Key Influencers in the Blur Age The world is shrinking and so is the value of your marketing budget, no news to any CMO. Media proliferation has turned the information age into the “Blur Age.” The paradox of continual growth in global communication interactivity is being countered by sub-set of sub-set segmentation. Infinitesimal audience segments can be costly to communicate to if you need to aggregate multiple groups to drive initiative. A super-sized media and a mico-segmented audience landscape requires evermore deft articulation and identification of the audience drivers,“Key Influencers.” Not a new concept for marketers but new in the manner and variety of potential targets and new in the manner of reaching these key peer group influencer targets. With budgets strained and communication channels saturated, effectively talking with and influencing a few, trumps a vaporized message to many. Peer group key influencers have always existed, hardwired in our human nature. We naturally coalesce around leadership, be it thought or fought. Early groups had a better chance of survival when organizational leadership and command and control societal strategies were implemented. Social evolutionists will tell you religion is universally practiced (there are no recorded groups without forms of religion) because focused belief and trust fostered cooperative purpose that favored survival that therefore passed the genes down to preceding generations. This is to highlight the importance of the hardwired per group leadership imperative and how it plays a vital roll with key influencers for marketers.
Two fascinating examples bring unexpected manifestations from key influencer drivers. A beverage and a fashion company, both in essentially commodity categories where differentiation and preference occurs in attitude and image, had there brands driven and reversed by key influencers. While the folks at Louis Roederer would argue that Cristal champagne is not a commodity, most probably the vast majority of it’s imbibers wouldn’t have a clue in a blind taste test, but that of price and what ratings have decreed. Unpredictably in the mid-90’s a Cristal movement arose from a rising Hip Hop star, who included several Cristal references in his lyrics, who then influenced peer groups who were impressing friends in club culture and parties, igniting a rush of consumption disproportionate and incongruent to Cristal’s price point and positioning. Ironically, ten years later the power of peer influence worked in reverse. A missed placed and probably unintended comment from a Cristal executive fueled a reaction and subsequent boycott bringing the brand down to a sales reality. In a similar but less well documented key/peer influence occurred at Tommy Hilfiger. In a probable display of idiosyncratic tongue-in-cheek fashion, New York home boys started wearing Hilfiger clothing in an embrace your enemy tour de force of preppy style-cum gang colors . A Tommy Sport line was created responding to and capitalizing on the urban popularity that by the mid 90’s had spread across the country. The balance sheet ROI from the millions of dollars generated by this phenomenon gives the phase “unintended consequence” optimism. Creating a controlled burn of this type of ignition is actionable and happens all the time, typically in the form of celebrities, actors and sports endorsers. Arguably Nike had it’s greatest growth period soaring under Michael Jordan, to name one of many. The world wasn’t waiting for another package goods micro-wave popcorn until Paul Newman created one. It is incalculable the number of products Martha Stewart has sold on the back of her name…no less Oprah. The market is rife with peer and key influencers. Like Homeboys, key influencers peer group leaders of all stripes, are everwhere, every industry and institution has it’s influence tribe. Finding and leveraging the right group is a matter of research, good judgment and they certainly don’t need to be high paid celebrities and athletes. Pabst Blue Ribbon employed a fascinating viral approach with close-to-zero advertising budget. Instead of putting together focus groups, the Pabst team beat the streets in cities such as Portland, Chicago and New York in search of what they called “buzz hubs,” local places where the regulars groove on Pabst. The Pabst team made it a policy while on the road always to eat at small independent restaurants. In local eateries and bars, joints where they might find a Pac Man game in the corner, meeting people to slip them Pabst Blue Ribbon trinkets and get conversations going, then let them spread the word. Some asked if Pabst would support their gallery openings or bike messenger races. Pabst did, but not the way of big business. There would be no girls passing out glow-in-the-dark logo necklaces or corporate suits making sure the banners were straight. The locals could do what they pleased with the beer and Pabst swag. The team walked city streets looking for Pabst Blue Ribbon neon signs. In Portland, they happened upon a barbershop that served free Pabst with every haircut. When the shop opened a second location awhile later, the Pabst team sent plenty of free beer. What were the results? Pabst is now considered to be the second fastest growing beer brand in America, according to Nielsen research. Sales rebounded by 10 percent in 2002. In 2003, the brand went gone up by another 10 percent and growing to today. By redirecting a small amount of media spend to travel expenses the Pabst team drove viral word-of-mouth experiential preference through smart attitudinal contact. As we observed with Cristal Champagne key influencers can work for or against you, and at times simultaneously and at times imperceptivity. In condemning the many failures of the big three American automobile manufacturers (now, not so big) one factor stands out, albeit subtlety. Typical product development and marketing in Detroit used a rearview mirror, collective opinion approach that lead to mediocrity. Dealers, focus groups, bean counters and safe thinking ruled, the love of cars did not. Insidiously and over a 25 or so year period decisions made about the nature of products defaulted to neutral. From were American automobiles once stood proudly atop the worlds most innovative and desirable products, to today’s (being harsh), products struggling to be relevant, yeomenly pragmatic, middle ground, misguided and discordant behemoths. For the most part the cars Detroit created from the late 70’s on have had a slow decline is desirability and have failed to ignite the excitement of the 50’s post war era products, culminating in a collective 78% share in the 60’s to today’s 43% share. And one among the many reason for this decline is…key influencers. For years Detroit has ignored it’s most fertile key influencers…magazine editors and car cognoscenti’s at large, the car passionate, and instead concentrated on the more obvious target users, NASCAR fans, soccer Moms, buyers who view cars with no more discrimination then buying an appliance and the various other obvious play list targets. Important all to be sure, the dominate buyer segments, but never-the-less not the key drivers of thought leadership. The car magazine reviews and comparisons have for years insidiously devalued the perception of American products. Not in all articles, but for the most part magazine have continually favored models from Asian and Europeans makers. So too for truly knowledgeable gear heads who overwhelmingly have seen through the deficiencies of American product. The big three have paid a price for neglecting key influencers by not designing cars that passed the gate keeper sensibilities of the car cognoscenti. Understanding that while minuscule, these folks weld disproportionate clout and influence. A key influencer strategy requires not only marketing to your primary end user customer but marketing as well to your primary target, key influencer. And the beauty, it costs much less. Examples from many industries exist to illuminate effective key influencers strategies in several consumer and business to business industries. In the cycling industry the key influencers were, to be sure the editors and the athletes, but not so obviously were the “wrenches” set-up and repair mechanics and the sales staff. The young part time cycling enthusiast working in bike shops for discount parts who work in the back rooms and who dictated what bikes were cool by the one they put on their car racks. Independent bicycle dealers surveys have consistently shown that sale staff influence purchase of 87% of bicycles sales. After basic use and color preference the average customer can’t identify a bike brand, price point or model year from 10 feet away. The sales staff wields tremendous influence and there are only a hand-full of thousands of them as apposed to the annual 10 million potential buyers. This translates to media efficiency which translates to cost savings. Sell to the staff and you will sell to the consumer. The golf industry has a similar dynamic with different players. In an attempt to resurrect a fallen brand, under new ownership MacGregor Golf undertook a restructuring and resizing that took it’s sales from the 70 million range to 20 million in annual sales by eliminating product lines and distribution channels. At the heart of the repositioning to elite and premium purchaser golfers MacGregor honed in on key influencers. Similar to cycling, golf relies on golf publication reviews and commentary and on celebrity pro golfers to establish desirability. But there was one more key influencer, this time it wasn’t a person but a location…the golf shop at the country club – “Green Grass” distribution. It embarked on a channel distribution push into Green Grass locations expanding it’s reach from virtually nonexistent to 1,700 country clubs shops over a several year period. Because the Key Influencer in this case was the cache of selling in an elite venue. Green Grass amounts to only around 5% of all golf equipment sales but the shop as media value helped reintroduce the once leading brand again to avid golfers. MacGregor equipment sales starting in the early 2000’s went from 20m to over 135m in 4 years, playing a roll and in no small part due to key influencers, even the inanimate ones. C N A, CME, Hurley, The Internet and the advent of social media has exponentially grown the possibilities of key and peer influence and communities of topic formation abound. Conversations can be had on any subject, at anytime, anywhere in the world, with a difference. Marketers cannot use the old advertising method of a feature/benefit model of persuasion.
Intrusive, persuasive communication doesn’t cut it here, dialogue does. And who is leading these conversations? Blog, forum and review sites today drive opinion, awareness and information on every conceivable topic. What started as a hobby, a sort of real-time, open diary, has turned into an institution, a new medium of expression, and a new medium for marketing opportunity. What makes social media so special is it’s key to influence among peer groups – interactivity. It’s not just what a blogger says that matters, it’s the fact that by reading, monitoring, tweeting the blog, a user, if only even in a remote way, becomes a part of the bloggers life. The most recently broadly effective social media marketer? Barack Obama. His campaign used social media to a brilliant extent galvanizing communities to belief and action. Using this power for good can be perilous and paying scrupulous attention to sites that influence your brand is imperative. If you don’t someone else will, so media budgets need to be parceled out to provide support for your voice in the new social arenas. Form and technical considerations should be considered the management of sites that form around a brand. In a gaffe of interface, Audi lost a little ground with Key Influencers. Originally, the website Audiworld was formed by Audi enthusiasts (car cognoscenti) and quickly became the premier technical assistance resource on the web for Audi products. After 10 years, it was bought by Internet Brands, which owns other automotive enthusiast websites and had a reputation for trying to milk them for revenue, often to the disdain of the users which made them useful in the first place. Although they left it alone for a while, eventually Internet Brands decided to change the software which supported the discussion forums at Audiworld from an open-source program (Kawf) to a proprietary software product (vBulletin) they own and use on most of their other web forums. Their idea was probably to showcase their vBulletin software and allegedly streamline costs. The Audiworld users made very clear they didn’t like the way the new software worked (it’s available on lots of other web forums so they knew how it would change the way the discussion forums looked and worked). Despite increasingly strong protests from users, Internet Brands went ahead with their transition. Anticipating the disaster, a disgruntled user worked to build an alternate Audi enthusiast site, Quattroworld, using the original open-source software so it looked and worked like the old one, within one day over 2,500 users deserted the old forum and jumped to the new one. After 3 weeks, over 4,000 users migrated themselves to Quattroworld. Most were the more experienced forum users, responsible for the majority of the technical posts. Many even donated money to support the new effort. The a revolt of passionate key influences, illustrated here shows the power of a collect group of enthusiasts and the due diligence needed in managing not only the conversations but the technical forms of social media. The challenge for marketers, given the need for accountability, ROI and the limited resources to drive initiatives is the target identification of key influencer audiences. Key influencers can turn up in unexpected places. There are many candidates for key influence on a brand and marketers using this tactic need to apply due diligence in uncovering the best. The first step in the identification process is research to aggregate the intimate information needed to ignite activity around your brand. Companies have many layers of stakeholders, many associations and partners, along with their respective target audience segments. Embedded in these groups are agendas and needs that are diverse and not always related. Uncovering all the potentially relevant contacts may include a variety of research tactics, from general surveys, groups and direct customer, supplier panels to employing services to monitor social media communities. This research can parallel general inquiries and don’t have to have additional budgeting, just an awareness of additional objectives within a program. Often times target nuances emerge organically within an inquiry. The key is to understand that key influences exist and will work for you or against you and it’s up to you to decide which. As part of any marketing program key influencers should be considered and engaged and as we have seen can become your entire program. The Blur Age doesn’t allow us to control the table, just some of the chips.