The untapped force of influencers that brands need to know

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By Andrew Stephen, Associate Dean for Research, L’Oréal Professor of Marketing and Head of the Marketing Faculty at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School

Influencer marketing is all the rage and some of the world’s biggest brands have added this approach to their marketing strategies. Well-connected, well-known influencers can have a very positive effect on your brand.

There are challenges to this approach, however, which relies heavily on both social media and word- of-mouth communication.


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One of the biggest challenges is activation. It isn’t hard to identify or select potential influencers for a campaign (e.g., using tools such as or through social media listening), but it is hard to get them to do what you’d like them to do.

Playing ball. Usually, it entails some form of positive posting in social media about your product or brand.

In fact, influencer activation is often fraught with challenges and it is not easy (or cheap) to get them to play ball. For instance, they might be reluctant to shill for a brand, or they might want to be paid an amount that you are unwilling to provide.

My research also suggests that social media users post less frequently as they gain more followers, have bigger audiences and enjoy higher social status. Thus, the well-connected social media users who you want to recruit for your next influencer campaign may be very hard nuts to crack.

Ultimately, the goal is to get relevant information out to as many people as quickly as possible and the standard influencer approach is to go to the well-connected people directly.

But given that this is often easier said than done, is there another way?

Yes, there is – and that is to think about everyone else in the network – the regular people who aren’t well-connected, but are a viable but typically untapped resource.

These people are probably your regular customers and they can be turned into an army of “every- day influencers”.

Regular power

The idea behind everyday influencers is simple. Instead of going after the special, inherently rare well-connected people in social networks for them to speak on your behalf – you focus on activating your regular customers.

They are likely to be connected to at least a few well-connected people in their networks and can reach this group for you. And since they aren’t you, their contacts may be more likely to pay attention and be activated in a more organic, grassroots way.

Importantly, the aim is to encourage your Everyday Influencers, to get the information into the hands of their well-connected friends, instead of just anyone.

This new approach is published in a re- cent article I co-wrote with Professor Don Lehmann at Columbia Business School in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, in which we report on a series of scientific studies that tested the idea and proved it can work.

Better connections. In one study, we built a computer programme to simulate product information spreading via word of mouth among hypothetical consumers in a large social network.

We were interested in how quickly information spread to as many people as possible and whether using everyday influencers could perform as well as, or even better than, well-connected influencers.

Well-connected influencers outperformed (in terms of the speed at which information spread) everyday influencers when the latter were programmed to share information with any of their friends at random.

However, when we re-programmed the everyday influencers to have a preference for sharing information with friends who were relatively well-connected (i.e., had more connections than them), things changed dramatically.


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The information spread faster from the everyday influencers than if it came directly from the special, well-connected influencers.

We found that if we could get regular people to want to share information with their well-connected friends, we could achieve better results than if we just went after the well-connected people in the first place.

We then ran other studies involving real people and found more evidence in support of using everyday influencers.

They can be very effective at generating word of mouth that targets the well-connected friends in their networks, who themselves are needed to propel the information forward and reach even more people quickly.

The value of information

The success of this approach hinges on getting everyday influencers to have a preference for spreading information to their well-connected friends.

They need to seek these people out; otherwise, information will just spread randomly and will not achieve the desired outcomes. We borrowed ideas from behavioural economics on incentives and “nudging”, and tested special incentives for everyday influencers, based on what economists call “externalities”.

The incentives were designed so that the value of the information to the regular per- son would be higher if more people also had the information. The logic being that it should make them get the information out quickly to as many people as possible, including well-connected friends.

This is exactly what happened when we tested the incentives in our studies. In one case, we used a product that had this externality characteristic built in. Many communications services, multiplayer video games and social media platforms such as Facebook use this technique.

In another experiment, we used a product that didn’t have this characteristic and, instead, built the externality nudge into a marketing promotion. This is similar to the type of flash sale used by Groupon and LivingSocial, whereby a customer would only get a discount when a minimum number of people redeemed a particular offer in a period of time.

These are just some ways that everyday influencers can be activated, but it can be as simple as nudging them towards sharing information with their well-connected friends.

In summary, influencer marketing can be very effective, but it isn’t always easy to make it work. Selecting the ideal influencers is the simple part, but activating them and putting them to work is hard (and often expensive).

Our suggestion is that marketers turn the model on its head and try to use regular customers – everyday influencers and a bit of behavioural economics and nudging to achieve the same, or maybe even better outcomes.

Key points:

– You need key influencers, but don’t always need to target them directly, if it is dif cult or costly to do so.

– Everyday influencers can be used to reach key influencers and, in fact, can spread information more quickly

– For the approach to work, everyday influencers need an incentive to share information

– Consider incentives that reward everyday influencers for spreading information widely and quickly