3 Reasons to Kill Influencer Marketing

Marketers like to repeat the quote, “I know I waste half of my ad budget, I just don’t know which half.”  No one knows who first said it—it’s been attributed to a number of people—but the fact that it gets repeated so often is testament to how strongly it resonates.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that marketers like the idea of “influentials,” seemingly ordinary people who determine what others think, do and buy.  A recent study of 1300 marketers found that 74% of them planned to invest in influencer marketing over the next 12 months.

However, there’s good reason to believe that it’s all a waste of time and effort.  While the idea of influentials may be intuitively convincing, there is very little, if any, evidence that they actually can improve performance—or even exist at all.  So before you embark on another influencer campaign, consider that these three reasons why it’s a waste of time and money.

1. It’s the wrong metaphor. Malcolm Gladwell is probably the person most responsible for the massive interest in influencer marketing.  It was he who, in his blockbuster book, The Tipping Point, laid out his now famous “Law of the Few,” which he stated as:

The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.

The idea of influentials makes intuitive sense because we all know people like the ones Gladwell described in his book:  “Connectors” who seem to know everyone, “mavens” who possess deep domain knowledge and “salesmen” who have the gift of gab.  We’ve seen how they’ve influenced us, so it seems plausible that they play a role in spreading ideas.

Yet social epidemics aren’t local phenomena.  They are long viral chains.  Just because someone might be good at getting an idea across, doesn’t mean that others are more likely to share the idea.  And if an idea doesn’t get shared, it doesn’t travel far.

A more accurate metaphor would be a wave at a stadium.  What “special traits” would it take to affect thousands of people throwing their arms up in sequence?  Could a 400 pound man do it?  If Jack Nicholson refused to stand up at a Lakers game, would a wave stop in its tracks?  Not likely.  Collective behavior requires a collective.

2. Science finds little evidence to support influencer marketing. While Gladwell’s book certainly did much to popularize the notion of influentials, the idea is not exactly new.  In fact, it goes back to research done by Katz and Lazarsfeld, two prominent sociologists, in the 1940’s and 50’s.  Yet even in their original study, they found that influence was highly contextual.

Recent research raises even more serious questions about the influentials hypothesis.  In one study of e-mails, it was found that highly connected people weren’t necessary to produce a viral cascade.  In another, based on Twitter, it was found that they aren’t even sufficient.  So called “influentials” are only slightly more likely to produce viral chains.

Duncan Watts, a researcher at Microsoft who co-created one of the most important models of how social networks function, says, “The influentials hypothesis is a theory that can be made to fit the facts once they are known, but it has little predictive power.  It is at best a convenient fiction; at worst a misleading model.  The real world is much more complicated.”

The empirical evidence is clear:  It’s time to debunk the myths about influentials.  Unless someone, somewhere, can produce evidence that these “special” people can further our marketing campaigns more efficiently than other approaches, we shouldn’t waste money chasing them.

 3. Recent events should remind us how precarious influence is.

So far, we’ve seen that the idea of influentials isn’t as intuitively appealing as it first seems.  We’ve also seen that scientific evidence contradicts the viability of influencer marketing.  Yet intuition is always fallible and scientific studies, even if rigorously and carefully undertaken, can be wrong.  Real life doesn’t always align with what happens in controlled experiments.

But there is another reason to doubt the idea of influentials: recent events and common sense.  We’ve seen powerful social epidemics erupt in the Arab Spring, the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine and the 2004 Orange Revolution that preceded it.  Small, loosely connected groups overthrew powerful regimes.

Now, it hardly makes sense that Hosni Mubarak and Viktor Yanukovych, who controlled the media and the major organs of power, lacked influence or access to influential people.  Yet they were powerless to stop the street protests that eventually brought about their downfall.

It is, of course, possible that the protestors were driven by people with “rare social gifts” that trumped the dictators’ more traditional influence, but then why did those gifts fail them in the aftermath?  In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, not the largely liberal protesters, prevailed in the sunsequent elections.  In Ukraine, the Pora movement never evolved into a political force.


The fundamental problem with influencer marketing is not that some people aren’t more influential than others, but that there is little, if any, evidence that influencer strategies—other than celebrity endorsement—are viable.  Yet all is not lost.  There is a way to consistently increase the likelihood of viral chains.

In 2001, Jonah Peretti had an e-mail exchange with Nike that went viral on the Web.  He was fascinated and, a year later, he met Duncan Watts at a conference.  The two struck up a friendship and then a collaboration.  They did a number of projects together that had promising results, which they published in Harvard Business Review.

Their approach, which they called big seed marketing, does not rely on identifying a small number of special people, but rather on harnessing the power of a large number of ordinary people.  By reaching a mass audience, and encouraging them to share, you increase the likelihood that a viral chain emerges and, even if it doesn’t, you still improve performance.

Peretti went on to co-found Huffington Post, which was sold to AOL for $315 million in 2011.  His second company, Buzzfeed, is now valued at $850 million.  In his extended interview with Felix Salmon, he credits not influentials, but “a constellation of connected things” for making his articles go viral so consistently.

So if you want things to spread, forget about special people with “rare qualities.”  Be interesting, reach as many people as you can and encourage them to share.


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