Leverage existing social networks or find an influencer to do it for you

by Shannon Paul on October 24, 2008

Influencers are usually pretty easy to spot, so why do so many companies still insist on building their own social networks?

This month started off with a bit of a downer for social media evangelists everywhere when Gartner released the results of a study that indicated a 50 percent failure rate of all social networking initiatives implemented by FORTUNE 1000 companies.

A profound misunderstanding of social networking strategies coupled with the temptation to buy some kind of extra-fancy social-networking software makes this true. Social media marketing only works if you work it and you have to know where to work.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a lot of potential for social networking platforms, but building brand new online communities rarely makes the most sense for marketing and PR strategies.

Even the most active users are only able to engage in a handful of social networks. Period.

Most of the time what works better than building something from scratch, is leveraging relationships in existing social networks.

Thankfully, a bit of good news for the future of social media marketing released more recently, confirms my belief that this is definitely the case.

A new study from Rubicon Consulting I read about in a recent post by Frederic Lardinois on Read Write Web indicates that the influencers are indeed online and having a profound impact on consumer behavior.

Sure, the study also indicates only 10 percent of users are generating roughly 90 percent of this content, but that’s actually good news.

Rather than trying haphazardly to build relationships with everyone online, marketers need only figure out who among the 10 percent is influencing their consumers and help those specific individuals use your product/content to create, promote and leverage their content.

David Armano’s Influence Ripples illustrates the impact these minority influencers have throughout the social networks where they create content.

Usually this can be done by getting to know them within the social networks where they are most active and engaging with their content through comments and general information sharing activities.

Now, it helps if you have relationships across social networks before you need them, but I’m sure there will be plenty of situations that call for marketers to jump in and try to figure out very quickly who the influencers are that they need to meet.

The only problem with this simple, yet effective strategy is that most companies are not hiring based on candidates’  content-generating activity in social networks. I believe this will change.

Who would make the better marketer, someone from the bottom 90 percent, or one from the top 10 percent?

Photo Credit: pasotraspaso

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October 24, 2008 Shannon Nelson

When I was speaking at the HBA Conference last month what I told them is that social media is like parenting. As time passes and with each new child, you acquire knowledge and know ‘what works’ and ‘what doesn’t.’ You know where you have more influence and where you are just talking to empty space. You learn which ‘tools’ are the most effective for you (for parenting) and which ones may just work better for others. You learn that you can’t be everyone, everywhere, but are more influential and can build stronger relationships if you utilize the ‘tools’ you have.

Not to mention that once you become a parent you learn to multi-task and in a sense this is what social media does for you–it is your branding, your customer service, your marketing and your publicity all rolled into one.

Relationship building takes time, but it will take even longer if we aren’t giving 100% because we are so focused on “getting our time in” on each social network we belong to. I say leverage what you have where you have it.

October 24, 2008 Joshua

I think it depends on the product and who needs to be interested in it to make your goals happen.

Do you need the quick surge from a Digg power user to put a campaign over the top or do you want a slow, but consistent buzz from a legion of niche bloggers?

OK, fine. Take the consistent buzz and then tap a power user to tip the scales!@

October 24, 2008 Renee Giroux

The concept reminds me of the public relations basic use of the ‘media list’. In theory have your list of your contacts, who know you, and your market. That way when you need some press, you can just refer to your media list, and call your ‘friends’. Voila!, you have press coverage.
Same stumbling blocks for those of us, up and coming, the time and effort to garner the relationships with the 10% be it media, or social media. My case, both! It seems time and nurturing are the key, and thoughts? (BTW: I’m Ijustfinished on twitter, thanks for the link!)

October 25, 2008 Eric Brown

Shannon, Excellent post, your insight is appreciated. We have been working on a similar approach with our small business by targeting The Influencers, which every brand has. One of the huge benefits of Social Media, is it is much easier to “listen for them” They are the Complainers that care enough to complain, and Love You when you Listen, and Love You even more when you do something about it. Those are The Influencers, and I believe that when You Lead Your Influencers they become Evangelists.

October 25, 2008 Bonin

Shannon as always your post insightful, genius, and spot on. However, I am going to suggest a few additions. I could not agree more – - it is very disheartening to see studies that show “social networking” has not worked for marketers (the first time I saw this was in a WSJ article in the beginning of the year). Especially when the approach to social networks has been completely wrong as you, point out. Digital marketers have attempted to simply take a new channel and stuff it into and old approach to DM – buy media instead of understanding the real opportunity and value, which as you point out is to co-collaborate with content creators and have real one-on-one dialogue.

I firmly believe that co-collaboration with the top content creators is a major and effective tool in our toolbox and we need to focus on it in a big way.

With that being said, I still think the opportunity to build one-on-one relationships with people that are not the top content creators but are advocates, or passionate (passionistas) about your brand is crucial. Even if some times that is done “haphazardly.” If we don’t strive to build one-on-one relationships then we stand to miss out on those intimate connections that digital in general uniquely affords us.

The last thing I would hate to see is the practice of social media, simply become a practice of targeting gatekeepers. Such a practice could have the effect of put a different set of blinders that digital advertisers would use as means of targeting vs. really taking time to understand the space and evolve their approaches – from one of target and purchase to listen, understand and participate.

Having said that, as always I think this is a genius post co-collaboration with top content creators is the right approach. I would add another HBR article to the mix which was just published in October edition called “The Contribution Revolution” – http://tinyurl.com/5q2kk4.

Nothing but love and I look forward to your thoughts.

October 25, 2008 Barb Chamberlain

Interesting post. I was led here by @ChrisBrogan on Twitter.

The ripples illustration reminds me of studies done on how people find jobs. It’s not typically through your closest friends or family, whose relationship circles tend to overlap yours most directly so you’re all hearing about the same jobs.

It’s more peripheral acquaintances, who have lots of relationships to which you don’t have your own access, who will find things you’re not hearing about.

That works when you’re looking for something–a job–and want those people to tell you what they find. I don’t know how you’d feel if those same slight acquaintances tried to sell you something. (Maybe that depends on whether they tipped you off for a great job :D)

@BarbChamberlain

October 25, 2008 shannonpaul

@Shannon – I love the parenting analogy and think that’s probably something most people are able to understand right away. Thanks for your insight!

@Joshua – I would actually classify a Digg power user as a type of influencer — one of the 10 percent. I would also consider an active Amazon reviewer in the top 10 percent. Reviews are content, no?

@Renee – I think the comparison of the 10 percent to the old school media list is fair except for the fact that the list and the method of building a relationship isn’t quite so static. For instance, I may have relationships in social networks with influencers that may not be the people I need to reach directly.

However, they have relationships with the influencers I need to reach and are more than happy to help me make the connection because they trust me. The person I need to reach will then make time for me based on their relationship with the other influencer. People in social networks do this for one another because networks are essentially built on trust. Make sense?

@Eric – I think what your company is doing with social media is remarkable and I believe that you’re laying a solid foundation for the future of your company in some of the worst economic conditions our state has ever seen. Really interesting is your description of complainers as actually *caring* enough to complain. There’s a lot of truth in that statement and that you’re right to point out that any complainer should also be regarded by a business as a potential influencer.

@Bonin – Yes! You’ve filled in the gaps here brilliantly. I would also HATE to see see the practice of social media simply become a practice of “targeting gatekeepers”.

You’re absolutely right, social media should definitely focus on building close relationships with passionate consumers based on listening, understanding and participation.

My mind wasn’t on that particular matter when I was writing this, but it’s an *extremely* important piece that helps companies bring humanity and depth of experience into their relationships with consumers.

@Barb I also like the illustration of how offline social networks help people find new jobs. That’s a really good example because in that instance, there’s usually trust involved. I would never recommend someone for a job if I felt that they weren’t qualified or unable to perform. However, I would like to be clear that we’re not actually talking about having acquaintances directly engaged in the act of selling in social networks.

I think there’s a clear distinction between *selling* versus introducing your reader’s to a company’s content/accomplishments, or providing a product review.

October 25, 2008 Paul May

The subtext that I’m reading here is “don’t make things more complicated than they really are.” I think this is spot on. With the proliferation of social networks and social tools, I think it’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel like you need to build the perfect social media strategy. The reality is that the 80/20 rule applies, and just getting in the game puts you ahead of most (i.e., you don’t need to build your own network, participate in every channel, etc).

A bit of a tangent…I sense the same thing happening with the “how do you measure influence” meme. There seems to be this focus on finding the perfect measure for a person’s influence so that you can identify the perfect list of people to engage with. This seems like overkill to me and the cost of this outweighs the value. Seems so much easier to just look at some high-level metrics (e.g., traffic, PageRank, etc.) and set some basic guidelines for what you view as “influential.” Certainly not a perfect approach, but it avoids the analysis paralysis that comes when you make it more complicated.

October 27, 2008 Karen Swim

Shannon, I believe the low success rate is also due to the mindset. Everyone wants the “quick hit.” People and companies rush in looking for drive-by success and it just does not happen that way. You say the key words, “work it.” Social networking works when you work it. It takes a bit more effort to cultivate relationships with influencers than to simply blast through cyberspace gathering “followers.”

October 27, 2008 annhandley

Shannon — Great post and I do love Shannon Nelson’s analogy. My first few Twitter or blog posts were like the first few tentative diaper changes on my newborn… “This can’t possibly be right! I could screw this thing up… for life! I am so clearly a poseur here!! I am not to be trusted with so big a job!!” LOL.. love it.

October 28, 2008 Beth Harte

Shannon, great post! Love David’s Influence Ripples graphic.

You said something a few things that strike me as really relevant to where marketing & marketers are today.

“…but I’m sure there will be plenty of situations that call for marketers to jump in and try to figure out very quickly who the influencers are that they need to meet.”

That is a problem in my mind. Because when you need to jump in and figure it out, it’s already too late, mistakes are made and that one shot at the influence you are seeking last minute is lost. I have seen it where marketers are under the gun and they just rely on their traditional know-how and I really just don’t think that works in this space. I think we need to shed the notion of always having something to market/sell and just be real. If that happens, you know all about me and I you and we know what each other’s goals are in an unspoken fashion. Am I being naive here? Maybe I am not looking at it correctly?

The other comment of interest was:

“The only problem with this simple, yet effective strategy is that most companies are not hiring based on candidates’ content-generating activity in social networks. I believe this will change.”

I so hope you are right, but I think we are a long way off…especially with companies blocking employees from FaceBook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. I know of cases where marketers engaged in social media, even on their own time (!!), are being watched and intimidated by marketers higher up on the food chain. It’s sad, but that’s the reality of it.

BTW, love Ann’s diaper analogy…I think I ended up with some “goop” on my hands when first using Twitter.

Thanks for the insights Shannon!

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