Scientist: Influencer Theory Is Bogus

Duncan Watts first came to the marketing world’s attention in 2003, when a New York Times article positioned the Columbia University professor as the anti-Malcolm Gladwell. While Gladwell’s 2000 book The Tipping Point laid out an entertaining theory that fads like Hush Puppy shoes and the book Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood spread because of groups of people called influencers, Watts has argued that that model is deeply flawed. Watts, now a research scientist with Yahoo, charges that influencers have been poorly defined and that scientific data show you’re just as likely to spread a message or product by targeting a random group of consumers as you would by going after so-called influencers. Mostly, Watts says marketers should be much more scientific in their approach, especially as social media grows in importance. Excerpts from Watts’ conversation with Brandweek are below: 

Brandweek: What’s wrong with the influencer model?

Duncan Watts: The claim that influencer matter or are important or influencers drive brand awareness, when you scrutinize them carefully, they turn out to not really be very meaningful. Or to put it another way, everyone thinks they know what an influencer is and everyone thinks they know why they matter, but everybody thinks something different. Is an influencer the hipsters in the East Village or Oprah Winfrey? What makes Oprah influential is very different from what makes the hipster in the East Village influential. And so by failing to differentiate carefully between all these different types of influencers you really undermine the ability of the theory to say anything predictive.
What about a phenomenon of this decade like Crocs. How did that catch on? How do things like that spread?

I don’t think anyone knows. Somebody asked the publisher of the surprise bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves why that book was so successful and he said it was successful because lots of people bought it. Maybe that’s an honest appraisal. Hits are highly unpredictable. It’s very difficult to even retrospectively go back and show that there are certain kinds of consistent attributes that result in being popular. So Crocs is a good example. Nobody would have seen that they were going to be such a hit, so when confronted with that sort of evidence, people want to say ‘OK, maybe you can’t predict what attributes make something popular, but the reason why they’re popular is certain special individuals promoted them so now you can predict.’ It’s all about this desire to make predictions and to make them in terms of simple intuitive models.
So what would your advice be to a marketer trying to learn from things like that?

My first advice would be stop fooling yourself. If you have the wrong model of the world, getting the right model of the world first requires acknowledging that you have the wrong model. Marketers have been chasing influencers for a decade and they haven’t found them. And the reason is not that influence doesn’t matter. It may very well matter. The reason is not that some people are not more influential than others — that may also be true.

The reason is that history is a very poor guide to the future. Just because the hipsters in the East Village were wearing Hush Puppies and suddenly everyone else started wearing them doesn’t mean that you can go out and get the hipsters in the East Village to wear your product and it will be popular. To put it another way: Hipsters in the East Village are wearing stuff all the time and it doesn’t always become popular.
What about these consumer packaged goods companies going after mommy bloggers? Is that a waste of effort?

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