First off, apologize to my regular readers for the infrequent posting recently. It's a poor excuse, but we really are busy - our best month ever was in December. A happy problem, I suppose. Sidebar; anybody interested in a tour of the word of mouth industry, apply here now.
No fewer than 6-7 people have sent me the recent article in Fast Company "Is the Tipping Point Toast?". Given the fact that a lot of what Agent Wildfire believes in is the importance of a small percentage of people causing big ripples of word of mouth, to put it mildly, we disagree with the article's thesis.
As Fox News is to objective reporting, so Watts study and Clive Thompson's Fast Company's article to advancing the cause of good marketing and the roles of influencers within it?
Poor Job #1 - Influencers marketing has been a marketing touchstone for the last 50 years
You can't be serious - not even 1% of marketing dollars gets spent on word of mouth marketing based on recent studies and if billions of dollars is represented by the $1.35 billion dollars that was reportedly spent by US marketers in 2007, than the assertion represents quite an exaggeration. Let's remember $254 million dollars is the full marketing services pie, hardly a touchstone. So you can tell from the first few paragraphs, the author is trying to manufacture some trumped up agenda.
Poor Job #2 - All That WOM Money is Being Wasted
Even a naysayer like Watts cannot be credibly saying that the ALL the money is being wasted, although apparently he claims too. Even in his studies, when influencers become involved and got behind the viral experiments, the circle of influence was always larger. Surely then , targeting influencers by his own standards, must provide some value. I'll add rather sarcastically that given the diminishing returns of mass marketing over the last 3 decades, it would appear Watts thesis supports marketers drunkenly still spending against the average mainstream consumer in a mass context. Well, we know how well that is working - ask a CMO who is now spending less than 23 months in a job before they walk the plank.
Poor Job #3 - Can't You Get Better Sources
The level of duplicity and shady references is almost like the Tobacco indutsry in the way they operate. Hmmm, we're trying to demonize an increasingly well founded position (the importance of influencers) - let's use a record industry executive as our foil (and let's not say who it is) --yah, nobody likes those guys nowadays. And for backing our own credibility, hmmm, can we find some clients, no....hmmm, than let's use the Advertising Research Foundation - the group who most likely stands to benefit from a discrediting of the need to micro-target and engage influencers vs. support for a mass segment and broadcast through traditional media approach. I hear the ghost of War Veterans vs. John Kerry somewhere.
Poor Job #4 - Watts' Research is Somehow More Precise
To debunk an entire school of thinking, on two-three academic experiments is a bit hyperbolic. As much as Watts picks on Milgram's letter experiment and Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, one experiment was conducted pre-web with the best means available and the other was meant to conceptually build a smart thesis and sell books not to be a precise study of science. In focusing on these two, he denies the rich and admittedly more disciplined, decades-long research that has been conducted by Everett Rogers, Geoffrey Moore, Keller & Fay, Emmanuel Rosen and more recently in practice through companies like Yahoo (ironically his own study sponsor), HP and Dell. His test tube study stands in stark contrast to these data-based and in some cases, in market results - there may be merit in looking at his conclusions but most of it lost when Watts tries to be so categorical about his findings.
Poor Job #5 - The Aspect of Motivation
Watts actually disproves his theories within his own research - Influencers, when motivated, spread messages much further. His own conclusions prove this. The fact that Influencers didn't do it in great abundance within his own experiment may be chalked up to a number of reasons, but most likely one of motivation. That's why businesses like ours exist - motivating, incubating and inspiring Influencers is not a simple science and requires an understanding around what would make them rally behind and spread messages on behalf of others. Treat them like cattle, as apparently what Watts has done, and offering them no additional ego, influence, self-expression, intrinsic, extrinsic or explicit reward outlets beyond what was available to the average Joe is a recipe for disinterest. To rearticulate his key finding, Watts has proved that Influencers need concepts, content, experience and tools that maximize their interest before their willing to rally their large networks of followers. No argument there.
Poor Job #6 - It's Not Possible to Will a Trend into Existence
Well I'll be darned. Watts believe that companies can't will a trend that grows small and spreads large into existence. If Watts then, can explain to be the growth of Facebook, MySpace, Wii, Prius, Starbucks, eBay, Apple, Burton, Jones Soda, Maker's Mark, Innocent Drinks, Harley Davidson, lululemon and a host of other products that have eschewed mass media and have galvanized a brand community through grassroots experiences and targeting fans, ambassadors and influencers, then I guess I'll reject most of what I've written about in my last 400 posts. The fact that companies can't spread it reliably is a "global warming denier" argument - and only speaks to the fact that brands have not built core expertise in how to do it (refer back to point #1).
Poor Job #7 - Marketers are Arrogant ( maybe but what satisfies their arrogance the most)
By and large, Joe Pilotta's argument that marketers who practice influencers programs are attempting to stroke their own egos and become the "uber influencer" holds very little water. Shame on him, being from the industry, he should know better. The marketers involved in word of mouth and more broadly brand community building tend to be extremely passionate, collaborative and driven by customer-concentricity. In fact, in my experience, the more ego-driven marketers get charged by seeing their TV ads on the small screen. The ad business has a richness of egos, that given my broad knowledge of the players in the influencers arena, makes the word of mouth practitioners look meek by comparison. Doesn't that explain the the $2.7 million each Super Bowl advertiser is spending on 30 seconds of fame this year? (Imagine what $2.7 million could do in an influencer, word of mouth world...it makes me shudder!)
Poor Job #8 - Context and Time is Everything
In Watts' experiment, he sends whatever entreaty or rumour, out simultaneously, to influencers and average Josephines at the same time. A very academic and controlled experiment; great for science, horrible for practice. As has been shown by a wealth of research on diffusion curves, in real life, influencers, by and large, are the people making the rumours, hearing about them first or fast followers. Watts in his study proves that the people getting the first few votes tend to swing the balance of the population their way. It's true. Look at Digg or Facebook applications and you will see that getting people to jump onboard early is critical to success. People instictively like to back winners. Here's where academia departs from reality, In the real world, the preponderance of these early vote-swinging adopters are influencers, who are passionate about the topic and much more willing to take a risk on the "new thing" vs. the mainstream. Most word of mouth marketers worth their salt, know that if you can offer something to an influencer earlier or more exclusive than their average cousins, you've provided them social currency and given them perhaps the #1 reason to get inspired and fuel a word of mouth phenomenon. That temporal and contextual benefit has been taken away in Watts' experiments and not surprisingly, the trendsetters have yawned.
Poor Job #9 - Six Degrees Tracking
The neat Watts/Peretti application that tracks how fast and to whom word of mouth phenomenons have been spread to proves word of mouth can work on a manufactured (or as we like to call is orchestrated) level. The fact that Watts claims that his process can double-to-quadruple the impact of word of mouth spreading makes me struggle with his original thesis that word of mouth marketing doesn't work. Surely as well, if he teased out his numbers, he would realize that this wondrous application when combined with motivating word of mouth content/context and a bank of ego-driven and narcissistic influencers would produce much bigger "mushroom clouds" of buzz than just targeting the mainstream . In the article, Watts claims that the thought leader's arguments in the influence business before him, are all murky. Given my reading, Watts arguments are as murky as algae-ridden ponds in the height of summer.
So what is your argument Mr. Watts:
- influencers marketing doesn't work - if so, then prove it - you have only provided one murky shard of evidence that tries to simplify an admittedly complex art and science
- influencers need to be inspired but are very effective - I think that's what you've proven, but I don't see it anywhere near you conclusions
- only your mouse-trap of word of mouth spreading works best - that may be the case, but it doesn't prove your theory and makes your science, appear more like an infomercial
In conclusion, new, innovative and sometimes provocative ideas like those expressed in the Tipping Point represent a threat to the status quo. As we have seen with the tobacco industry, the environmental industry and some of other pillars of business and policy , when the establishment can find safe harbour in academic research, no matter how much it smells like snake oil, they will jump to it.
Unfortunately that's what Watts has done here and in some respects, I hope you don't read this article or my retort of a post, it gives his argument more credit than it deserves.