Your Long-Tail Influencers

As you venture into crafting a social media strategy for your business, you’ll eventually ask yourself the question, “Who are my influencers and how do I find them?” In all likelihood, you’re probably a bit stuck. Don’t worry. This is a burning question on the minds of all social media strategists right now. It’s hard to find a brief nowadays that doesn’t include the objective of “activate my key opinion leaders” or “engage the brand influencers that will set off a wildfire”.

And therein lies the problem. As an industry, we still believe that social influence is driven by an elite group of people that can transform our business if they advocate our brands.  This is similar to the old days when we believed that “hit items” were the only moneymakers and we were willing to sell more of less because it’s what everyone knew.  We habitually ignore the long-tail opportunity because it’s a lot easier to focus on 20 percent of the pie than the remaining 80 percent.

Let’s recognise that we live in a new era of social influence – one of ultimate searchability and infinite niche communities. This means that beneath the thin layer of mega-influencers that speak to millions (e.g., big media owners, journalists, celebrities) there are millions of mini-influencers that speak to small clusters of personal networks (e.g., the average social media users).

They are your long-tail influencers and you cannot ignore their importance to your brand.  Their influence is intimately relevant and much more accessible if you know how to look for it.

Why Long-Tail Influencers Are Important

Sure, Lady Gaga would be a great influencer of my personal brand. If she mentioned my column to her 6.7 million Twitter followers I’d surely get a bit more attention from all the liberal-minded marketers that love pop-culture and meat. But realistically, I’m not going to get a shout-out from Gaga. She represents the 20 percent of the influential pie that’s very hard to attain if you’re trying to drive social communications from the top down.

So let’s flip our thinking from top down to bottom up. As marketers looking for influencers, we’re not always in extreme cases like my Lady Gaga example, but we are generally aiming too high and thinking too narrow. If we reframe our initial base of influencers in the form of the long tail, we have a lot more opportunities to engage influencers that are not on our mainstream radars.

I buy into the time-tested research of social diffusion of innovation by Everett Rogers in the 1960s, which states that new ideas require 16 percent of early adoption before spreading to the masses. Only now, we have a more equal distribution of speed and power when it comes to early adoption and opinion leadership amongst social media users. So rather than trying to spark 16 percent adoption from your 20 percent slice of pie, you’ll have better success trying to get 16 percent out of 80 percent.

Consumers Are Like Supermarkets

One of the key principles of the long-tail theory is that one size does not fit all. Mainstream is not everything. A landscape of infinite diversity is equally matched by the ability to search through information in today’s digital social media world. Translating Chris Anderson’s theory from goods and services to consumers in social media, we find that the same theory holds true.

We are not one-dimensional people. We have many interests. We are like personal supermarkets with different aisles for different passions, and we can be influential in a variety of areas. As marketers, we must shift our belief that influence only comes from the labelled specialists in one category. We have to expand our shopping options from the specialists to the supermarkets. If I’m looking for an influencer on fine wine, I don’t always have to go to the sommelier. I can equally trust my friend that drinks a lot of wine (who may also be in advertising and passionate about travelling).

The Power of Clusters

Look no further than buzz words like “crowdsourcing” or “group buying” as evidence that the power of clusters is increasing in our current social media environment. This same force is powering social influence in the long tail as well.

While writing this column, I took a break to play a few rounds (OK, a few hours) of Angry Birds on the iPhone. It got me thinking about how rapidly this game has taken off since its release earlier this year. What happened between the launch and the 6.5 million active users the game has today? I only started playing this game in the past week so I’m definitely not one of the early adopters. My path of influence came from a variety of sources telling me it was a great game to play. Thinking back, those references came from a few famous musicians I follow on micro-blogs, and a cluster of my friends that couldn’t stop talking about it. Are these people typically labelled as gaming influencers? No. But they influenced me through frequency without ever having to read a professional review or listen to a gaming specialist.

This is just one of many cases on how that initial 16 percent of early adopters around a new idea or behaviour is increasingly harder to define at the origin. These clusters of 16 percent can spawn from many different places and as long as they happen around your social connections, you will be influenced in the same way as if they were specialists. Further evidence of this trend can be found in the way social platforms like Facebook are starting to cluster sharing of a common link amongst your friends so you know when a topic is increasing in frequency around you.

Key Lesson

Hedge your bets. Look at a larger pool of people that you define as influencers. Some of them may fire off a chain reaction in their social circles. Be prepared that many of them won’t. Your objective is to give yourself as many chances as possible to succeed, and your long-tail influencers offer greater efficiency and probability towards sparking conversations.

I’ll pick up on the same topic in my next column on how to find and engage long-tail influencers. Stay tuned. Comments are welcomed in the meantime.

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