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Who Owns the Influencer?

  |  June 12, 2007   |  Comments

Is there a single department, group, or entity charged with influencer management? Should there be?

In the golden age of branding, several guests at the party held sway: brand, PR, marketing, external relations (ER), research, and the agencies. On top of that, we had a few occasional attendees, such as consumer affairs, investor relations, and community relations.

Today, in the golden age of consumer empowerment, we have the same party guests, but their sway is being challenged in a very big way by an aggressive, sometimes rude and abrupt new guest at the party: the consumer influencer.

I'm talking about the loudmouths everyone hears and reacts to. These folks really move the needle when it comes to CGM (define) creation and spread. They write the power blogs, lead the communities, organize the forums, create the boards, upload the most viewed videos on YouTube, lead mini-revolutions on Facebook, and more.

They may have accrued influence over time or have situational influence (e.g., they were first to try and review the iPhone, hence setting off a broader chain reaction). That influence often spills from the online zone into the offline or vice versa. Indeed, today's über-influencers are largely platform agnostic, except they tend to have a more quantifiable digital trail of results online. Put another way, if you search their names, you'll find evidence of something they said.

But Who Owns Them?

Who owns the influencer? Is there a single department, group, or entity charged with influencer management? Should there be? Equally important, what are the risks of too many folks going after the same constituency?

Having been in the consumer expression business for the past six years, I see two developments: half the industry is putting up barriers around their party guest to guard others from stepping on their influencer turn; the other half is looking for ways around the barriers for their turn. Let's take a look at the guests:

  • ER. Historically, external relations -- the corporate entity and PR and broader stakeholder management -- has owned influencers, but the definition was much narrower, consisting of media, financial analysts, expert third parties, activist groups, NGOs, and regulators. Many of these entities have extended their presence into (and influence via) the blog publishing tools, one reason ER needs to tackle the blogosphere. But the massive migration of consumer influencers into their space raises important new questions. With defensive branding, the ownership equation seems obvious, but what about nurturing influencers around new product launch? That's less clear.

  • Market research. Few researchers dispute traditional influencers' role in the market mix, but the community is all over the map on the new influencers. Are these typical consumers? What's the true middle of the bell curve? I work in the research community, but I generally try to avoid selling directly to research buyers as they sometimes take a narrower view of the scope of their charge. More important, owning influencers from a research perspective isn't just about gathering great insights. It's also about managing relationships with these new media creators. That's marketing, not research.

  • Public relations. If you look at the membership logs for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), you'll appreciate that the PR community is laying claim with force and fury -- and occasionally some controversy -- to the expanded role of consumer influencers. Like ERs, PR firms historically owned traditional influencers, but now they have a unique opportunity to drive more business from other parts of the marketing mix. Edelman has Me2Revolution. Ketchum just launched an ambitious spin-off run by Paul Rand, ZÓcalo Group, focused on WOM communications. John Bell of Ogilvy PR and Idil Cakim of Golin Harris are board members of WOMMA.

  • Advertising agencies. Seems like every couple days, our firm presents to another major advertising agency; this reflects yet another constituency laying claim to the new influencer. The connection comes at many levels. On one hand, influencers are publicly judging agency work in the form of measured CGM engagement in response to initiatives, even TV advertising. Their initiatives are multiple -- even against TV advertising. Moreover, the new influencers are becoming co-creators in the advertising creation process, which essentially makes them de factor members of the ad department.

  • Consumer affairs. Arguably, consumer affairs is closer to the influencer than any above mentioned group, but it's also the most politically impotent and organizationally marginalized to do anything about it. Moreover, it's really not in the short-term interest of either the advertising agencies or PR firms to embrace this group: no one makes money or drives business by helping consumer affairs. At the same time, consumer affairs may be in a unique position to argue for more organizational attention and resources, given its untapped potential to capture, profile, and manage influencers.

  • Digital agencies/media planners. Then there are the digital folks, who own new, evolved pipelines into the consumer, and media planners, who are under increasing pressure to put media in places that build buzz. We're poking our heads around influence circles and starting to promote new models of customer segmentation that underscore the role of outspoken consumers.

In sum:

GroupRole Concerning Consumer Influencers
External relationsMake, shape, and catalyze the news.
Branding/advertisingCreate free advertising, and shape the conversation.
Investor relationsTip off financial analysts with deep perspective.
Quality groupSend early signals, and lead market thinking.
Ad agencyAct as a new media and messaging frontier.
PR firmManage events and other influencers.
Digital agencyBuild the platforms that impact influencers.
Market researchLead thinking on new segments.
Direct/database marketersCreate higher value segment or cohort against which to target.
Legal/HRAre these influential consumers also my employees?
PublishersBecome aggregators of community, not just eyeballs.

Where Will It Go?

With all the ambiguity, change is certain to come. We'll start to see an melting of the silos into more coherent, coordinated consumer-centered entities.

Here are a few predictions:

  • Consumer affairs merges with marketing. Consumer affairs is like a ripe, undervalued acquisition target. CMOs, frustrated with the high cost and complexity managing external influence, will start to recognize enormous ROI (define) in managing the internal listening pipe. In most cases, brands will actually open up the listening pipe to drive larger databases of high impact influencers.

  • Research and media measurements start to morph. If segmentation is the mother's milk of great research, researchers will move more aggressively to this area, but they'll face increasing competition from media planners, who, in the course of placing advertising, will acquire incredibly rich and actionable data.

  • PR, advertising, and digital firms start to morph. If consumer influencers are the new advertisers and message creators, does the division between advertising and PR really make sense? Communication is communication. Why should clients service silos when they can have one-stop shopping anchored to the consumer's voice? Plus, there's a risk of screwing up two things when two folks compete for the same person's attention.

That's just the beginning. The good news is this uninvited guest is shaking up the party.

Who wants to hang out at a boring party?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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