The Age of Influence Online

In 2005 Martin Geddes asked me to outline how Nokia could use bloggers to help properly introduce their upcoming line of smartphones, dubbed the "N Series" to overcome the challenges faced by their USA Country Comms team and Global Comms worldwide. In the past they had tried to work with bloggers and never got past the starting gate I was told.

Over a chat I outlined the program, and a day later presented the program to the Nokia Global Comms lead charged with the N Series rollout. The program, simply named "The Nokia Blogger Relations Program" became a runaway hit six months later when we launched it. It was such a hit that the Washington Post credited it with changing Nokia's fortunes.

Back then, metrics like we have today weren't available. There was no Twitter and Facebook was just getting going. My hand-picked group of "bloggers" included the likes of Om Malik, who then was GigaOm, Michael Arrington, who was TechCrunch, Rich Tehrani of TMCNet, Jeff Pulver, Kevin Tofel and the late James Kendrick of JK On the Run, Matt Miller of Palm Solo, now with ZD Net, Alec Saunders who had launched Windows Mobile at Microsoft and others like them.

Unlike today, where social media managers use data, I relied on my sports era training of how to find the right players and volunteer leaders to help grow the Philadelphia Flyers amateur hockey community presence. 

Stats like web traffic wasn't really a factor. Instead I looked for those who could provide insight, perspective and opinion surrounding the devices. I also looked for passion in their writing, and a fundamental aspect of their work life. They had to have experience with some smartphone. Back then it was either a Palm Pilot, a Blackberry or a Windows Mobile devices.

Today, data like the number of followers on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, are laregely how decisions are made, and in turn a lot of money is wasted on targets who will never buy the product or use the service. In the social influencer world there are three types of influencers:

Those who are all about New and Shiny – they simply reflect what they've been told by the company behind the product or service. Often the coverage is based on a news release, a photo or a short statement. Rarely is there any hands-on experience and almost never is their factual comparative reporting, as too many companies fail to let the media have long-term, unfettered access to a product or service. In the Nokia program we simply said to the bloggers to return the devices whenever they wanted to. We followed a similar approach with Boingo where we provided test accounts that were not supposed to expire though sometimes they did and we would reactivate them almost immediately. Most of what you read in high traffic news sites are using this approach where they want to control the message, not inspire thoughtful coverage.

Second is Release and Review. This is where the actual service or product is provided under embargo, or post-launch to reviewers for the purpose of detailing the many features and benefits. The music review world or book critics were great examples of this years ago, and in the days or real media, restaurant critics, many who were unknown on sight, would honestly provide a comparative critique, and offer the kind of detail that helped buyers and customers make informed decisions.

A great example of the expert reviewer is Kevin Tofel, a long time friend, peer and colleague (I was the intermediary who suggested to Om Malik that GigaOm purchase JK on The Run.) Kevin's recent review of the Pixel Slate is a fine example of a targeted review by a well-informed expert. When you compare his review vs. those from general market tech reporters, who have larger audiences, you see why Kevin's the go-to guy for Chromebooks and Slates. Many of the other reviewers have never touched a Pixelbook, or their experience was for only a week or two. This goes back to why in 2005 we aimed for smartphone using bloggers to be who received the Nokia devices whenever possible.

The third, and most important group, are those who demonstrated their blogging to provide what we nicknamed IPO for Insight, Perspective and Opinion.  That meant long-form writing, not short, simple, thin and unimaginative reporting. This allowed for the kind of coverage that people like Oliver Starr, Tofel, Miller, Malik, Pulver, Tehrani, Arrington all were providing their audiences. The IPO blogger or influencer also have what the release and review and new and shiny influencers don't have.  Deep experience and subject matter expertise.

Today, influencer relations is not about quality for many companies or their marketing execs, especially, those not versed in direct marketing vs. digital marketing. It's why social media managers who never learned about TRPs (target rating points) vs. GRP's (gross rating points) often buy their influencers based on large numbers – like the number of followers, vs. the right people who are followed.

The Kevin Tofel example is key here. His readership numbers are far lower than CNET, TechCrunch or The Verge, but his knowledge about Chromebooks is far richer, and his opinion is based more on deeper insight, and a far more experienced perspective.  That makes his reviews far more valuable, as they combine "release and review" with IPO.

What This Means

Twitter is more akin these days to the envelopes full of coupons that come in the mail. 99% of what you see is from businesses or people you would never do business with unless the deal arrived at exactly the time you needed it, as most expire a few weeks later. 

Instagram is like a glossy magazine of the past that you subscribed to and has "ads" from the places you shop, or want to shop in. When you start to follow influencers (i.e people you don't know and who surely don't know you) this is an example of vicarious living, much like the glossy magazines like US and People were or what watching TMZ or ET provide. The feeling of being an insider in Hollywood or New York when you live in, say Iowa (no offense to Iowans). Rarely do the influencers really engage with you except to drive traffic.

Facebook started out similar to a mailing list where friendship was the common thread. It has in some ways replaced your personal address book and phone as you can connect, keep tabs and communicate with your friends. It was supposed to be only about your friends, but has now become a home of businesses too. They use your friends' relationship as currency to get you to follow them. With LIKES related to what your friends approve of being shared to you, very specific geotargeting and more, Facebook had the right idea with its core idea, as its cap of 5000 friends limits overreach. Unfortunately, Facebook let the genie out of the bottle and the more they add in ads paid for by businesses augmented by promoted content, or what we used to call "the advotorial," the less meaningful the content  has in value, and likes become nothing more than a checkbox. Check-ins are meaningful to Facebook. It's the content surrounding the check-in that is meaningful to your friends. Unfortunately, Facebook's search  relevance is not really that good, eliminating the value of a historical post to your friends.

LinkedIn has always been the most restrictive to marketing, so beyond the InMail offers from people you don't know, LinkedIn level of control was enough to keep the excess marketing to a minimum. That's why LinkedIn has always been a higher value service for influence to reach the longer form seeking audiences.  Think of LinkedIn like what was directory assistance or the White Pages directory with additional content about people you know, want to know or used to know.

Review Sites/Blogs/Personal Websites once you get past the pay for player, the bloggers who are paid to write, or produce videos for product and service companies, you'll find deeper insight and better advice. For example, the Costco Wine Blog is a great site for wine buyers who shop at the wholesale club. Costco permits it to use their name because it is not harmful to the brand. If anything it provides an outsider opinion on what's only found on their shelves. It highlights only the best wines based on real tastings of the wines, not merely, the fact that they are sold there. 

Sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp in theory are valuable, but only to a point. They are helpful in researching what's where or who's who. Unfortunately, the content is user contributed, making the authority value rather low. In essence they are more like the almost defunct Yellow Pages directory ads. 

Each social media approach has value, but as a pioneer in social media marketing, too much of what was advertising dollars are being spent on mass audience, where if you reach a large enough audience you'll get some traffic and in turn some customers. 

Today, Social Media today is too much like Mass Media of the past. It needs more.

Smart social media management means taking the approaches of direct marketing first, so if you effectively target the right influencers from the start, then you don't need the mass part at the start, but can apply that approach after you've built the quality content that's "real."