Are Smaller Networks The Future Of Social Influence?

A sky-high twitter follower count, masses of Instagram oglers, and loads of Facebook likes may soon be nothing more than vanity metrics, if not already. The golden era for social media influencers is over, as pro marketers look to tighter circles, more intimate relationships, and higher impact. Those who lead micro-cultures, perhaps as small as 50 people, may be where true influence prevails.

Micro-cultures are the new social influence spaces

“Engagement and true authentic influence is being able to say something that somebody actually cares about,” explained Amanda Goetz, Vice President of Marketing at TheKnot.com on my show. It seems, the bigger the following, the harder it is to truly influence a group of people, and this is why pro marketers like her are more interested in smaller groups that have tighter relationships and what she calls true influence. 

Amanda Goetz
Amanda Goetz, VP of Marketing at TheKnot.com on social media influencers.

“To me, an influencer is the person who is talking on Instagram about Bass Pro fishing. If they are only talking to 50 people who are passionate about fishing, and that person can get them to jump on their band-wagon…that’s true influence to me.” Goetz explained. “I want to find somebody that can authentically speak to a micro-culture that I can’t as a brand” 

This idea flies in the face of the classic idea of what social media influencers look like. Many brands assume blue check multi-million count Twitter-lebrity accounts hold the cards and are the right folks to pull down clicks and engagement, but that’s not necessarily true. Their true influence is likely more limited than you think. Such is the case of Instagram “influencer” Arii, who couldn’t sell 36 t-shirts with 2 million followers. Social following doesn’t always translate to social influence.

Social Media Influencers Have No Influence

I witnessed this exact scenario play out when I booked an interview with one of the most fascinating people in entertainment, Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame. After teasing the interview link on Twitter, making sure to tag him, he retweeted it to his 1.5 million + network—I braced for impact. These were his followers—surely they would click like crazy on his interview link. I was stunned at what happened.

Out of 1.5 million + my tweet as of today (years later) scored only 68k impressions, 440 total engagements, 79 detail expands, 56 profile clicks, 53 likes, 9 retweets, and… 29 clicks. Yep. Twenty-nine clicks from over 1.5 million people. 

Obviously, I have no idea what kind of engagement Adam typically gets, as this is only one tweet and there are numerous factors. But I’ve had the privilege of being retweeted by many other well-known social media influencers, with massive followings as well. Generally, the bigger the follower count, the worse the engagement. But who does well? The individuals with niche, active, excited digital communities. 

Just a few years ago, 72% of brands stated they were dedicating a large portion of their budget to social media influencers, but perhaps they learned quickly influencers can’t truly… well, influence. This realization may be why influencers are starting to tighten their own circles and charge for their content. Besides making little money, influencers have figured out that massive followings simply don’t engage or lead to meaningful action, so they are tightening their focus—brands are figuring this out too. 

Instead of marketers seeking social media influencers to move millions of people, pro-marketers like Goetz are looking at a one to one, or one to few approach. “This evolution of a one to one, or a one to few—you’re starting to see it. Instagram close friends, Ashton Kutcher’s Community app—people are starting to care more about ‘speak to me and my interest’ vs. a say and spray method that doesn’t work.”

two girls taking a selfie with text that says "bye social media influencers"
The era of duckface comes to a close.

Consumers are so interested in these niche relationships, they’re even willing to pay individual creators for it. “…you’re seeing it with Patreon.” Goetz explains “you’re seeing people pay to get content that is so niche for them, and I think that’s where we’re going.” Brands are realizing the more individualized and personalized the content, the more loyalty and reach they have. This one to one approach goes offline too, and one brand that really gets the human aspect of influence doesn’t even make anything for humans.

The More Intimate, The Better

Over the 2019 Christmas season, my wife unexpected card from an unexpected source: It was a handwritten card from dog-supply company, Chewy (she spoils our dog big time, so I’m guessing we are on some list.)

Like me, my wife assumed they had pulled off clever digital trickery. Having a degree in graphic designer however, I quickly identified the tell-tail signs of authenticity: real ink, uncoated paper, pen impressions, ink-lift marks, and no CMYK dots from offset plates. It looked real, and after tweeting to confirm, I got a quick reply, “Hi there, our cards are for sure paw-written by our awesome team. We hope you have a happy howl-iday!” 

Can a brand possibly get any more 1 to 1 than individual handwritten cards?

Handwritten Christmas card from Chewy
Handwritten Christmas card we received from Chewy in December of 2019

Individualization demonstrated in this case by Chewy, is where brands are heading online and offline. Frankly, this is where local players should have a huge advantage.

Many marketers thought the advent of digital, meant larger reach with less work, but the opposite has been true. True influence is one on one, as frequent as possible, and as personal as possible. Social media influencers large networks matter less than we thought. Does this sound familiar?

As a rural-Iowa John Deere tractor dealer from the 60s to 80s, my late grandfather knew all of his customers on a first name basis and routinely visited their homes and businesses. As marketers try to use technology, they can’t seem to escape what my grandpa knew years ago. One on one isn’t one strategy—it’s the only strategy. I suppose he was an influencer before it was cool. 

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