There are two kinds of interaction in social webs – asking and telling. The traditional view of social influence is all about telling. The new view is more about asking, and carries with it a particular implication for what brand marketers want consumers to do.  Ask, don’t tell.

Google is emblematic of this new view. A search on Google returns a list of Web pages ranked by relevance. The algorithms of relevance are proprietary, but a few core principles are known. Chief among them is the number of other Web pages that link to a page in the list – the more links, the higher the rank.

In measuring the number of links to a page, Google is applying the idea of asking.  Google is not looking at how many times a page links itself to other pages, or ‘tells’ other pages about itself. Rather, Google is looking at the number of other pages pointing to a particular page, or ‘asking’ that page for information. Relevance is a function of inbound ‘asks’ not outbound ‘tells.’

Contrast this with an older idea that is the cornerstone of word-of-mouth as traditionally understood by brand marketers, that of two-step flow. Two-step flow posits that opinion leaders follow mass media to form their opinions, then along their opinions to followers who rely on them for guidance. Two-step flow doesn’t rule out asking as a conduit of influence, but it is mainly about leaders telling followers. Consequently, for years, brand marketers have focused on identifying and persuading opinion leaders, who can, in turn, tell others about their brands.

There is nothing wrong per se in trying to win over tellers not askers. A strong network of people with influence to spread the word is useful. Past word-of-mouth successes are testament to the impact of this approach. But whatever the past successes, this is not the best approach for the future.

For one thing, recent research has challenged the traditional understanding of how social contagion works. As network researcher Duncan Watts has put it, the contagious spread of influence “depends far more on the overall structure of the network than on the properties of the individuals who trigger it.” In other words, contagion happens because people are asking for it not because tellers are pushing for it. A breakout phenomenon satisfies what people are asking for, and once people are asking for it, anybody, not just highly influential tellers, can trigger a contagious outbreak of social influence.

This insight isn’t completely new. For example, citation analysis of academic papers employs a principle similar to Google’s ranking of search results by measuring the influence of a paper (or of a scientist) by the number of times it is cited by other papers.  This line of research goes back to the 1960s. Citation network maps show the dispersion and chaining of influence. Longitudinal curves show the waxing and waning of influence within an academic field. Time series analyses show the emergence of new research interests and the decline of old ones. It is a framework for understanding scholarly influence that examines who scholars are turning to for guidance and direction. It is a focus on the asking not the telling.

What’s new is the understanding among brand marketers about how to activate social influence on behalf of their brands. These days, the idea is to prime the network not the influencers. That is to say, activate askers not tellers, because when a network is stoked with interest, it is ripe for something that satisfies that interest.

There are three implications of this for media strategies. The first is the somewhat counter-intuitive idea of using mass media not niche media for viral campaigns. Since influence is a function of the network as a whole not a small subset of “influentials,” media must reach many people not a few.

Second, target the askers not the tellers. Instead of looking for influencers, look for people who are, in Watt’s words, “easily influenced.” Influencers are usually heavy media users with specialty expertise. The easily influenced are often switchers and experimenters with less loyalty but more openness to novelty. Worry less about getting people to tell your story. Focus more on consumers asking for something new to try.

Finally, be a fast-follower. The traditional strategy of targeting influencers is based on a belief that social influence can be created and built with some degree of predictable assurance.  Get the tellers talking and the right message goes viral. It is recognized now that what goes viral is extremely difficult if not impossible to predict. It cannot be controlled through a network of influencers. More often than not, it is best to let contagion first take its course, then quickly fall in behind it before competitors get in line.

The unpredictability of viral phenomena extends to social influencers, too. As studies have found, the people triggering a viral phenomenon vary from occasion to occasion.  Influencers are not an identifiable set of the same people time after time, fad after fad, breakout after breakout. This is the biggest chink in the armor for the old two-step flow approach, and the biggest source of disagreement between Watts and others like Malcolm Gladwell (of Tipping Point fame) and Ed Keller (of The Influentials and The Face-to-Face Book fame).

As my colleague at Kantar Futures, Jeff Yang, has written, in today’s highly democratized digital consumer world, almost anyone can spark social contagion.  Contemporary networks of sharing, pass-alongs, recommendations and referrals are less hierarchical, more open, more interconnected and innately peer-to-peer. When the moment is right and a network is primed, the influence that triggers a viral phenomenon can come from anywhere. The key takeaway for brand marketers is that focusing on a small set of identifiable tellers is not the most reliable way of cost-efficiently allocating scarce media dollars.

Whether influencers are fixed or fluid, the flow of information is much more dynamic.  In decades past, information flow was highly unidirectional, flowing from the top-down.  This was the world of two-step flow in which knowledge and contagion were necessarily channeled through a few influencers. Nowadays, information flows in many directions at once. As Keller has noted, influentials don’t matter because they tell others; they matter because others are asking them. Asking is the way today’s social webs work, so that’s what brand marketers must activate.

This calls for an alternative way of thinking about viral success. A strategy focused on telling is, by design, looking for breakout success – the purpose is for a few people to influence many more.  But the reality is that most viral campaigns don’t go viral in this way, and the rare few that do are unpredictable, making it futile to fret over tipping points. By contrast, a strategy focused on asking puts the spotlight on incremental success – it begins with many people not a few, which brings the basic math of marketing into play. The proper measure of success is the incremental return on the investment.

Social influence campaigns can be hugely successful even without runaway viral results.  The idea is to “seed” lots of consumers to get them curious and engaged with something. Through their ‘asking,’ others will learn about it even if it doesn’t break out. Such investment is worthwhile if the number of new consumers exceeds the threshold of a profitable return. A strategy for asking not telling may not trigger the biggest thing since sliced bread, but as long as it earns enough bread, it is plenty big enough.

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