Social media and influence: Don’t forget the offline

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There was a time (not too long ago) when brands were learning the value of considering how customers are behaving online – learning from them, listening to what they are saying and engaging with them. Now we have reached a stage where this kind of benefit and learning is commonplace. In different ways and for different reasons, brands are listening to, learning from and engaging with people online. And they are getting huge benefits from this.

But with these changes and benefits comes a word of caution – just because it is often easier to find, identify and engage with people online we shouldn’t forget the offline. In fact the real benefit comes from when these two work together.

Social tools allow us to find people, sites and conversations that are influential - on a particular topic or with a particular audience. They allow us to get a more nuanced view about things (people might be influential on a very specific issue only, or for a limited time). And to some extent the automate this process. We can debate the concept of ‘influence’ and the way tools from Kred to PeerIndex and Klout measure it another time (and there is a debate to be had). But what is clear to anybody is that when it comes to the influence somebody has over others the lines between the offline and the online worlds are not just blurred, they overlap.

Let’s look at just two stories (based on work we have done with clients at FreshNetworks) that show the importance of offline to your social media influencer programmes.

1. The critical friend online; influencer offline

We had a community of influencers – a private space where these key customers were being talked to and asked their opinions on new products and services, potential changes to these and about the brand. A small tight-knit community of people chosen specifically on their propensity to recommend or influence others to buy from the brand.

In this mix was one customer who was usually only ever critical – they would be negative about ideas, critical of developments and were not evidently engaging in conversations about the brand externally. We thought this person might have made it into the group by mistake – they were not acting as we expected an influencer or brand advocate to act. It was when we brought these influencers together for an offline event that it became clear what was happening.

This influencer was acting as a critical friend online – they were in fact a huge brand advocate and were critical for this very reason (there is some good academic work on this behaviour). But offline their behaviour was very different. From what they were learning online they had converted people across the town they lived in to our client’s services and were even continuing to support them after they had purchased the product – providing support and advice on upgrades and other things to buy.

So this influencer was not exhibiting the behaviours we expected to see online. But by treating them as an influencer and engaging them online we were seeing huge offline impact.

2. How offline events power online influencer

Many influencer engagement programmes rely on engaging people online so that they carry out an action online. Brands talk to them via their blog or Twitter; from time-to-time they might email or call them so they can speak to them directly. But all these communications are one-to-one and don’t really help us bond or get to know each other.

The value of getting your influencers together offline can help to really kick-start their online activity. In one case we had a group of professionals who we knew had the right connections and were leaders in their own fields online but that were not sharing and talking as much as we might expect. One evening in a pub they could all get to changed that. We talked, exchanged ideas, got to know each other as people. We didn’t sell to them, or use nay gimmicks. We just got to know them, and they us. And when they left that evening their behaviour online changed.

That one evening in the pub had helped us to understand them more and helped them to understand us. Not only did just have the connections and respect online, they also had a real bond with us and would grow into useful influencers for the client online.