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The social influencer is dead. Long live real customers.

I recently visited my aunt in Waterloo, Ont. She is 87. She spoke a lot about how commerce was done in the 1950s, "before things got complicated." Two zingers resulted from that conversation.

The first was how, in her opinion, businesses and brands genuinely used to try to produce high-quality products. She spoke of car companies and retailers and food products with reverence. Large brands were not looked at with the same skepticism some are today, she said, and upstart or craft brands were not revered in the same way some are now.

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The second observation was that there seemed to be two influential marketing voices: brands and customers. Big brands would do their best to produce high-quality products, and then they would advertise them through mass media, harping on features and benefits. Customers would do the rest of the work, one-to-one, telling family and friends about a product or a brand they liked and why.

In other words, big brands had a conscious strategy to try to do good things, and to then have ordinary people say good things about them and their wares.

Lifestyle marketing was not a focus. Experience marketing was not a focus. And identifying and paying social influencers was not a focus (some will argue Avon and Tupperware did exactly that, but they were exceptions rather than the rule).

The 2000s brought about the idea of the social influencer. Malcolm Gladwell and his seminal book The Tipping Point were instrumental in ushering in this new age. Mr. Gladwell identified "mavens" – powerful aggregators of information and impressions who are normally trendsetters, and who can have significant influence working with "connectors" (people with a large, trusted network). Connectors can easily spread the word of mavens through their networks. Mavens are social influencers.

Wikipedia has this to say about marketing with social influencers: "Influencer marketing (also influence marketing) ... has emerged from a variety of recent practices and studies, in which focus is placed on specific key individuals (or types of individual) rather than the target market as a whole. It identifies the individuals that have influence over potential buyers, and orients marketing activities around these influencers."

We are witnessing the death of the social influencer. In a conversation with an experienced marketer at an agency in Toronto last week, the marketer noted her skepticism toward paying social influencers for any new campaigns in 2012, saying "no one believes these people any more."

Research published by in 2011 shows that, on average, consumers trust their friends and family 73-per-cent more than they trust strangers, which includes delivery mechanisms such as word-of-mouth, blogs, tweets and other social media posts. In 2010, Edelman published its 'trust barometer,' which showed faith in "average Joes" dropped by about 5 per cent, and trust in experts increasing by about the same amount.

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Paul Rand, president and CEO of Omnicom Group's Zocalo Group, and president of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association, has been quoted as saying: "…the game has changed. The mind-set is no longer 'I can just trust it because it's somebody's opinion. It's 'I can trust that specific opinion because it's someone I know.'"

So if influencer marketing is fading, what will take its place?

Nov. 15: The answer. Look for the follow up on the Report on Small Business website.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, is a partner at Satov Consultants – a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy and operations strategy. Mark's focus areas inside the customer strategy practice include consumer insights, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. He is a regular speaker and media contributor on topics ranging from marketing to strategy, in telecom, retail and other sectors. Mark is known as much for his penchant for loud socks and a healthy NFL football obsession as he is for his commitment to Ivey and recent Ivey grads. He currently serves as chair of the Ivey Alumni Association board of directors. Mark lives with his wife Charlotte and their bulldog McDuff in Toronto.

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About the Author
Marketing & Growth Columnist

Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, is a partner at Satov Consultants - a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy, operations and strategy implementation. Mark's focus areas inside the Customer Strategy practice include consumer insights, pricing, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. More

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