I have already written about the important role “influencers” play in the purchase process – from the choice of what ice cream flavor to eat, to the complex purchase cycle of an enterprise software solution (link to prior post). This article will take a closer look at how social media has taken on an important role in helping influencers connect with buyers along their purchase journey.
It wasn’t long ago when Facebook was an application just used by college students looking to make plans for the weekend, or to catch up with others on recent news or activities. The amazing growth of members quickly validated how popular and how much value its members place with this social community.
Then, something interesting happened. Companies began creating pages, and the race to add “Friends” began.
I remember considerable apprehension and discussions that occurred in marketing departments about how much time, effort and resources should be applied to this social network, among others. Soon, success stories began to emerge from those businesses selling to consumers (B2C). Then it became clear that these online communities were actually impacting sales and the brand’s perception in the marketplace. Prospective customers were going to social media sites to share product stories, endorse or share an exceptional experience or rant about poor customer service.
Recommendations and referrals became important and seen as endorsements or validations to try new products or see a new movie, as just two examples. The role of influencer has gone digital.
Early adopters began to see patterns. Offer a venue for your customers to speak about their experiences with your product, and other future customers would take note. Add advance notification of a future sale to your followers, and response rates improved. Of course, this connection is most compelling if your own friends are the ones doing the recommendation … but this level of familiarity with referrals is not necessary.
Influencer Segmentation in the Digital World
Today, with the passing of time and the knowledge that has been gained, it is apparent that not all social media sites are the same. For example, Facebook might be a great venue for consumer goods products, those that are not too expensive, and could easily be substituted based on incremental differences or brand perceptions. Yelp, on the other hand, seems to have found a niche in the sharing of service stories, such as eating out at a restaurant or using a hair salon. Travel Advisor, on the other hand, has now become the place to research vacation stays, tourist attractions or other such activities you might do when travelling out of town.
Other social media communities, such as LinkedIn, have proven to be quite effective for presenting thought leadership discussions. This type of discussion indirectly helps shape the perception of your brand. Influencers will take note, and either help or hurt your ability to promote future business opportunities.
Each of these venues has now taken on a critical role – letting influencers expand their reach to be virtually global. This is an enormous responsibility, and one that must not be taken lightly. I now feel almost an obligation now when I take a trip, to be sure to provide my feedback on what worked well, and perhaps what I would suggest to improve, so others can gain from my experience. If we all took this approach, I suspect global service levels would all go up.
Nowhere to Hide in the Digital World
Of course, we don’t live in such a perfect world. Anytime there is an opportunity for companies to take a shortcut to save time or a few dollars, some will take this less than ethical path. This was recently the case with the VW Diesel Scandal, where a faction within VW thought they could cheat their way to passing U.S. emissions tests with engine-management software that altered emissions during the test cycle.
The proverbial “ball” is now in the court of the digital (and other) influencers. How will this end? How much brand erosion will occur? How much will people forget over time?
As a point of reference, it was just a couple of decades ago when the Audi 5000 had sudden acceleration problems – at least that is what the story was on CBS’s 60 Minutes back in 1986. Interestingly, three years later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued their report on Audi’s sudden unintended acceleration problem. NHTA’s findings fully exonerated Audi. Regardless, Audi sales collapsed from 74k units in 1984 to 12k by 1991. Anyone who experienced this crisis first hand knows that their car became virtually worthless over night – no one wanted to buy a car that could allegedly accelerate suddenly, and potentially run over someone! It took nearly 10 years before Audi was able to make significant inroads back in the US market. The company has always claimed their innocence.
That incident occurred in the 1990s, when digital influencers didn’t really exist, with a company that claimed innocence. Today’s VW incident is totally different, in a very different time. Will VWs fate be more severe? Can they recover? Or, have we all become almost “numb” the fact that some companies will take advantage of its customers if given the chance?
One thing is for certain. If we as digital influencers decide “enough is enough,” we can certainly get our message out there and heard by all – and cause havoc to the brand that cheats or deceives us. And that is a force to be reckoned with. Markets and senior management teams take note – we are all brand stewards and need to take very seriously the role digital influencers play, as part of the obligation in taking ownership in the brands we work for.
Gordon Benzie is a marketing communications professional and business plan adviser that specializes in creating and executing marketing communications strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.