Three Models of Social Influence

From the Tipping Point to Algorithmic Personalization

In February 2019, an egg named Eugene debuted on Instagram. Since then, the first picture of Eugene amassed 53.9M likes and its account attracted 7.5M followers. Some months prior, Luka Sabbat, a model, actor, and influencer, got sued by his client, Snap, for his failure to exert influence. More recently, Arii, an Instagram influencer with 2.8M followers, could not sell a mere 36 t-shirts needed to start her own clothing line.

How we influence each other is unpredictable. No amount of celebrity (e.g. Luka Sabat) is going to make popular a product that no one wants. At the same time, we seek ideas and trends that capture their imagination, conversations and a cultural moment (e.g. egg Eugene). To make success of their products, services and ideas less random, today’s marketing practitioners settled on one of these three models of social influence.

The most prevalent one is the two-step flow of communication. It was pioneered in 1950s by media theorists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld, and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2000 book “The Tipping Point.” The two-step flow of communication premise is that ideas, products, and trends depend on a few extraordinary people, such are Instagram stars, YouTube and TikTok creators, celebrities, and most recently, grocery influencers. Today’s $6.5BN influencer marketing industry largely revolves around mega-influencers like these. But as Arii’s case revealed, one’s audience doesn’t translate into consumers and reach does not equal influence. Mega-influencers have reach, just like mass media. Best way for marketers is to use them is for awareness, with CPM as the core metric, and to accept that they will not know which part of their budget is wasted.

Alternative model is called “accidental influentials,” and has been introduced in mid-2000 by a network-theory scientist Duncan Watts. To describe it, Watts uses forest fire as an analogy: if there’s dry wood, lack of rain, density of trees and remoteness of the fire department, any spark will cause a fire. A fertile social context, and not any particular influencer or a celebrity, that starts a trend. Ideas and products become popular because they capture the cultural moment and our imagination. Examples are the success of Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club, astrology, Mari Kondo, cronuts, ok boomer, Greta Thunberg, meditation, going analog, hypebeasts. To create the right mood, some brands have been creating and managing the already existing conversations in subcultures, focusing on one small core user group and making their experience intimate, curated, and exceptional. The activity of this small user group is then used as owned media and widely spread. This approach has been adopted by Patagonia, Tracksmith, Rapha, Glossier, or Outdoor Voices.

Third model of social influence is algorithmic personalization. TikTok, Netflix, or Spotify all use it to deliver content that we are going to like — and that we are going to like more of. These platforms themselves create popular trends, ideas, and aesthetics. Most popular songs on Spotify all bring their thunder in the first 30 seconds, because that’s how long a song needs to be played for in order to count as a “listen.” Instagram aesthetic shapes design of fashion items, retail stores, hotel lobbies, and product packaging. TikTok’s “challenges,” where people are prompted to recreate specific dances or routines, seeped into our culture, where brands react to each others’ popular styles, and then reactions to reactions create trends (expect to see a lot more brands making Bottega Venetta’s cloud bag or Jacquemus’ le chiquito) and a lot more Hollywood franchises and sequels. Mimicry is elevated to the level of a trend. To know what’s in, we don’t need to follow anybody; we also don’t need to be susceptible to a social mood. Brands don’t need to hire an existing influencer or to tap into a sub-community. By following the platforms’ logic, they can exert their own social influence.

All three social influence models have a strategic role to play in our marketing plans. We can benefit dramatically from understanding the opportunities, limitations, and costs and benefits of each. Ideally, we can make them work together and amplify each other. When we don’t know what works, portfolio approach is our best bet.