OK, I’ve another bit of Altimeter research to recommend: “The Rise of Digital Influence.” As with many studies on social media, content marketing and other areas of the still developing digital world, this one raises as many important questions as it answers. It does a good overview job of answering the question “What is digital influence, and how can my brand take advantage of it?” It completely begs the issue of “When will ‘sparking desired effects’ among the influential digerati slip over into anti-social, trust-damaging marketing manipulation?”
WHAT IS DIGITAL INFLUENCE, AND HOW CAN BRANDS LEVERAGE IT?
Let’s back up to the first half of that question. The report helpfully tries to level up the notion of digital influence from one of mere electronic word of mouth – with influencers being those having the most “mouths” follow and repeat what they say – to a more nuanced understanding of digital influence, which the report alliterates as being comprised of
Reach: Popularity, proximity and goodwill
Resonance: Frequency, period, amplitude
Relevance: Authority, trust, affinity
USING DIGITAL INFLUENCE VERSUS PEDDLING IT
The report goes on to talk about how “businesses can shape and steer positive conversations and… desired outcomes,” and offers case histories wherein companies offered often very expensive “incentives” to influencers in exchange for tacit help engaging their followers to help achieve those “desired outcomes.” It also mentions that “… the brand borrows the social capital of the individual to appear approachable and desirable to their followers.”
This brings me to the real issue at hand: the difference between “borrowing” social capital and buying it. When your approach is to attract digital influencers via free phones, expensive trips and the like, the balance tips in the direction of “buying.”
PAYING FOR INFLUENCE BUILDS NO MORE TRUST IN MARKETING THAN IT DOES IN POLITICS
So what’s the harm? The potential harm is the same we see in the politics of pay-to-play states like the one I live in, or in the influence-peddling hallways of Congress: once consumers, like voters, wise up, long-term damage is done to the trust required to make relationships, or even entire systems, work.
HOW TO BUILD SOCIAL TRUST
While the report evinces some of the subtle arrogance that typifies any hot trend and its new masters (sample section heading: “The New Era of Consumer Influence: When Nobodies Become Somebodies), it also highlights (though not as much as I think it should) two keys to keeping consumer trust while paying to piggyback on the authority and relationships of others:
1. Provide real value to develop honest support from digital influencers
It’s a central tenant of all social and content marketing that’s it’s not all about your brand. As the report puts it “Rather than ask connected consumers to share random or purely promotional updates related to your business, provide them with ideas, content, links, or editorial suggestions…” In short, provide incentives that have a natural value to your target influencers (and their followers).
2. Be aggressively honest and open – transparency begets trust
It’s not enough to simply comply with the FTC Endorsement disclosure guidelines for blogs, social media, etcetera. Marketers would be wise to follow the lead of Virgin America, who, as mentioned in one of the Altimeter report case histories, assertively encouraged an honest, no-holds-barred response from the digital recruitees by announcing, “We do not want to ‘buy’ your tweets. You are receiving the product because you are influential and have authority on topics related to the product… You are welcome to tell the world you love the product, you hate the product, or say nothing at all.”
What are you doing to create relationships with digital influencers – and how are you doing it?