The fundamental marketing challenge today is more strategic than tactical. The reality is that the way most companies market themselves and their offerings simply does not connect with the way most people learn about new products and make decisions to buy. A Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey found that recommendations from personal acquaintances and online consumer reviews topped the trust list for more than 25,000 consumers from 50 countries. In fact, ninety percent of consumers surveyed said they’d trust recommendations from people they know.

This research is not alone in its findings. Numerous other studies all draw the same conclusion – the majority of people buy based on the conversation and recommendations of trusted friends, family members, colleagues and, increasingly, online reviewers. The bottom line: consumers are increasingly ignoring corporate marketing and relying instead on the experiences and recommendations of friends, family, co-workers, and online peers.

It stands to reason, therefore, that a customer who consistently influences the purchases of 5 to 10 friends and co-workers has a higher value than one who spends more individually but has little or no influence on others.

Who Are Your Influencers?

Marketers, understandably, put a lot of energy into identifying their most influential customers: the customers who are often the first to try new products, have large social networks, and are most vociferous in talking up (or down) their experiences online and offline.

It seems obvious that these “hyperactive” customers would sit at the top of the list. The reality, however, is that these customers are not necessarily any more influential in swaying the purchase behaviour of their networks than those with smaller networks and softer voices. In fact, it is a different subset of customers that truly serves as the “everyday influencers,” with much greater impact on peer purchase behaviour. These ‘influencers’ are already in your customer base – you just need to pinpoint them and start nurturing your relationship with them.

For all the talk about influence networks, viral marketing, and word of mouth, the reality is that it’s not easy to identify the true influencers for specific customers, never mind figuring out how to connect with these influencers once you’ve identified them. Typical market segmentation tools are irrelevant as influencers don’t conform to standard behavioural characteristics or demographics. They’re not predominantly male or female, young or old, they don’t all live in a certain postcode or drive the same car.

A Needle In A Haystack

Firstly, no one said it was going to be easy but even needles can be found if you use the right tool. When looking for influencers, rocket science is particularly useful! Traditional CRM programs typically view each consumer in isolation, failing to capture the social sphere that affects their behaviour. A new approach, Influencer Marketing Management (IMM), is beginning to emerge :

Step One – Focus on the Influencer:

Accurately identifying purchase influencers in the first place is the foundation of the approach. Within your customer base is a group of some 7–15% that serve as opinion leaders for each product or service type. Each of these opinion leaders typically influences actual purchase behaviour of 3-10 followers—which means that identifying and succeeding with the influencers can ultimately affect your entire business.

Step Two – Focus on Transactions:

Focus on actual transaction data since that is where real influence happens (and this is where the rocket science comes in…). Analysing millions of transactions to uncover patterns of influence is not easy, but it is possible with the right approach and the right algorithms. For example, analysing purchase histories can uncover patterns that reveal meaningful social connections. For instance, two people shopping at the same time in the same store could be a coincidence, but if the same two people also shop at the same time in a different town, you start accumulating evidence for a social connection between them. Once you find enough similar patterns, you can be confident that there is a real social connection between the two shoppers. The next step is identifying which is the influencer and which is the follower, which can be determined by overlaying behavioural data on top of the social connections. Crunch enough data with this approach and you can determine influence patterns with extremely high conviction (>99.95%).

Step Three – Focus on the Story, not the payoff:

When marketing to the influencers, it is important to remember that the more meaningful payoff is in their ability to cause others to follow, not the amount they shell out of their own pockets. What motivates influencers to tell a good story is related to their emotional connection to the brand, so things such as a price break or free product aren’t effective and in fact, may backfire, as the followers will expect similar incentives. Programs that create positive emotional experiences—such as ”be the first to know”, high touch personal contact, and early access to new products and services—are far more effective in turning influencers into advocates.

Step Four – Measure what counts:

Turning Influencer Marketing from a soft and fuzzy aspiration into a measurable marketing discipline requires a focus on the metrics that the CMO can take to the boardroom. Counting tweets and “followers” may be an interesting exercise, but what really matters is whether targeting the influencers moves the needle when it comes to top line and bottom line business results.

Once you have this insight focusing on the right customers with the right marketing activities and tracking the right metrics will achieve game-changing results far beyond the incremental improvements possible with the best of CRM. When done right, rather than simply sway the behaviour of those targeted by a given marketing campaign, IMM can leverage the viral power of opinion leaders to generate multi-fold increases in marketing impact over their entire social sphere. Companies typically realise anything between 5x to 10x improvement in marketing ROI as they’re able to magnify the reach and effectiveness of customer acquisition, cross-sell, and retention efforts following investment in IMM.

And that’s it, that’s the secret. By identifying, understanding, and cultivating the energy of its advocates, companies can harness the power of viral marketing, reach customers and prospects that might not otherwise be reached, and strengthen long-term customer loyalty.