Next Best Action in the Influence Economy

Big Data Evangelist, IBM

Influence is hip. Any self-respecting career-oriented individual these days brags about their influence on socials, however that might be measured. And modern marketing professionals pride themselves on their ability to use the socials and other resources at their disposal to influence the new breed of social-based influencers.

Social circles of influenceInfluence can have a monetizable value. True social influence is your ability to transform your digital presence into a sort of recommendation engine. How many people buy something, or decide not to buy it, based on your recommendation, or, at the very least, on your example? If you can move real people to pull out their hard-earned money to buy real goods and services, you can charge others to enlist your participation in their marketing and promotional efforts.

We live in an influence economy. For chief marketing officers (CMO), the next best action must always be to engage the right mix of influential parties–including channels, customers, bloggers, tweeters, industry analysts and other opinion shapers–at every point in time. As influencers multiply, however, it’s getting harder for CMOs to sort through the field to find the specific ones with the most clout that you must engage further.

Complicating the CMO’s efforts is the new breed of social influence brokers that’s fighting for a share of your marketing spend. Most notable is Klout, an online service that helps individuals track their social influence through a metric of its own concoction. If you subscribe to its service, Klout measures your influence based on the incidence of Twitter retweets and mentions; Facebook comments, wall posts and likes; LinkedIn comments and likes; Google+ comments, reshares and plus-ones; and so on. And if you’re a business, Klout would like you to pay for something called “Klout Perks,” which are goodies that encourage high-scoring (i.e, ostensibly influential) users to evangelize your product or service.

If you accept that social influence has some tangible impact on buying behavior–and that is still very debatable–services such as Klout raise several critical questions for CMOs:

  • How much of your limited marketing budget should you invest in buying this sort of nouveau influence?
  • Should you continue to invest in the usual mix of advertising, promotions, public relations and other influential marketing channels?
  • Should you experiment with various mixes of all of these established and emerging influence channels?
  • Regardless of the mix, do you have the data, metrics and analytics to assess whether you achieved the expected return on your investments across various influence channels?
  • And do you have an agile decision framework to help guide continual adjustments of your marketing mix among channels commensurate with their relative effectiveness?

Here’s where CMOs start to enter uncharted territory. If you’re up with online brand marketing best practices, you probably rely to some extent on “marketing attribution analytics” to guide your spending across diverse influence channels. As my colleague Brad Terrell noted in an article 2 years ago, you can use these tools to measure how a digital marketing “campaign reaches an audience beyond [your] core customers, how it lifts brand awareness and recognition, and how it drives traffic to the website.” As he noted, the data for measuring the influence of digital channels comes primarily from website analytics: “from impressions and page views to display ad clicks, search keywords and cookies.”

But that web and search analytics data is irrelevant when you’re tracking influence that emanates from individuals on social networks, and when you’re trying to attribute buying behaviors–either individual or group–to one or more things that particular influencers said or did.

If that’s the sort of influence you’re trying to measure, it would be best to focus on social media analytics, such as that coming from tools such as IBM Cognos Consumer Insight. Tools such as this allow you to pinpoint key influencers and socials, help guide you in modifying your messaging across these parties and channels, and assess the comparative effectiveness of influencer targeting across both traditional and digital marketing activities. Another valuable feature of Consumer Insight is that it allows you to leverage IBM SPSS predictive modeling tools to real-world experiments to gauge the relative effectiveness of different messages to different influencers across different social channels at different times.

To deepen and extend this social-media-oriented attribution analysis, you should explore the group behavioral dynamics that multiply some people’s online influence. The key approach for doing this is often known as “social network analysis” (a name that invites confusion with “social media analytics”; it’s often best to refer to social network analysis as “social graph analysis”). I point to two excellent papers on social network/graph analysis from IBM Research: “Inside Social Network Analysis” and “Game Theoretic Models for Social Network Analysis.”

Clearly, digital influence is a multilayered phenomenon. Attributing boosts in customer purchases to the influence of specific individuals or social channels demands the combined efforts of marketing-oriented data scientists. They, in turn, need access to a deep, continually refreshing pool of social, marketing, buying and Web analytics data. They also require an integrated portfolio of data mining, predictive modeling, social media analytics and graph analysis tools.

Digital engagement with online influencers also demands a multilayered approach. As the social influence of various parties continues to shift, these metrics should drive corresponding shifts in engagement orchestrated through your social listening, digital marketing and brand management platforms.

Ideally, the CMO’s next best actions should be guided continually by valid metrics that are calculated continually. Should the CMO’s team engage or not engage an influencer? Should they place the influencer in this category or that? Should they target the category with this set of messages or that and through this social or that? Should they respond or not respond to something this or that influencer said on this occasion of that? And so on and so forth.

Right now, your CMO is probably guiding most of these activities by pure gut feel. That’s important, but it’s just not good enough.

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Social Circles of Influence graphic produced by Bruce Dupree.