Influence & Authority in a Web 2.0 World
When we talk about influence and authority in the Web, it means ‘the quality of being a trusted source’ or more simply, ‘credibility’. In real life we tend to treat as authoritative, people whose position or profession suggest a degree of knowledge greater than or equal to our own. A questioning mind continually tests this authority and once lost, it is difficult to regain.
My thoughts on this topic have been meandering slowly towards some kind of conclusion, but last week two things happened to accelerate the process.
1) The publication of a report by Universal McCann entitled ‘When Did We Start Trusting Strangers‘
2) A thought provoking post by Shefaly Yogendra on the subject of ‘authority’ on the web
I quote liberally from these sources in this post – because they put it so much better!
On the internet, we have to use a different mechanism to decide what sources of information are trustworthy – everyone is, or could be an authority. Shefaly describes the process of gaining authority thus:
“‘Authority’ on the web is difficult to establish – and even more difficult to maintain – for several reasons.
One needs to be consistently authoritative in one’s views; this suggests that it is, über alles, a game of ‘content‘ or ‘substance‘.
One needs not just to be substantive but regularly substantive; one needs to be not a passive observer and a reporter, but a participant-observer who is not afraid to share knowledge, raise questions, initiate and promote debate, and do all of this gracefully. One’s opinions need to demonstrate one’s ability to ask questions, make connections, dig data and substantiate one’s points of view.”
So from the consumer’s perspective, a very reasonable reversal of the real life process is taking place – the suggestion is that we don’t necessarily trust a source of information (Joe’s Expert Blog) just because it exists, but we increase our level of trust as we realise that a consistent quality of information is being delivered.
Shefaly goes on to point out that ‘authority’ requires an audience and that it is the quality of interaction between consumer and provider that creates worthwhile measures of credibility. To me this represents as clean and incisive a definition of credibility as I could wish for. A further point is that the role of provider / consumer shifts – in other words, to become a credible provider of information, one should also prove to be an inquisitive and selective consumer. If only this were standard behaviour in real life!
Of course this whole subject of influence is of great interest to Advertisers – this is where the story gets really interesting. The Universal McCann report “When Did We Start Trusting Strangers?” crunches some numbers to offer some extraordinary statistics.
Based on a sample of 17,000 people, spanning 29 countries, the study describes a “new influencer landscape” which is characterized by three significant trends: the rise in social media, the importance of digital friends, and the proliferation of influencer channels.
The study also mentions the impact of this phenomenon: an influence economy, the democratization of influence, and the new“super influencer.” Some figures illustrate the study’s findings:
- 44% of people surveyed have a blog (compared to 28% in 2006)
- 57.5% have a page on a social network (compared to 27% in 2006)
- 42% download video clips (compared to 10% in 2006)
- 34% of users share their opinions about music
- 55% share their photos online
As I noted in my earlier posting ‘Are Friends Electric?‘, the arrival of social media has allowed millions of people to create content and publish their opinions online. Social interactions have become virtual and communication now takes place online and in writing.
We are able to “meet” people and maintain relationships that we may not have done in “real life” and we are able to keep in touch with old acquaintances much better than we could before the Internet era, when we relied on the telephone or even the written word, via letter, to bridge the distance gap.
Digital media facilitates interaction and enables influence to be established and to grow very quickly. Thanks to these new tools, it no longer requires huge efforts to become an influencer. The study found that:
“We trust the recommendations of strangers just as much as we trust those of our friends. We also trust information found in social media more than the information given to us by brands.”
According to McCann, we are finding ourselves in an influence economy. Brands are therefore forced to respond to numerous opinions published on the web, to become more transparent, and to open up to social media. Internet users have a penchant for music, films, and technology, but we also find the same phenomenon in a variety of other arenas like finance, housing, and insurance.
The democratization of influence: many individuals can become influencers, or even “super influencers.” Super influencers are very active in social media; they create and share rich content.
McCann recommends that brands should act according to four principles:
- Transparency and honesty with consumers, without becoming ‘hyper-transparent’
- Participate in conversations that generate discussion: create blogs, be present in social networks, etc.
- Consider every person as a potential influencer and encourage the target audience to share its opinions
- Approach new creators: bloggers, video creators, podcasters, etc.
The last one is the key measure of the importance the report attaches to the new information brokers – the report appears to be advising brands – ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’.
So, in the spirit of the McCann recommendations, here are a few questions to ponder..
1. Do you include blogs amongst your principle information sources?
2. Do you find information on blogs that you would not be able to find elsewhere?
My answer to both of these questions is emphatically ‘yes’.
And one for the conspiracy theorists -
3. Do you think that it is possible for advertisers to manipulate the market to the detriment of the consumer?
My answer to this is – consider the music industry. A CD or DVD is an artefact of very little intrinsic value, that generates a very large profit. The investment is in the creation of the content – in the case of pop music, that investment is pro-rata less than at any time since the early sixties when acts were manufactured for profit, at the behest of the labels…er hang on a minute.. Coincidence?
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