Influencer marketing is increasingly forming part of large campaigns – with brands and agencies realising the value of involving key members of an audience’s community in a product launch or campaign. And done well it can add real value – it can help to pre-launch a product to those most likely to engage with it, it can help to amplify a campaign, or to reach an audience you don’t normally have access to. But too often influencers are not used effectively.

When is an influencer an influencer?

The trend is to confound influencers and celebrities – assuming that because somebody has a large following they are important to you. There is a role for celebrity endorsement and support for campaigns, but too often this is used as a short-cut for influence.

If you get somebody with a large following to talk about your product launch, the theory might go, you will prompt a number of their followers to share or talk about your content. So, the theory would extend, to get more people talking about you it is a numbers game – if you get influencers with a larger following then they will prompt more conversation than influencers with a smaller following.

But this is not true. This is not how social networks work (offline or online).

The majority illusion and influence

If there is one piece of academic research that it is important for those who work with social networks and digital content to understand it is research into the Majority Illusion.

Researchers at University of Southern California published a paper in 2015 into a paradox in social networks – that some ideas and opinions seem widespread when they are not. A few well-connected users in a network that share an idea can make it look a lot more popular and common that it really is. And this is important – because ideas that appear to be popular are more likely to be adopted by others.

Content that appears to be popular is more likely to be shared, viewed and discussed by others.

So identifying and engaging with a small number of well-connected people on a given topic will realise greater benefit for a brand than engaging somebody with a lot of followers. Finding people who are known for their insight and expertise on a topic, and engaging a critical number of them in any community will be more effective at influencing discussions and decisions than a celebrity endorsement Tweet.

Bigger isn’t better when it comes to influencer marketing; the majority illusion can be more effective.

Matt Rhodes

About Matt Rhodes

Head of Digital Strategy for work. Marathon runner and charity trustee for fun.

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