Trends in Social Influence Marketing

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A year ago, here at Razorfish, we developed a hypothesis that the way people were influencing each other -- online, in small groups, through peer pressure, reciprocity or flattery -- was giving rise to a whole new form of marketing that we called Social Influence Marketing™  (SIM). This post also appears as an article in the Razorfish Digital Outlook Report and was quoted by Guy Kawasaki at Open Forum.

We defined it as marketing to the network of peers that surround and influence the customer across social platforms and on brand Web sites. The rise of SIM reflected the emerging thinking in our agency that the social Web and the mainstream Web were converging and that digital marketers needed to deliver better value exchanges to consumers and allow for influence more directly. 

Today SIM is not just a hypothesis. It is a driving force that affects everything we do as an agency, and, as we're impressing upon our clients, it matters more than ever in this economic downturn as consumers across the country are losing faith in large institutions and experts and instead are turning to each other for advice. In fact, we believe it is as important a marketing dimension as the traditional pillars of brand marketing and direct response. It is even bigger than we thought it was.

Now, as SIM becomes more mature, 2009 will be the year in which differentiating between good and bad SIM will get easy -- a year in which every campaign, every marketing effort and even every digital business transformation activity (where digital is used to transform core business processes) will need a social influence component. It will be a year in which companies realize that social influence must be harnessed strategically if they want to transform their brands, their relationships with their customers -- and their businesses too. It will also be a year in which marketers discover which agencies truly grasp SIM and which ones have only a tenuous hold on it. 

With those broad themes as a guide, what exactly can you expect in 2009? Here are ten specific trends to look for. Tell me whether you agree with them at the end of the post.

1. Social media usage will result in more influence. As social media adoption climbs exponentially, so too will the influence conversations in a social context will have on brand affinity and purchasing decisions. Participating in a conversation online, sharing an opinion and influencing a purchasing decision explicitly or implicitly are becoming second nature for more and more  consumers. The only thing that will prevent these messages from spreading is that a lot of this influence happens in small groups within the walled gardens of the social networks and therefore goes unnoticed. That will change in 2009 as social network analysis vendors help us peek into the walled gardens and as a result marketers will pay more attention. An event like the Motrin episode, in which a group of social media-fluent mothers managed to force Motrin to pull down an online video they found offensive, will not happen quite as this year because marketers will focus on SIM more.

2. The focus will shift to influencers. Who are these people that influence your customers and how does their influence actually work? This will come into sharper focus, as reaching the influencers gets easier via the social graph and the plethora of technology vendors that make targeting easier. Different influencers will matter at different stages of the marketing funnel, too. For example, at the point-of-purchase, friends and family may matter the most in determining what a consumer buys, while at the awareness stage, key influencers, like the bloggers at ,carry more weight. We'll also find a way to put a valuation on each consumer's potential influence for specific product categories. Google and a few others are already taking a crack at defining your influence rank.

3. Top-down branding will experience growing impotence. Most brand managers are used to defining their brands in relative isolation of the marketplace -- or they do extensive customer research and see it as their jobs alone to define the brand or the manifestation of the brand in different forms. That's going to change as consumers define the brands by the sheer volume of their opinions. They'll be shaping the brands more than the brands will be shaping them. As a result, in order for them to be remembered, brands will be forced to deliver much stronger value propositions to their customers Cute advertising won't be enough as the focus shifts to value exchanges. If you're a brand manager, you can either fight this or treat it as an opportunity to take your career in a different direction.

4. Social advertising will grow up. We're all tired of hearing about the failures of advertising on social platforms. Not surprisingly, IDC calls advertising on social networks "stillborn", as it has been plagued by low click-through rates and confusing advertising formats. Although there are many formats, such as so-called app-vertising, hypertargeting, and engagement ads, we haven't been sure what really works. That will change in 2009 as ad units evolve to work more harmoniously with user behavior on social platforms. Display advertising in the broader Web, too, will become more social, as linking display advertising to forms of social marketing, like blogger outreach, social credits, engagement programs and widgets that let you mix in your own content become more important. However, there are no guarantees that this will be completely figured out within the course of the year. 

5. The portable social graph will fuel marketing innovation. Arguably, the most successful manifestations of the social graph we've seen so far are in the news feeds and activity streams that reside on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Expect to see new innovations that harness the social graph imaginatively, especially at the awareness and consideration stages of the marketing funnel. The early implementations of Facebook Connect, which extends users' connections with their Facebook friends to other sites, barely scratch the surface of what's possible. For example, imagine your personal profile being used for targeting content and advertising. And imagine this happening across the Web, and not just on the social network where the profile resides. 

6. Not just friends, but friendsters, will start to matter. There have been a lot of debates about whether a person's "real" friends matter in a social graph -- call it the tension between friends and friendsters. In 2009, we're going to realize that loose ties (like the friendsters of yours on Facebook) are as valuable as your strong ties (close friends) because they're the ones that bring new ideas into your world and share your opinions with people who are further removed from you. You'll be less conflicted about them and you'll share more of your life with them. And the best way to understand this trend is going to be by paying more attention to academia and researchers like Mark Granovetter, Barry Wellman and Duncan J. Watts, all of whom have shaped many of the theories governing influence across social networks.

7. Social influence research will become more important than social measurement.  Do you want to know how? By not focusing on measurement but on meaning. To think in terms of social as a channel that should be measured like TV, print, radio or digital is missing the point. Rather, the greatest value in social for marketers is going to be in the real-time insights that it provides. We call this Social Influence Research and it is going to drive marketing campaigns, product development and customer service programs. There's going to be an evolution from measuring sentiment to understanding opinion and synchronizing it with the Net Promoter scores. Why? Because marketers care about opinion much more than they do about sentiment.

8. Marketers will organize around Social Influence Marketing. In today's organization, SIM is everyone's stepchild. It is part public relations, part direct response, part brand marketing, part customer intelligence and part sales support, just to name a few categories. That will change in 2009 as marketing organizations discover the benefits in approaching it holistically. Budgets will be put behind SIM and it will be treated as the third dimension of marketing with its own team, objectives and initiatives. This will also force corporations to rethink how they are organized, including agencies, which will need to organize around it. Niche social media consulting firms will find it harder to compete as SIM goes mainstream.

9. The intranet will join the Web. By virtue of buying media for our clients, building massive Web sites and designing intranets too, we have a unique perspective on all things digital. And something we've learned in the last few years is that the boundaries between the corporate Web site and the intranet are blurring. Your employees want to collaborate and share knowledge with peers who work outside your organization too. Your intranet is going to need to encourage and allow for that kind of collaboration if you want to be competitive in this economic environment with fewer employees having to do more work. The best ideas can come from anywhere and the best people will look for others like them to collaborate with. They may be in your company -- but they may not be. If they aren't, you better give your employees the tools to reach them.

10. Your CEO will get on Facebook. We believe it's finally going to happen this year -- your CEO is going to succumb to the pressure from employees and join Facebook, or at the very least, LinkedIn. If he (or she) is smart he'll be on a blogging or micro-blogging service too, sharing his perspective in an authentic fashion. Why does this matter? Because by doing this he is going to finally realize that social is not a fad; it is fundamentally changing how we relate and interact with each other and with brands online. He is going to want to get on board. It also means that, if you're not already, you had better get on board yourself or you'll be left behind.

Those are the ten social influence marketing  trends I'm predicting for 2009. Like I did last year, I'll evaluate these trends in July and then again at the end of the year. Now that SIM is so obviously real,  we'll see which brands are able to truly capitalize on it. Those that do will transform their business relationships with their customers, employees and partners.

This piece was first published in our 2009 Digital Outlook Report. I strongly recommend you read the other articles in the report. It represents some of Razorfish's best thinking.

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Annalise said:

Ten very good trends that will (most likely) occur to some extent in 2009. Most of the mentioned trends have already started to influence SIM. -Annalise

Steve Poppe Author Profile Page said:

Dude, my head is spinning. With time to re-read and analyze these 10 trends, I’m sure I’d agree with most of them. Good stuff. But I must register a couple of places where we diverge:

1. Consumer conversations about products are, for the most part, boring -- with the possible exception of good places to ski, new music, knee surgeons, or brown paper bag stuff like erectile dysfunction cures. I surely don’t want to go online and talk about Skittles or pork and bean. And I really don’t want to talk to people who want to talk about Skittles or pork and beans. Not at an office party, a PTA function, my favorite bar or on Facebook. Newbie marketing geeks and social media consultants are a little to close this stuff and tend to sniff their own fumes I think. The “conversation” is not marketing’s Holy Grail. Don’t get me wrong, I love social media, social networking and social computing. It’s huge. Especially when it comes to promotion, but it won’t take the place of traditional marketing blocking and tackling.

2. Consumers will never define brands. Good brand strategy and good brand stewardship will. Without strategy a brand is lost. Social Influence Marketing is a tactic – and if done well, a very good one – but it is not a strategy. We hear all the good stories of social influence marketing on the web, but for every good story there are many, many failures. Crispin Porter gets this, as does Razorfish, but in the hands of most, ceding control of the conversation can cause grave pain.

Wow, great insight. It will be especially interesting to see how/if advertisers figure out how to get the message across on social media. It seems as though there are a lot of revenue models depending on it.

I also notice the trend towards "friendsters" and it I like your take on that. Linked IN for one certainly seemed to discourage that trend initially but seem to have been taken over by what the users wanted. I notice similar in Facebook now as well.

There seems to me to be so much more mileage in this yet. So many clients and colleagues I speak to are still at the: "I'm on there, not sure what to do next" stage but they are getting online faster and faster.

Shiv Singh Author Profile Page said:

Thank you for the feedback. Steve, you're right in that often conversations about products can be boring sometimes but that's more a reflection on the product than anything else. High consideration purchases and status symbols are always fodder for lots of conversations as our products that strike a nerve or enable a strong emotion. The problems you outline apply to any other form of marketing as well.

What's different about social influence marketing (and not just the social media platforms) is how the influence takes place and the network effect plays out. This cannot be ignored and is having a transformative influence just as TV did not too long ago.

Not sure if I agree on the brand piece too but I appreciate the perspective. Brands are after all a reflection of the symbols, associations and experiences associated with a product. With consumers framing the perception of a brand so much more strongly than before, they can and do in some cases define the brand. This of course isn't applicable to every brand out there in every product category.

Jerry, yes friendsters is gaining a lot more acceptance. In fact, just this weekend the NY Times had a good article about it as well.

Social media marketing today is definitely at the top of its peak as a widely used internet network marketing strategy. Whether it's B2B or B2C, making yourself an indispensable source of information increases the odds customers will purchase from you. This is the concept of attraction marketing - develop ongoing relationships with clients and moving them along the buying path in your communications to greatly increase profits on autopilot. These clients will also bring in more business for you via referrals. The more helpful and valuable your information is, the more it establish your credibility and identity as an authority marketer.

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