Influence without Influentials: Seinfeld Shows Us

My good friend Mark Earls is coming into town in November for the IIeX forums. You may know his books “Herd” and “I’ll Have What She’s Having.” They make the point that observing what other people do influences us. It doesn’t mean we will always copy what they do, but what we notice gives us something to think about doing and, if we do it, the idea spreads. With enough spread, mass behavior, such as product adoption, may take place.  Mark’s books offer a range of examples. This grassroots approach contrasts with the top-down Influential-Follower model that rules much of today’s influencer marketing programs.

I’m always looking for illustrations of how observational influence works because, living in our interconnected interpersonal world, it’s vital that marketers understand how ideas spread by people and through people, not merely to people. As with so many things, “Seinfeld” nailed it perfectly. Watch.

The knife and fork Snickers eating technique spread when people saw it, copied it, and added momentum by riffing on it – cookies, Almond Joys, donuts, even eating M&Ms with a spoon on the street. People bring ideas they come across into their lives for their own reasons, in ways meaningful to them, and will keep them for however long they want – they aren’t told by an Influential Person what to think, feel, or do. Elaine’s exasperation with watching people eating handheld snacks with cutlery shows that adoption is not automatic: resistance to new ideas exists, and this resistance impacts where, how fast, and how far an idea may spread. (The notion that social networks govern the spread of ideas is closely related to Microsoft researcher Duncan Watts).

Social networks like Amazon and Facebook get and leverage the power of observational influence. Amazon product pages give visitors the ability to see what others are doing, buying, or thinking about for just about any item. Facebook’s News Feed improvements get better at presenting the items that any user is probably most interested in seeing and connecting with because they draw upon the social graph, the network of people a user is part of. Facebook figures out what each of their users notices and gives them more of it, until Facebook recognizes a shift in interest and then re-jiggers their news feeds.

Observational influence is subtle and indirect, yet our habit of mind is to default to the Influential-Follower model. Mark Earls says that influence occurs when “normal people see and copy (or not copy) what other normal people are doing.” Duncan Watts makes that point, as do Facebook and Amazon who use it to their advantage.  For most of us marketers, the obvious question is: How can we?

I’ll Rate as They Rate: Herd Instincts, Online Influence and the Problem of Online Ratings

ImageRatings we assign are influenced by other ratings that we read. New research conducted by Sinan Aral and colleagues at MIT’s Sloan School found that:

“When it comes to online ratings, our herd instincts combine with our susceptibility to positive ‘social influence.’ When we see that other people have appreciated a certain book, enjoyed a hotel or restaurant or liked a particular doctor — and rewarded them with a high online rating — this can cause us to feel the same positive feelings about the book, hotel, restaurant or doctor and to likewise provide a similarly high online rating.

This important finding was discovered too late to be included in the Field Guide’s entry on “Influencers.” That discussion pointed out the importance of the herd model and urged that it be considered along with the widely adopted Influencer-Follower (two-step) model. The influencer two-step is very popular because: a) it conforms to the conventional mental models we evoke to explain how advertising works (authority, message, persuasion), b) because measures of influence, such as Klout scores, are computed in line with the two-step model — using social media counts such as posts/updates, number of friends/followers/contacts, and sharing, and c) herd influence has been under-recognized.

Despite books and articles on herd instincts in marketing, knowledge about herd instincts and its applicability to the work we  do is not yet generally known by practitioners. Adding to herd instincts’ invisibility: Herd instincts measures are not reported by measurement services, so most of us are unaware of the herd notion. Herd measures are not easily derived from social media metrics. Methods for researching herd instincts scientifically in marketing and advertising are not in the market research tookit. This study changes that at last … and to our benefit. 

Key Implication: Brands should oversee their ratings sections  to minimize fraudulent positive ratings. Those “false positives” can create unrealistic expectations. Instead, encourage people to record authentic ratings that minimize bandwagon effects and foster realistic expectations about the brand. Ratings may then generate better guidance to other readers and to the brand itself.

The study had three experimental conditions, one where the rating was increased positively, one where the rating was decreased negatively, and one with no change. Read on for the five key findings … Continue reading “I’ll Rate as They Rate: Herd Instincts, Online Influence and the Problem of Online Ratings”