The real power of social media influence

by Nigel Hollis | April 25, 2018

The other week I was involved in a little email exchange with my colleagues about the power of social influence. As usual I was getting boxed into the Luddite corner until I realize that what was worrying me was the apparent assumption that social influence was universal and all powerful. If so, I beg to differ.

I know people talk about and recommend brands, they always have. I know we now have platforms that make it easier to share our experiences more widely. I know that people will seek the wisdom of the crowd when making a purchase decision. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that social does influence purchasing, and direct recommendations do for sure. However, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that social’s influence is far from ubiquitous and that much of it is a reflection of a brand’s existing strength.

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For a while I was proselytizing that the future was socially-led campaigns until I realized that the really effective examples were few and far between and that the biggest driver of social commentary was the brand’s equity and heritage. Take the beer category in the U.S., you can explain 70 percent of the variation in the volume social commentary between brands based on brand salience alone. Budweiser gets more than its fair share but likely driven by its Super Bowl heritage. And most of the commentary is using the beer brand to say something about the person posting, in other words, people are leveraging the brand’s existing equity to create their own.

One of the reasons Kantar Millward Brown can use search and social data to give fast feedback on new marketing campaigns is that they respond immediately when a brand does something. While comments related to advertising are a minority of overall commentary, increases in media spend lead to a linear increase in social commentary. Strong, well branded campaigns generate over 10 times as much brand-related comment as weak ones. People respond to what brands do far more than they spontaneously promote them.

So perhaps the issue is not does social feed salience more than it benefits from it, rather how can brands continue to build a virtuous circle between the two? Brands are social currency but that currency does not print itself. Creating activities that effectively drive social requires far more creativity and planning than most marketers are willing to invest. John Lewis in the UK is well known for attracting a huge amount of social commentary for its award-winning campaigns but it took the brand 10 years to get the social engagement it has now and required great video creative and really thorough media planning across traditional, digital and in-store to achieve that level of buzz.

Looking at brands like Glossier, Stitch Fix and eSalon today it is easy to believe that social will be far more powerful in future, and maybe it will be if the mass market really does disintegrate, but the fact remains that the best way to get people to talk about your brand is to delight them with a great experience. Failing that give them something remarkable, inspiring or useful to talk about. But what do you think? Please share your thoughts.

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