Let’s do a little survey here. How did you come to know of cool flip flops of Sanuk? Unless you surf the Net every two minutes or has the hobby of checking corporate websites (which I don’t think you do), you’ll probably have an answer close to this: “Well, I have heard it from my orgmate whose friend was tagged by a classmate in a note in Facebook directing her to a twit of a crush whose brother is following his aunt’s neighbour who, one lazy afternoon, accidentally came across a blog entry of one of Sanuk’s brand fans”. A lengthy, messy story, yes. But that’s how many of us become aware of most news. That’s how information—be it a scandal, a joke, a fact, or an assumption—reach people offline and most especially, online.
This only enforces the reality that we are living in a world of ties and connection, and in cyber terms, a space of networks and links. Given that we are not omnipresent online, we strongly rely on networks both to send and receive messages. That’s what ‘friends’, ‘contacts’, and ‘followers’ are for. To a certain extent, the amount and type of information we receive depend on who we are connected to and to where they are linked in the Net.
Working with our networks
According to a survey, many people seek and find most job referrals from acquaintances than from close friends. It’s logical—our close friends more or less know the same people we know in our group, whereas acquaintances often have larger circles of friends and people we do not know. That’s why it is but wise and practical to value the people in our periphery. Who knows? They just might be leading us to future jobs, and perhaps, a potential partner. (Anyway, I’m not going to talk about love life. Now, back to the topic.)
If we equate this with our online networks, we need to realize the importance of 1) expanding our pool of contacts and acquaintances and 2) keeping them intact. The vastness of social networking sites definitely helps us meet the first goal. Hello Facebook, Myspace, Linkedin, Naymz, Twitter, Friendster. These are only some of the big cyber hubs where we need to be present and establish connections. Once we’re there, information is within an easier and better reach. For the second goal, it is more of a personal technique to do it. You keep your online networks either by frequently checking on them or better, by establishing stronger and authentic connections. It’s what we humans call friendship. And I believe that is the best way to keep and value our ‘friends’, ‘contacts’, and ‘followers’—by establishing genuine relationships on and off line. Yes PR. (Hello Sir Ed :)).
This brings us to how this principle of networks applies in a business setting. Two applicable lessons here are the Two-step flow hypothesis by Paul Lazarsfeld and the concept of opinion leaders (which we learned from Madame Inton in 104 :)). Let’s see how these work online.
Two Step-flow Hypothesis and Opinion Leaders
The importance of opinion leaders in relaying information, influencing the public, and changing perceptions has been recognized in the field of mass communications. These individuals exert a certain level of power over businesses and people alike. The public usually sees opinion leaders as icons whose beliefs are considered as facts. Their views matter such that when taken by the public, it can sway their opinion or at the extreme, manipulate mindsets and perceptions. This is why organizations practically take time to reach opinion leaders and have them as allies. On the grounds of the two-step flow hypothesis, the company has a greater chance of reaching the public with the identified icons on their side. More than the assurance that their messages see its way to the market, organizations could further invest on opinion leaders as potential brand ambassadors. Not only will these influential people be delivering messages; they’ll also be sending positive remarks about the company’s products and/or services, which in the long run, will benefit the organization’s image.
Identifying, reaching and capitalizing on the influence of opinion leaders using traditional media have been a challenge to all organizations. Today, given the emergence of the new social media, these tasks become even harder and more complicated.
Fluidity of Influence
For one, influence through the position and role of an opinion leader has now become fluid because of the digital media. The Internet is a powerful equalizer. It has the capacity to level all web users in a digital playing field with no boundaries. No one is favoured online. An opinion leader two or three decades ago is just the same as an ordinary customer who uses the Internet today. As long as you have the access to the Net, you have power. Knowledge on maximizing its tool and application is another. Now here’s the catch. With almost 20 million Filipinos present online (Take note: Filipinos. How much more around the globe?), it is like having 20 million players possessing power over opinion, over your products and services, over your company. Twenty million Filipinos are all capable of sending information to whomever whenever they want. Twenty million Filipinos are potential influencers, allies—and even enemies. What will your company do now?
The 360o Digital Influence
Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide has developed a three-step plan called the 360o Digital Influence1 to understand how influence flows online and help organizations find their way in the new digital battle ground.
Create Conversation Snapshots by consistently monitoring social media. Make sure to cover blogs, search engine results, SNS, and video, photo, and bookmark sharing. Familiarize yourself with the influencers and the other characters in the digital field. Know also what is being said about your brand and your company. Ogilvy’s PR Tool called the Influence Quotient (IQ) helps you do this. Sample IQ questions are: How visible is this issue in digital media? Relative to other shareholders, what share of voice has this person had on this issue in the past year?
Using the Influencer Audit (IA), you may now asses the influencers, the channels and tools they use and the amount of power they wield over the E-community. The Influencer Audit allows you to categorize the influencers you have previously monitored and identified and design a plan of engagement for these. The IA divides the influencers into four categories depending on opinion and power.
The challenge for companies is to expand the quadrant of high opinion (positive opinion) and high power. To do this, all included in the quadrant of low opinion (negative opinion) and high power, the biggest threat to your brand and company, must be handled well. Devise a plan to hear and understand why they have a negative opinion of your brand and work on this. Those in the quadrant of the high opinion and low power, on the other hand, must be given attention. They are your allies because they view your brand positively. However, they must be mobilized as to gain influence and serve as your ambassadors. Lastly, be cautious also of those in the low opinion and low power. They are harmless only as long as they have no access to influence and power. Make sure they remain in the low influence zone.
The end product of the 360o Digital Influence is to design an engagement plan that would effectively manage digital influencers and utilize the new breed of opinion leaders to a company’s advantage. To do this, a company has to meet the influencers at all Web points where they are present. According to Ogilvy, engagement phase covers improving blogging relations, boosting brand fans, and drawing Net users to content creation and opinion sharing. At the end of the day, all these efforts will go back to a PR basic—that engagement is about understanding perceptions, enabling conversations, and establishing genuine connections.
Perhaps, there is a reason why the Internet is called the World Wide Web. As much as its vastness is global, it is also a woven world of networks and connections. Its users are interrelated; its functions are interdependent. The Internet is no place for exclusivity. It is a state of freedom and equality. It lays down its tools and applications equally for everybody. Once online, differences are levelled off. We are all on the same playing field.
As much as it equalizes its users, it also renders influence fluid. Now that the globe is one big field of digital networks, virtually anybody can create content, speak opinions and more importantly, share these across links and connections. We are a new generation of influencers businesses today have to catch. If they don’t, they simply lose the game.