On Grassroots and cracking the notion that power influencers drive product acceptance in the market:

“Why have Google and Apple done so well in the last [few] years? Because the grassroots love them. That’s the power root of the industry. Ideas here don’t come from the big influencers and move down. No, they start on the street and move up. Anyone miss how Google got big? Not by throwing a press conference.”

Robert Scoble, via Johnnie Moore’s blog back in 2006.

Before I side with Robert, let me throw in a little word of caution: I know that the conversation has been geared in this direction for a few years now, but looking at cause : effect / influencer : influencee dynamics as a top-down model only seem fairly limited in scope. “Influencers” (whether they are “key” or “big” or “power” influencers) aren’t just at the top of their respective subcultural family trees. Sometimes, the masses themselves can be the power influencer.

Here is an example: When it comes to bottom-up and lateral impact, the street has always been a source of influence on culture, fashion, musical tastes, language, and political change. Urban fashions didn’t start on a runway in New York or Milan. “Gangsta” culture wasn’t designed in a Soho creative studio and then packaged and sold to rap superstars. It came from the street and was then commercialized. This same bottom-up and lateral mechanisms are true of punk rock, skateboarding, surfing, and just about every “culture” or “subculture” you can throw a cat at, from triathlon, to amateur photography to the country-club lifestyle. Influence starts at the bottom, not at the top. Top-down influence comes later and plays a very different role (touching on validation and scale).

Appealing to a grassroots base – which essentially consists of recruiting your 1-percenters to drive your campaign and influence their own lateral peer networks has always been smart. Politicians know this, which is why they are essential to the success of every campaign. Grassroots programs are militant in nature. They are infectious and viral in the true sense of the term. They feed on momentum and quasi-exponential growth. They may very-well be the most virulent form of Word-of-Mouth movements you will ever encounter. Why? Because they drive more than awareness and preference: They drive action.

If you are reading this and aren’t so sure you agree, that’s okay, but consider this: Every revolution in our history was the result of a grassroots movement. Every single one. Look at the American Revolution. The French Revolution. The fall of the Berlin Wall. More recently, thanks to the availability of cell phones, text messaging and the organic nature of social networks, the 2001 revolution in the Phillippines and the 2002 presidential elections in South Korea. Grassroots movements hold a staying power inversely proportional to the short-lived attention most marketing campaigns spend so much on.

For many of us, true influencers aren’t just celebrities or the upper stratum of a subculture. The way we become participants in the growth of a trend or the success of a product isn’t necessarily tied to product placement on The Apprentice, CSI, or whatever blockbuster is crushing the box office. We don’t necessarily buy clothes from D&G or Ray-Bans because Taylor Swift or Brad Pitt are seen sporting them in Cannes. Influencers are also our neighbors, our best friends, our co-workers, our parents, our kids. More than ever, they can also be familiar strangers on social networks, or a mob of people demanding the same thing you always wish you had the power to ask for yourself. Most of the time, these folks, NOT celebrities and so-called “thought leaders” are the true influencers in our lives.

It is human nature to seek safety, familiarity and validation both in the people we know and in numbers – which is why, from a corporate standpoint, large crowds (including virtual crowds) also tend to hold more power than a handful of so-called “influencers” conveniently picked by a marketing firm. Yet this insight into social networks (and social media on the whole) is one that a surprisingly large number of marketing, advertising and PR professionals trying to apply their trade to the social web still seem oblivious to.

We could go off on a major tangent here, but for now, consider the impact that this argument might have on the importance we attach to say… Klout, and to the “influencer” religion some marketing professionals are attempting to force into the social media discussion. (See left-hand model in the image below.) The problem, before you misunderstand me, isn’t Klout or its algorithms. I like Klout, actually. The problem lies in the worth we assign to the notion of top-down “influencers” – these magical people who, we are told, can get thousands, even millions of people to click a button, buy a pair of shoes, or go see a movie through a mere act of will… or a tweet.

Does this mean that cultural icons like Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Fry, Kanye West and even Glenn Beck are not influencers? No, it doesn’t. Top-down influencers are real. They exist. Kim Kardashian, Leighton Meester and Justin Bieber help sell whatever they get photographed wearing. Drew Barrymore and Queen Latifah sell makeup. Leonardo DiCaprio sells Tag Heuer watches. Top-down influence is scientifically documented and relevant in the world of Big Advertising and Madison Avenue. But this type of influence, racing into 2011, is now a) increasingly limited and narrow in scope, and b) not immediately relevant when applied to complex, real-time, laterally-driven social networks.

If there is a lesson here, it is this: When combining your traditional marketing activities (regardless of the medium – print, TV, radio, web, mobile, POP, billboards, etc.) with your activity in the social space, look beyond traditional marketing dogma. Think beyond top-down influence. Consider the impact of lateral networks and organic word-of-mouth. Blend vertical and lateral forces.

Who really influences you to be a Mac or a PC? Who influences you to crave a Starbucks latte in the middle of the afternoon? Who makes you decide whether to shoot Canon or Nikon SLRs? Who influences your decision to choose one restaurant over another? “I want to be like Mike” still works, but the media landscape has changed considerably in the last few years – as it will continue to change still. Influence in the mass media space no longer fits the traditional marketing and advertising model, because mass media itself is no longer a top-down model.

Practical Advice: Next time you find yourself listening to a digital strategy that approaches a “social media marketing” campaign with a predominantly top-down “influence” model, stop, regroup, and consider a more mature perspective on influence – one that involves a carefully balanced combination of top-down, botton-up and lateral mechanisms.







Pre-order Social Media ROI:  Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization (Que Biz-Tech/Pearson) on Amazon.com or Barnes&Noble.com, or recommend it to someone today.