your brand within, you only need to convince around 25% of people within said group to start seeing real momentum.
The Science of Influence
Combining these findings, it’s important to consider the science behind influence when planning out your influencer marketing strategy. Definitely, signing up a big name celebrity will boost your brand awareness, but for those on a budget, or who are unable to use celebrities, it’s important to hone in on those people who are most active within their community groups, and to work to deliver content that caters to their needs, ideally using their presence to grow perception, and spark wider audience interest.
In terms of Dunbar’s Number, it’s worth trying to identify those people within the communities you’re looking to target who are the most vocal, the most active, and who are generating the most response. These people are likely to have more reach, and resonance with those they’re connected with. It takes research, but understanding who is most active, in various aspects, can have a big impact on your strategy.
Then there’s the 25%. Again, according to the most influential voices in your community, you can start to map out who their closest connections are, and work to reach them with targeted messaging. If you were able to win across 25% of their close connections, you’d be on a fast track to utilizing their influence.
The same applies to groups – if you’re looking to reach members of a certain group or community, focus on the most influential quarter first, in appealing to them, then use their voices to spark further growth. You only need to influence 25% to gain significant momentum.
All of these approaches take more research work that using a big name celebrity, for sure, and none of these figures are definitive. But understanding the factors of influence can be a big help in developing your strategy.