Search marketing is all about influence. We, search marketers, try to influence consumers or business prospects to take an action that will eventually lead to a sale, increase the value of a sale, or, at the very least, increase the chance that a sale is made.
But growing evidence indicates that the buyer isn't necessarily the one influencing the purchase most heavily. Those influencing the buyer go by various names, and their descriptions are similar with some nuances. Called "the influentials," "influencers," "mavens," "passionistas," perhaps "early adopters" or, in the world of technology, perhaps just "geeks."
Who's your office geek? The one considered most knowledgeable on technology products? My guess is that your office geek influences many people's decisions on technology purchases in corporate and personal spheres.
Search advertising reaches this influencer, even though no cookies set on their computer is ever triggered by a shopping cart tracking system. This influencer's word of mouth may influence more than one purchase decision. You need to reach these types of people with your paid search campaign, moving them to destinations where they'll spend time and absorb your message.
Because influencers are located at the buying cycle's early stages, you must think beyond the measurable online conversion behaviors we know and love (such as filling out lead forms, shopping cart conversions, and visits to "contact us" pages) when designing search campaigns for them. Even tracking offline behavior, like phone calls, won't properly account for the influence they may wield over an eventual sale.
How to Identify an Influencer
It's highly likely that search and your site can influence influencers. Similar metrics (some call them micro-conversions; I think of them as engagement factors) may identify both influencers and likely direct purchasers.
For example, I'd be willing to bet that influencers have a higher-than-average thirst for information. So, using an engagement metric combined with your standard conversion metrics may be an appropriate means to identify them. If you get an influencer to read a lot about your product, remain on site, and otherwise engage with your brand, your message may positively influence this person.
Sometimes the influencer is also highly passionate about a specific subject. In this case, many marketers prefer to call those people "passionistas."
A study, "Passionistas: The New Empowered Consumers," discusses how these people both generate and consume much larger quantities of content than the average Web visitor. According to the study, "for every minute typical Internet users spend on content, Passionistas spend six minutes online with content related to their interests." So, again, using engagement metric as an additional input for your search campaign may create new opportunities to engage passionistas. The huge advantage of reaching passionistas is realized if your overall marketing campaign has a social media strategy where you want people blogging, commenting, Twittering, and posting about your product or service.
Does Your Message Deserve to be Shared?
Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociology professor on sabbatical to work at Yahoo, takes the opposite approach by suggesting that "a rare bunch of cool people just don't have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. There's no there there."
Instead, he argues that the most important factor is to make your content easy to share. He debunks all the influencer research, saying that anyone can be an influencer on any particular topic, and that the main job of marketers is to get their message right. The irony, of course, is that Duncan's new employer, Yahoo, was the co-sponsor of the research regarding passionistas.
Either way, a lousy, uninteresting message will never go viral, even between best friends. This brings us back to testing and creativity -- something most search marketers don't like to think about. However, if you're paying thousands of dollars to get visitors to your site, including potential influencers, you may as well engage them.
Whether you're trying to influence either a random influencer (who might start the viral/word-of-mouth process Duncan Watts cites), or if you believe there are magic influencers and passionistas out there who, if you gain their attention, will cause such a viral process to begin, you need to get everyone you can excited about your message.
The U.S. presidential election may be the perfect place for academics to study the role of influence and influencers on votes and opinions. My team and I just finished the first phase of a study, "Search Engines and Politics: A Study of Attitudes and Influence," which found that the candidate with the most sound search strategy could end up swaying the remaining undecided voters and winning the 2008 election. I'll use some of that in a follow-up column.
Want more campaign information? Check out our ClickZ News Campaign '08 section for the latest news and analysis.
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Kevin Lee, Didit cofounder and executive chairman, has been an acknowledged search engine marketing expert since 1995. His years of SEM expertise provide the foundation for Didit's proprietary Maestro search campaign technology. The company's unparalleled results, custom strategies, and client growth have earned it recognition not only among marketers but also as part of the 2007 Inc 500 (No. 137) as well as three-time Deloitte's Fast 500 placement. Kevin's latest book, "Search Engine Advertising" has been widely praised.
Industry leadership includes being a founding board member of SEMPO and its first elected chairman. "The Wall St. Journal," "BusinessWeek," "The New York Times," Bloomberg, CNET, "USA Today," "San Jose Mercury News," and other press quote Kevin regularly. Kevin lectures at leading industry conferences, plus New York, Columbia, Fordham, and Pace universities. Kevin earned his MBA from the Yale School of Management in 1992 and lives in Manhattan with his wife, a New York psychologist and children.