Monday, March 02, 2009

The Nature of Influence

How and why does influence work?

There have been numerous discussions on the use of social media to find and leverage the recommendations of consumers. While the idea has face validity and support ranging from "The Tipping Point" to the "New Influentials" there is still the need to understand how it works. Micah Baldwin had a post today on measuring online influence that talks about influence as being driven by trust. This post offers a potential definition of 'influence.'

To understand influence let's look at a typical conversation pattern. Here's a conversation network map or diagram of the conversations involved in the decision of attending an online high school. As with many decisions there are numerous players and connections.

The parent, the central figure of the decision, has numerous sources of information ranging from:
  • Other parents
  • School district officials, Administrators
  • Students and Teachers
  • Online high school providers
Which ones have influence?

The answer to that question requires establishing the elements of influence, i.e. what factors contribute to a source having a greater contribution than another? The general consensus is that trust and brand recommendation make up influence. In short hand, that would look like:

Influence = f(Trust, Brand Charge)

Now these terms need to be defined in measurable elements. Borrowing from Social Network Analysis and marketing, we can propose the following.

Influence consists of Trust and Brand Charge. A positive recommendation from a trusted resource has substantially more influence than a so-so comment from a casual source.

Trust is built upon Strength and Relevance:
  • Strength of a relationship is based on experience and the willingness to help in the past. Experience in turn can be defined in terms of frequency and longevity of the relationship.
  • Relevance is based on expertise, usability, and bias. Clear, direct, unbiased statements have more relevance.
Given a relationship, the message can be charged: Single, unambiguous and timely recommendations - 'see this movie tonight' - have substantially more influence than vague statements delivered out of the decision making time frame.
  • The number of alternatives affects the intensity of the recommendation.
  • Clearly sentiment plays a role: Positive vs. Negative
  • Timing, or distance from decision, also affects charge.
In sum, Influence can be broken down into a set of nine components that can be the focus of specific activities. If a brand wants to exhibit influence it has to provide useful information over a longer period of time than the typical campaign. Furthermore, the information has to be delivered in a way that improves one or more component of influence as perceived by the recipient. This last point suggests why two-way conversation is much more effective.

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