The Value of "Influentials" to Your Nonprofit
The “influentials” model—that a select minority of people can disproportionately influence others to adopt behaviors or purchase products— has increasingly come into focus following the publication of Malcolm Gladwell‘s The Tipping Point and Edward Keller and Jonathan Berry’s The Influentials. However, does the “influentials” model imply that your nonprofit should abandon broad-based marketing efforts and instead examine your donor rolls, volunteers, and management to identify “influentials?” Not necessarily.
Professor Jonah Berger of the Wharton School, notes that the “influentials" model is dependent on four assumptions: 1) “We can identify people who 2) will influence more people to buy our product than a randomly selected person and 3) get them to talk about our product and 4) it is cost-effective to target them.”
Citing significant research, Berger argues that these assumptions have significant weaknesses. In terms of identifying “influentials,” (#1) Berger cites a few major problems, including: (A) people typically overestimate their own influence; and (B) an individual’s influence is situation specific and can change form topic to topic.
With regards to whether certain people have a disproportionate influence (#2), Berger cites several counterpoints. In a May 2010 eMarketer survey, 55% of individuals stated the recommendations of friends or similar people most influenced purchase decisions compared to 51% for experts and 26% for influential bloggers. Berger also cites a study that found that Facebook likes stayed nearly constant for a post (around 40), even as friend size increased from 400 to 1,500.
Professor Berger notes that even if the first two assumptions of the model hold, identifying and then compelling an “influential” to talk about one’s product (#4) is likely to be prohibitively expensive. For example, brands pay Kim Kardashian $10,000 per “sponsored” tweet.
Professor Berger’s conclusion is to “Ignore ‘influentials.’ Craft contagious content.” For the nonprofit sector this suggests that, while certain individuals might generate disproportionate levels of word of mouth awareness and donations for your organization, the difficulty of cost-effectively identifying and then quantifying these individuals’ impact outweigh the benefits. That is, your organization should focus on a broad-based marketing effort whose messages are both sticky and contagious, and which naturally encourage broad dissemination without relying upon the “messenger’s” influence.
In a future blog post, we will discuss how to craft sticky and contagious messages that encourage word of mouth.