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Each of the three models of social influence has its own organizing principle, dynamic and aesthetic. Knowing the strengths and the benefits of each layer helps brands create a coherent cultural strategy and a considered media investment:
In the past several decades, society moved from “we” to “I,” as reflected in The Avengers film series, Silicon Valley visionaries and cult personalities of self-actualization. We all became focused on getting, not giving. “We get one life, so why not milk the shit out of it?” asked Gwyneth Paltrow in the trailer for her show, “The Goop Lab”, on Netflix.
Our worldly successes outbid the desires each of us have to be good people, resulting in the fraying of the social fabric of our communities and the demise of traditional institutions, like the church, libraries or local newspapers that held them together. The religiously unaffiliated share of the population is up to 26 percent from 17 percent in 2009, per Pew Research. We put radical individualism ahead of society and ignored the secondary effects of our choices. This was not hard to do for quite a long time: climate change always seemed to be something that happened in the future (until it wasn’t) and the threat of a deadly virus was invisible and foreign (until it wasn’t).
Our national heroes have been soldiers and warriors. Our social heroes have been nuclear scientists and tech inventors. Our cultural heroes have been influencers and celebrities. There was never a better time than a global health crisis to reorganize our communities around new influencers, aspirations, social rituals, and habits.
Who are the new influencers?
The playing field of who and what we want to identify with and aspire to be and do has expanded. It has also reorganized our communities under different personality cults: more generous, pro-social, and giving.
This is important. Thanks to platforms like Instagram, Twitch and TikTok, our consumption choices across categories are now more susceptible to social influence than to individual preferences – although, as we’ll see, TikTok operates somewhat differently. But how we influence each other is unpredictable. A celebrity cannot make popular a product no one wants. At the same time, we seek ideas and trends that capture our imagination, conversations, and a cultural moment.
Social influence rests on the fact that, when faced with an abundance of choice, we habitually rely on others to know what to buy, read, wear, or listen to. When these others are “regular” people just like us, we tend to trust them more than we would a compensated spokesperson, a model in an ad, an invisible editor, or a distant celebrity. Influencers are close and relatable, and we perceive their recommendations as “honest” and “authentic.” Through our daily social media interactions, our vicarious presence at copiously documented weddings or births, we get to feel that we know our connections like we know our own friends.
As we saw with Dr. Fauci, 2020 certainly broadened the scope of what makes an influencer.
Still, the social influence market is just like any market. It uses currency (taste) to build capital (social status). This capital eventually gets monetized, and we inevitably discover that our Internet “friends” may be making thousands and thousands of dollars for selling us brands, products and ideas, just like celebrity pitch people did before them. A decade ago, the opposite of authentic influence was selling out; today, it’s the reverse. “Selling out” equals being an authentic influencer, with a following and engagement large enough to be recognized and sought after by brands wanting to reach your audience.
That said, however, influencers are not a monolith. Below are the three models of social influencers – commercial, curators and, yes, bots – identified in the book, and how they fit into the modern aspiration economy.
Powered by the Instagram Checkout feature – which allows users to buy directly from the app – social
commerce means buying from people we follow, rather than going to actual stores and brand websites. Quite an oxymoron, social commerce represents the ultimate merger of money and influence, economy and culture, self- monetization and self-promotion. It turns consumption into creativity and blurs the boundary between buying things and making things. It promises to create economic value while simultaneously making us feel socially valuable. Commercial influence might also be the most obvious form of social influence.
Strategically, consequences of social commerce for branding, marketing, retailing, and socializing are as profound as they are unexplored. Here are some factors for brands to consider if they are looking to implement social commerce.
Products over brands
Social commerce emphasizes individual taste and style savviness over brands: we are buying someone’s look, not a particular brand within it. This product-centric model is the opposite of brand-centric communication. It is also the opposite of the current influencer marketing model that companies employ to highlight particular brands. In the social commerce context, products make influencers, not the other way around. Because this social dynamic varies by product and styling, permutations are as many as they are random and unpredictable. Social commerce gives a quick rise to new trends as much as it helps trends spread. We have seen a rapid succession of Cottagecore, Gorpcore, Athleisure, bulky boots, The Frankie Shop shoulder padded t-shirt and everything beige.
Instagram has been lauded as our “own personalized digital mall,” ideally the only one we’d ever need, and its Shops feature, a full screen shopping experience which was launched in May, makes this all the more real. What a scary thought! The rise, and dangers of, content bubbles have already been copiously documented. Across platforms, we repeatedly and increasingly see content that we already like, creating biases that can quickly scale. Now imagine a taste bubble, where we are served only things and styles and tastes we liked in the past. A Google image search of the term “futuristic” shows what that may look like.
Longer product life cycles
Where social commerce particularly dovetails with the modern aspiration economy is in how it can flip the idea of wanting to own the next big thing. If social commerce took away the need to go to a physical store to browse, try on, and buy clothes, it can also have the power to take away needs such as permanent ownership, or buying new, as consumers look for more planet-friendly options. The total resale market is expected to double in value to $51 billion in the next five years, according to a report from online consignment store ThredUp. Traditional retail operates on product newness and seasonality. In contrast, social commerce can extend product life cycle nearly indefinitely, as the same product can be resold and prosperously revived in many different styling iterations. It’s probably not surprising that in 2020 of all years, ThredUp has gained major partnerships with retailers including Gap and Walmart, bringing scale to the concept.
Curators as influencers
More recently, curators took over influencers as the core vehicle of capturing the cultural mood and starting trends, and this is the second model of social influence. Sam Trotman, better known under his Instagram
moniker Samutaro, amassed his 90,000-plus following based on what he terms, “value in having someone who is amongst what is happening in culture.” He adds, “There is value is having me as a narrator and telling the story, telling you what is relevant. A good curator does the research, writes and edits, and doesn’t just repost images.” Trotman sees himself as an educator and a dot-connector. “A lot of my followers enjoy reading the context and history behind images,” he says. “I connect what’s happening in culture right now with the past.” We are all overwhelmed with choice, so knowledge, judgment, and taste are valuable. We trust curators because we believe they spent time and effort in developing their expertise. This belief seeped from the art world into the aspirational economy, with the new breed of aspirants looking to share their taste and turn their social and cultural capital into the economic one.
Curation gives even mundane objects value by connecting them with a point of view, heritage, subculture, or purpose that makes them stand out in the vortex of speed, superficiality, and newness. Making something part of a curated selection lets brands increase price and profit, as a product’s value is attached to the story. The Instagram account of the luxury fashion brand The Row is a careful selection of architecture, furniture, sculpture, and art. The idea is to present The Row’s clothes as just one expression of the brand’s rarified taste and point of view. While this example applies to a high-end brand, curation can play a role in the current aspiration economy.
For a brand (or person) looking to become a curator, here are four starting points.
Define what you’re trying to accomplish (business objective). Decide what curating will achieve for you. For a brand, curation can retain an audience and attract a new one that hasn’t considered a brand before. It can attract a collaborator or start a brand partnership. It can increase product value and protect pricing. For an individual, curation can be a way to get into a creative profession or monetize taste.
Define the point of view and the story you’re trying to tell (brand objective). Root your curation in one of the modes described in point no. 3, and clearly define a filter that will distinguish things and behaviors that you focus on and those you don’t. Decide and specify what makes your curation distinct and what the inimitable aspect is of your own experience.
Define how you are going to convey this story in order to achieve your objective (strategy). Identify the sources of the material (products, videos, memes, references, images) for your curation. Define the sub- themes or subcategories that enforce your wider narrative. Organize them according to your filter and clearly convey why they made the selection. Keep in mind that every item needs to tell a version of the same story as the entire narrative.
Make an execution plan. Define when and how often you will share, and how you’ll socialize your selection and nurture your community. Decide who you’d like to attract.
Bots as influencers
The third model of social influence is algorithmic personalization. In this iteration, brands create their own influencers. To get a glimpse of this future, look no further than TikTok – its core value proposition is algorithmic personalization.
Algorithmic personalization refers to repeating choices that were successful in the past, building on the human tendency to like what we liked before. It recently crept out of TikTok, Pinterest and Instagram to our physical environment. There’s an “Instagram Face,” a recognizable look on women made to resemble their Instagram filters, and there is an equally recognizable look of craft coffee shops and Airbnb apartments that can be literally anywhere in the world. It is as if the algorithm migrated into the physical world. Thanks to it, Spotify is now a music genre, in addition to being a streaming platform. TikTok is a music label. Amazon’s clothing line does little more than mimic what’s currently popular.
Online, algorithmic personalization means we get to enjoy highly appealing content regardless of who created it. Our social media gives us more of what we liked in the past, and we don’t need to follow anybody or browse or search to make it happen. Content is delivered to us based on an algorithmically created taste profile rather than through social connection. TikTok effectively wipes out social status as the influencer market’s capital, and taste as its currency. It creates the radically new kind of market where we equal our own taste profiles. For brands, the content popularity contest means they have to offer something more than their standard communication. They have to create their own taste profile and put it out in the world through curation, editorial, collaborations and a strong point of view on culture and the world. To stand out in the world defined by algorithm is to be its opposite: human, flexible, surprising and wildly creative.
All three social influence models have a strategic role to play in our marketing plans. In the context of the post- COVID aspiration economy, brands can benefit dramatically from understanding the opportunities, limitations, and costs and benefits of each. It would be easy to say that conspicuous consumerism is out. It would also be wrong. Some consumers will buy more responsibly. Everybody else will buy what they can afford.
If the lines in front of Zara and H&M in downtown New York are any indication, fashion is still very conspicuously happening. Uniqlo was so packed on a recent Sunday evening that if people weren’t wearing masks, it would be hard to tell what year we’re in.
Scroll down your Insta feed, and most influencers are wearing ASOS, COS, Arket and & Other Stories. Viewed from the perspective of environmental capital, wearing fast fashion is not aspirational. From the perspective of affordability, it is. This chasm makes the future of aspiration K-shaped. Models of social influence should be selected in context of this new reality. Ideally, brands can make them work together so that they amplify each other. When it is not known what works, a mix of all three is our best bet.
In the episode 15 of The Business of Aspiration video series, I spoke with Shawn Laughlin, founder and creative director of Caskata Artisanal Home, described as a "designer and maker of exceptionally beautiful products for the home." Caskata designs and manufactures artisanal home accessories, including bone china, fine porcelain, tableware, stationary, linens and home accent product lines. You can find it everywhere from Anthropologie to One Kings Lane to Caskata, and Shawn and I talked about how to remain profitable, how to pivot, and how to never stop learning.