Duncan Watts is getting a lot of attention for attacking the notion that markets can be divided into influencers and influencees. The influential Seth Godin argues the market wants to gather into “tribes” of people who, no doubt, influence each other. On the other hand, he also argues for a more classical, top-down, influence-the-influencers approach as well. Guy Kawasaki buys into an extreme form of the Watts argument.
I agree with Godin, not Kawasaki. More precisely, I think there are many kinds and levels of influencer. The most important can be identified, and should be direct targets of your market outreach. But you should also be trying to reach an influencer “long tail” as well.
If selling enterprise technology, for example, you should separately target 8 different kinds of influencer, namely:
- Niche analysts. Large analyst firms like Gartner and Forrester have a lot of analysts, each of whom may be narrowly focused on an industry niche. The same goes for good specialty firms like Ferris Research. These analysts — whether clueful or otherwise — are often the ones who talk to your prospects, get quotes in the press, and frame issues for everybody else. Understand what they want, individual by individual, and give it to them. Understand their frames of reference and address them accordingly. Little else you do in marketing is as important.
- Robopress. Traditional trade press — or general reporters on technology beats — are getting ever more overworked and overwhelmed. While they want to do a good job, and often have the ability, their articles are usually just paint-by-numbers. Much as with the analysts, you have to learn about them one by one, then pitch accordingly. They still have remarkable reach, and often are also the triggers for blog and forum discussions.
- Big-picture analysts, press, and bloggers. For the past 10-12 years, in fat times and lean alike, the IT trade press has tried to not just report the news, but analyze it. (Of course, the same trend has been seen in the general media.) A large fraction of their effort is spent on columns and other analysis. A-list bloggers also see themselves as analysts. These influencers — along with some big-picture types at analyst firms — often hold forth on subjects they may not know a great deal about. When marketing to these people, your best shot is often to provide them with a hook or meme they then happily pass along to their many readers. Wider discussion may then ensue. Stock analysts may play this role as well (I certainly used to in my sell-side analyst days).
- Minor bloggers and forum posters. Here’s where the “long tail” starts. In any given area, there are rabid partisans who you want on your side if you can get them. On DBMS 2, I’ve been flamed for suggesting that FileMaker isn’t a capable database management system and also for asking whether it is a capable DBMS, the latter complete with smirking nofollow tags. I’ve also been flamed for being a relational (?) bigot and for not being a relational bigot. But the same people who rant like that also post perfectly sane things, and their passion inspires other like-minded folks. And of course many other people blog and post in calm, intelligent, reasoned ways, also influencing others.
- References. References are, of course, the most important influencers there are. I don’t need to tell you that.
- Other peer-influential users. But references aren’t the only influential users. People who just talk to their peers are important as well. This could be customers, or it could just be people who were reached by your marketing but for whatever reason didn’t buy. Customers, favorably-impressed non-customers, unfavorably-impressed non-customers — these are all important long-tail influencers for you. Stay in touch with them, if you can. Update them on your messaging. Do things to make them like you.
- Internal references. Sometimes, somebody only influences her colleagues. But most of your revenue comes from add-on sales, or else soon will. Internal-only references are still crucially important.
- Internal enterprise gurus. Before you make a sale, you need a champion. Whether it’s a respected developer or someone with an actual technology-evaluation job description, reaching internal gurus is critical. Besides, these people are often influential outside their companies, even if they don’t buy from you themselves.
Individuals, of course, can fit in multiple of these categories at once. Analysts may be deep in some niches, but have big-picture influence in a wider area. Many kinds of people have blogs. So I’m not advocating rigidly classifying people and coming up with eight separate outreach programs accordingly. I’m just telling you not to fall into the trap of neglecting some kinds of influencers while you overfocus on others.
Edit: Here are some additional links on the subject.
- Seth Godin has weighed in directly, continuing (as I read it) to straddle the point.
- SEO expert Aaron Wall pooh-poohs the point, arguing that communities have identifiable structure with key influencers.
- (June, 2011 edit — that link seems dead) Online marketing maven and philosophy student Maki has similar views to mine, but focused on categorizing kinds of influence rather than kinds of influencer.
- Paul Gillin added some excellent thoughts on influencer marketing.