Influencer Marketing: The Evolving Hybrid Model Of PR & Search

Under­stand­ing the nature of an audience’s influ­ence net­work is key for PR and SEO prac­ti­tion­ers. Per­haps a new blend­ed job cat­e­go­ry will emerge?

Andrew Smith By Andrew Smith from Escherman. Join the discussion » 0 comments

Influ­encer mar­ket­ing is the new buzz­word du jour. It is already show­ing signs of band­wag­on jump­ing from var­i­ous quar­ters. But there is no ques­tion that the chan­nels through which influ­ence may be exert­ed are chang­ing. Under­stand­ing the nature of an audience’s influ­ence net­work is going to be a key task of mod­ern day PR or SEO prac­ti­tion­ers. Per­haps a new blend­ed job cat­e­go­ry will emerge?

Phillip Shel­drake, the author of “The Busi­ness of Influ­ence” (2011), prob­a­bly defined influ­ence best: “You have been influ­enced when you do some­thing you wouldn’t oth­er­wise have done, or think some­thing you wouldn’t oth­er­wise have thought.”

It seems straight­for­ward enough, but influ­ence is a slip­pery con­cept. There are innu­mer­able fac­tors that can play a role in the process of influ­ence – both of the human vari­ety or from out­side forces.

Cer­tain­ly when it comes to influ­encer mar­ket­ing, we typ­i­cal­ly mean the influ­ence of peo­ple – on oth­ers or on them­selves. Thus, influ­encer mar­ket­ing tends to be seen as an approach that tries to iden­ti­fy who are the peo­ple in a giv­en mar­ket or audi­ence that are like­ly to be impact the wider com­mu­ni­ty – and who have a high­er propen­si­ty to make peo­ple do some­thing they wouldn’t have done oth­er­wise.

So far, so good.

Then: Opinion Leaders

Tra­di­tion­al­ly, we have looked to “opin­ion lead­ers” who influ­ence a wider audi­ence.

This phrase was coined by Eli­hu Katz and Paul Lazars­feld back in the ’50s. They posit­ed that mass media infor­ma­tion is chan­neled to the “mass­es” through opin­ion lead­er­ship. The peo­ple with most access to media, and hav­ing a more lit­er­ate under­stand­ing of media con­tent, explain and dif­fuse the con­tent to oth­ers.

This has been the basis of PR for many decades. Name­ly, by seek­ing to influ­ence the media (i.e., jour­nal­ists), a PR pro­fes­sion­al has the most effec­tive means of reach­ing (and hope­ful­ly influ­enc­ing) opin­ion for­m­ers and their publics.

Now: What Does An Influencer Look Like?

More recent­ly, the idea that influ­ence wasn’t just the domain of the media was giv­en promi­nence in Mal­colm Gladwell’s book, “The Tip­ping Point”, first pub­lished in 2000. This was an attempt to under­stand how and why cer­tain mes­sages and behav­iors spread suc­cess­ful­ly through an audi­ence. He intro­duced notions such as con­nec­tors, mavens, and sales­peo­ple to the lan­guage of influ­ence.

He also out­lined his “Law Of The Few” – the idea that “The suc­cess of any kind of social epi­dem­ic is heav­i­ly depen­dent on the involve­ment of peo­ple with a par­tic­u­lar and rare set of social gifts.”

In oth­er words, a small num­ber of influ­en­tial peo­ple (rel­a­tive to the over­all size of the audi­ence con­cerned) were the gate­keep­ers to the suc­cess or fail­ure for a mes­sage or prod­uct.

How­ev­er, in 2003, Dun­can Watts found that high­ly con­nect­ed peo­ple were not cru­cial to suc­cess. Via a num­ber of exper­i­ments, he cast doubt on Glad­well’s asser­tion that spe­cif­ic types of peo­ple were respon­si­ble for bring­ing about large lev­els of change. Watts point­ed out that if it were as sim­ple as find­ing the indi­vid­u­als that can dis­sem­i­nate infor­ma­tion pri­or to a mar­ket­ing cam­paign, agen­cies would pre­sum­ably have a far high­er suc­cess rate than they do.

Influ­encer mar­ket­ing today seems to hold the promise on iden­ti­fy­ing Gladwell’s few more effec­tive­ly. Or least, the peo­ple who are respon­si­ble for influ­enc­ing an audi­ence as sug­gest­ed by Watts.

Successful Influence Marketing

But the pub­li­ca­tion of Nicholas Chris­takis and James Fowler’s book Con­nect­ed in 2010 brought some fur­ther per­spec­tive. One of the key find­ings in this book was that the struc­ture of a net­work may be more impor­tant than the nodes (human beings) con­tained with­in it. Accord­ing to Chris­takis and Fowler:

Whether influ­en­tial peo­ple can exer­cise influ­ence at all may depend entire­ly on the pre­cise struc­ture of the net­work in which they find them­selves, some­thing over which they have lim­it­ed con­trol. As we have seen, some net­works per­mit wide-reach­ing cas­cades and oth­ers do not.”

Suc­cess­ful influ­encer mar­ket­ing, there­fore, requires insight both into indi­vid­u­als and their net­work of rela­tion­ships with­in a giv­en audi­ence or com­mu­ni­ty. And recent research from PR firm Edel­man sug­gests that the world’s of PR and search will be drawn ever clos­er as influ­ence mar­ket­ing attempts to draw on the skill sets of both camps.

Edelman’s Trust Barom­e­ter has for many years high­light­ed the con­tin­u­ing lack of trust that the pop­u­la­tion at large has with gov­ern­ment, busi­ness, and the media. For sev­er­al years, “peo­ple like us” has ranked as the num­ber one source of trust and influ­ence. In this year’s sur­vey, Google’s search results were the sec­ond most pop­u­lar source of trust­ed infor­ma­tion.

The Converging Worlds Of PR & Search

One of the key devel­op­ments in search from Google recent­ly is the move toward seman­tic search. This essen­tial­ly moves us from a web of pages to a web of rela­tion­ships. Web links should be man­i­fes­ta­tions of real human rela­tion­ships.

To that extent, under­stand­ing the struc­ture of these net­works (or link struc­tures) has major impli­ca­tions for influ­ence mar­ket­ing. Or more specif­i­cal­ly, how influ­ence man­i­fests itself in a spe­cif­ic audi­ence. This is where the worlds of PR and search begin to con­verge even fur­ther by com­bin­ing an under­stand­ing of peo­ple and their net­works of rela­tion­ships, as well as how those rela­tion­ships are trans­lat­ed onto the web – and by default, into how Google per­ceives the rel­e­vance and author­i­ty of those rela­tion­ships in its search results.

Suc­cess­ful influ­ence mar­ket­ing thus rests on the abil­i­ty to access, ana­lyze and inter­pret net­work struc­tures of both the human and web vari­ety.

The rela­tion­ships with­in those net­works have far reach­ing impli­ca­tions for PR and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als. For exam­ple, the dis­sem­i­na­tion of influ­ence and infor­ma­tion may rest more heav­i­ly upon the struc­ture of a net­work than was pre­vi­ous­ly thought pos­si­ble.

One of the key skills required in search engine opti­miza­tion today is the abil­i­ty to iden­ti­fy where nodes of trust and author­i­ty exist – and to be able to build rela­tion­ships with the right indi­vid­u­als behind those sites and pages in order to earn the right to gain a link or ref­er­ence.

The use of net­work topol­o­gy analy­sis (in this case of the struc­ture of the web) pro­vides a way of plan­ning, research­ing, and devel­op­ing more effec­tive influ­encer mar­ket­ing strate­gies for max­i­miz­ing the impact of a par­tic­u­lar mes­sage with a par­tic­u­lar audi­ence.

Understanding The Complex Network Of Relationships

How­ev­er, it is worth lis­ten­ing to a fur­ther note of cau­tion from Fowler and Chris­takis:

Some recent work has clar­i­fied the spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stances where­by influ­en­tial indi­vid­u­als are most apt to be able to exer­cise their influ­ence. It turns out that influ­en­tial peo­ple are not enough: the pop­u­la­tion must also con­tain influ­ence­able peo­ple and it may be that the speed of dif­fu­sion of an inno­va­tion (or mes­sage) is more depen­dent on the prop­er­ties of the lat­ter group than the for­mer. The key point how­ev­er, is that net­works with par­tic­u­lar fea­tures and topolo­gies are more prone to cas­cades, that both types of peo­ple are required for cas­cades to take place, and that under­stand­ing the shape of the net­work is cru­cial to under­stand­ing both nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring and arti­fi­cial­ly induced cas­cades.”

To echo Phillip Shel­drake, you need peo­ple who can influ­ence and be influ­enced in order for influ­ence of any degree to occur.

There is no ques­tion that advances in social and web net­work dynam­ics and net­work topol­o­gy are pro­vid­ing insights that PR and SEO pro­fes­sion­als could only have dreamed of in the past. It points to new ways of bet­ter under­stand­ing the com­plex net­work of rela­tion­ships that under­pin any pub­lic or audi­ence.

Those PR and SEO prac­ti­tion­ers who have the abil­i­ty to under­stand the struc­ture of these net­works and the way in which net­work struc­tures impact on the suc­cess or oth­er­wise of influ­encer mar­ket­ing must sure­ly be bet­ter placed to suc­ceed than those that don’t. The under­stand­ing of human rela­tion­ship and web net­work struc­tures is thus set to become a core skill of the 21st cen­tu­ry PR or SEO prac­ti­tion­er.

Entity Banner Momentology

Andrew Smith

Written by Andrew Smith

Director, Escherman

Andrew Bruce Smith is the founder and Managing Director of digital communications consultancy Escherman. With a career spanning 29 years, Andrew has implemented many successful marketing communications programmes for brands such as IBM, MySQL, and Apple. He is co-author of two best-selling social media books - Share This: a practical handbook to the biggest changes taking place in the media and its professions (Wiley 2012). And Share This Too: More Social Media Solutions for PR Professionals (Wiley 2013). Andrew is also a trainer in measurement, evaluation, social media, analytics and SEO for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), a member of the CIPR Social Media panel and a guest lecturer at the University of Leeds Business School.

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