My thoughts on this topic were inspired by a trendwatching’s briefing called “The F-Factor.”
Their briefing (another excellent one by the way) discusses how the impact of influencers’ on purchasing has increased because of the web (and the dynamics associated with the web).
By the way. Trendwatching has another excellent briefing called Crowd Clout from about 2007 or so which makes essentially the same point.
I am going to try and put my spin on their insights by talking a little about the past (the evolution of this whole influencer explosion) and the future (how it is creating a new economic model).
Let me begin by saying despite the advent of “social media & social marketing” that consumer decision-making has always been personal and social.
The truth is that consumer decision-making has always been about seeking feedback, leaning on what friends say and seeking ‘influencers’ thoughts … all of which influence the ultimate purpose.
This was true even before the media (or people seeking to create some ‘buzz’) added the word “social” to the marketing world. Yes. Even the marketing dinosaurs knew decision making ultimately had a significant social aspect.
What do I mean?
People talked amongst themselves.
People talked to their neighbors about home services.
People talked to relatives or friends about more personal decisions.
People reached out to trusted advisers (doctors for medical, veterinarians for pet stuff, dermatologists for skin stuff … well … you get the picture).
People talked and discussed.
In fact The Economist just did a great article on how Martin Luther built the entire Protestant faith off of ‘buzz.’
(boy … that is social media working at levels they could typically only dream of these days)
The difficulty we face in the current “what is buzzworthy” world we live in today is that it wasn’t called social back then therefore we seem to struggle in finding ‘successful past case studies’ (or at least ones that someone will pay attention to). In the “old” days … people simply sought out ‘experts’ (I use the term loosely … let’s assume the definition here is “someone who probably knows more than I do and can inform my decision making process”) to make a better decision.
Before social media you could always count on the following two factoids with regard to who influenced a purchase the most.
“Who do you speak with about making a purchase?”
(you could flipflop or call it a tie pretty much all the time)
But something HAS changed.
The internet has changed our worldview on friends (and influencers).
“Our definition of friends has changed because of Facebook, and Twitter, where quantity as opposed to quality is now almost a mantra”.
Rick Murray, President, Digital Edelman Digitas
I don’t know that I totally agree with Rick from Digitas.
Oddly while social networks do increase quantity research has shown three key things (to indicate that quality is tagging along with the quantity characteristic):
1. A Pew Internet research study shows that internet has actually strengthened and expanded existing social roles of churches and fraternal organizations.
Therefore the quantity has simply strengthened existing quality.
2. the same research showed that more frequent communications via text actually ENCOURAGES the desire to spend more face-to face time
3. the research also shows that texting requires more careful crafting than a telephone or face-to-face communications and 3 out of 10 teens say “that they are more honest with friends when they talk online” therefore quality is the underlying foundation among all this “random quantity” discussion.
And while we often talk about how internet is influencing people we need to be careful with the ‘influencing’ word.
Research shows that the web can assist in education but ultimately the final influencer remains one and the same as the past.
The most tangible example I have at my fingertips of this notion is the most recent 2011 NPD Group Aftermarket Consumer Outlook Study:
Q: “Where would you go to learn how to do repairs on your vehicle?”
– Friend/Family 57%
– Vehicle Repair Manual 46%
– Mechanic 42%
– Internet 42%
– Store Personnel 16% (yikes)
Basically a Mechanic is AS influential as the Internet in this decision.
One word thought here. Wow.
The main point here is that a consumer now has access and is aware of more people (true friends as well as web based friends) and can have more frequent communication due to the digital revolution. Yet. Social media is simply the fact that the traditional benefits of an acquaintance network (personal or professional) and friendships can be more expansively realized than before.
The other truth is that products today are at the mercy of crowds of friends.
Crowds providing unsolicited feedback and influencing hordes of consumers making decisions on a daily basis.
This is the “F-Factor:”
It is the expanding scenario of consumers increasingly tapping into their networks of friends, fans, and followers to discover, discuss and purchase goods and services, in ever-more sophisticated ways. (source: trendwatching.com)
The F-Factor is a real part of people’s lives because it provides real value. Value in that it offers a purchase decision making opportunity that is more efficient, more relevant, and more interesting and provides more “depth/breadth” than before. In the past consumers either had to spend endless time and effort on trying to discover the best of the best, or had to rely on sources that were distant, unknown or untrusted, and therefore potentially unreliable or irrelevant.
Now the six degrees of separation (at least in the influencer world) has shrunk significantly to a “no degree of separation” influencer world (this entire phenomena is inherently changing the trust value equation).
Trendwatching does a nice job of identifying five ways that the F-FACTOR can influence consumer-buying behavior:
1. F-DISCOVERY: How consumers discover new products and services by relying on their social networks (Friends).
2. F-RATED: How consumers will increasingly (and automatically) receive targeted ratings, recommendations and reviews from their social networks. (by the way … this is creating an entirely new industry of something called ‘curated consumption’ where non-experts become distributors of expert like information).
3. F-FEEDBACK: How consumers can ask their friends and followers to improve and validate their buying decisions.
4. F-TOGETHER: How shopping is becoming increasingly social, even when consumers and their peers are not physically together. (in other words, the web permits consumers to share real time information and feedback and opportunities … and this is like a pebble in a pond syndrome where relevance & interest creates ripples difficult to quantify when it works).
5. F-ME: How consumers’ social networks are literally turned into products and services (curated consumption at its best).
This is one of those situations where the internet has unequivocally changed the dimensions of existing attitudes & behaviors. Simplistically the web has put the old F-Factor on steroids. I say it that way to point out that the web has not created anything new (attitude wise) but rather has encouraged a desired behavior to new boundaries.
The internet has also expanded an interesting existing consumer aspect to this entire “influencer” situation.
It is expanding the entire trend of putting consumers to work (whether they recognize it or not).
Think about his for a second.
This trend existed before the web. The easiest early example of this was in the fast food industry. For example the consumer of the fast food restaurant is also to some degree an actual producer of the meal.
Among other things, diners are expected to serve as their own waiters carrying their meals to their tables or back to their cars, sandwich makers (by adding fixings like tomatoes, lettuce, and onions in some chains), salad makers (by creating their own salads at the salad bar), and bus persons (by disposing of their own debris after the meal is finished).
This trend has actually existed for quite some time.
Putting consumers to work gained momentum with companies/brands after the birth of the fast food restaurant and has expanded to other industries:
– Being a gas attendant by pumping your own gas
– Serving as a bank teller at the ATM machine
– Working as the checkout cashier at the supermarket by scanning one’s own food, bagging it, and paying for it by credit card
– Being a ticketing agent by using electronic kiosks to check in at the airport
– Serving as an entertainment guide by co-creating a variety of experiences such as moving oneself through Disney World and its attractions
– Performing traditional medical professional services by using do-it-yourself medical technologies (e.g., blood pressure monitors, blood glucose monitors, pregnancy tests) that allow patients to perform their own medical tasks
– Being a caller on a call-in radio show
– Being part of a Reality TV show
And now the web has enabled brands (or is it consumer empowerment like everyone suggests) to put consumers to work in a wide range of sometimes subtle and less material ways (this is where the F Factor truly comes into play).
Think about that.
Much of what happens (and is created) online is generated by the user. Today’s web experience is often being defined by users producing content (individually as well as collaboratively). It wasn’t that way in the beginning when most of what existed on the original web was provider-generated but lately there has been an explosion of “consumers doing the work.”
Some examples of how the internet is putting consumers to work:
– Wikipedia – where users generate articles and continually edit, update, and comment on them
– Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking websites – where users create profiles composed of videos, photos, and text, interact with one another, and build communities
– Second Life – where users create the characters, communities, and the entire virtual environment
– Blogs – where the commentary is produced by the consumer
– eBay – where users are their own selling agent & shipper
– YouTube and Flickr – where mostly amateurs upload and download videos and photographs
– Craigslist – where consumers (mostly) create the market
– Amazon – where consumers do all the work involved in ordering products and write the reviews. (in addition users’ buying habits and site navigation are documented to recommend products)
– Yelp! – where users create an online city guide by ranking, reviewing and discussing various locations and activities in their area
– The GeoWeb, which consists of online maps where, increasingly, users are creating and augmenting content with Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo tools. In fact. Google Maps users can fix errors; add the locations of businesses; upload photos; link Wikipedia articles to, and blog about their experiences with, or reviews of, places on the map.
And that’s not all.
Start thinking about the new “location awareness” tools, often used in conjunction with ‘smart’ cell phones with GPS technology, which allow users to track where they are at any given moment and upload this information to websites such as Facebook, Twitter or one’s blog (Google Latitude, Yahoo’s Fire Eagle and Loopt mobile phone application).
This type of consumer involvement in consumption was certainly not invented by the internet, but given the massive involvement in popular online sites, it can be argued that it is currently both the most prevalent location of this new type of consumption (consumer) purchase model … and it is certainly the most important facilitator as a means of consumption.
It can be argued that the web is influencing an entirely new consumption model.
A new economic model (as I so succinctly suggested upfront).
This leads me to my big finish.
Friends, feedback and influencers is bigger than simply the web or how brands can compete in this transparent world (where putting consumers to work doesn’t mean they are an employee).
The F Factor is impacting America & capitalism (forget about the whole brand and branding discussion … this is much bigger than that).
Capitalism itself will be transformed, perhaps radically, in this F-Factor world we live in. Several thoughts lead me to this conclusion.
The inability of companies (brands) to control consumers in the way, and to the extent, that they have been able to control consumers in the past. Due to increased transparency there is a greater resistance to the incursions of obvious capitalism (e.g. efforts to gain greater control and greater profits).
This does not bode well for the companies dabbling in Facebook & twitter & social marketing who are doing so with the intent to “influence or guide purchase behavior.”
It is difficult to think of today’s consumer, mentally & attitudinally, as being exploited in the same ways as before. The whole idea of exploitation is contradicted by, among other things, the fact that today’s consumers seem to enjoy, even love, their involvement and what they are doing and are willing to devote long hours to it … for no pay.
The emergence of a whole new economic model to conduct business because of the internet. Traditional capitalism is dependent on the notion of the exchange of money for goods and services and profits are made in those exchanges.
However, little or no money changes hands between the users and the owners of many websites (for instance, users do not pay Facebook or Twitter to use the services).
For one thing there is the unwillingness of corporations and other organizations to pay for work done by these new web based influencers. This is compounded by the fact the new consumer increasingly prefer, and are able, to pay little or nothing for that which they consume on the internet (news, blogs, social networking sites, and so on).
Think about this as part of a new economic model.
Friends … family … influencers … or extended employees?
That will raise some hackles.
Yeah. Think about it.
What I have outlined is contrary to what Humphreys & Grayson (2009) argued that when corporations are involved this type of consumerism is simply the creation of “temporary employees” and thus does not indicate a fundamental change in capitalism.
Obviously … I disagree … I contend that entire business models based around these new consumer types (the so called “temporary employees”) who are unpaid and given the product for free indicates the possibility of a new form of capitalism.
If you are a business and you are reading this, think about the implications.
All these “friends” providing feedback (unasked for or asked for) and influencing gazillions of attitudes (which generate some type of behavior) are your employees (paid or not).
They are your associates.
When you look at them that way would you choose to treat them differently?
Do things differently?
Think about your “social media” plans differently?
Even sit down with strategic planning and think about your business model differently?
I will help out here.
The answer to all of those questions should be “yes.”
The web is a powerful powerful facilitator of influence & business.
You may elect to call it “friends & feedback quantity” architecture but I suggest if you want to be successful you think about it as a “quality” mechanism which can impact a new economic model.
But if you don’t think of it that way you will probably influence no one and end up on the slippery slope of irrelevance (with no friends).