WOM in-depth: Why I’m going to quit using the word influence

August 24, 2011

In-depth, Influence


The term influence is so overused at this point, it lacks any true meaning. (Image credit: Cartoonstock.com)














I’m quitting influence. Like people quit smoking or drinking. Because I have a problem. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

Actually, I’m not going to quit using the word influence entirely. But I do plan to cut back. If there were an influence gum, I would chew it. If there was a can of Diet Influence, I would drink it instead of the regular Influence brand with all the caffeine. If there were a mini influence dessert, I’d switch to it instead of devouring the huge piece of influence cake I’ve been eating for the last couple of years.

Influence is becoming a buzzword of epic proportions in marketing and PR. Hop on Twitter or do a marketing/PR blog search and see how many times you can find the word influence. Spend about 15 minutes and then come back and tell me how many you found. It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt…except scavenger hunts usually involve things that are hidden and semi-tough to find. This will be the easiest scavenger hunt you have ever done.

I have used the term influence 457,376 times in the last two years. I kept track. Actually I didn’t and I’m glad. Because the number would probably been higher. I first heard Brian Solis use it in a social media presentation in 2009 and it stuck like the phrase “Dearly beloved” to a preacher. Since then I think I have used influence or influencer to mean a variety of different things to a variety of different people. In fact, I’ve even sort of managed to confuse myself.

It’s not you, it’s me. Except actually, it’s you too. Because I’m not the only communicator who has decided to make influencer his “not-really-sure-what-I-mean-to-say-here-but-people-like-shiny-penny-buzzowords-so-how-about-this-one” band-aid. Lately I’ve started to cringe when I hear the word used. It’s like nails on a chalkboard. We’ve given it so many definitions that it doesn’t really mean anything anymore.

Buzzwords suck because they leave people confused. They walk away from a conversation with you going “What the hell did he say?” That’s why I’m quitting influence. But before I quit it entirely, I needed to try and figure out what it really means and if there was a right way to use it.

Sometimes you have a moment of clarity. I’ve blogged about these before. And not to toot the Fleishman-Hillard horn, but mine came today when I was listening to a presentation from Spike Jones. Spike is a word-of-mouth aficionado who works at FH now, but used to work at Brains on Fire and is co-author of a book by the same name. I rarely schill my colleagues on this blog, but I will say that if you ever have the chance to hear Spike speak or speak with him, do it. You won’t be sorry.

So back to influence. See, here was my problem. I was using influence to mean something it doesn’t really mean. Traditional media, mom bloggers, social media personalities posing as steak lovers like Peter Shankman — these folks are influential or influencers. I don’t think many would debate that. You could argue that some are more targeted to a certain niche. But the thing about influencers, and Spike turned me onto this, is that they are fans of your brand today and fans of another brand tomorrow. Can those influencers serve a purpose for your brand? Absolutely. And that purpose is awareness.

But when I was talking about influence in the past, what I should have been talking about was passion, as in passionate brand fans. And there is a huge difference between these fans and influencers. These are not just people who like your Facebook page. Passionate brand fans love your company today, tomorrow and years from now. Your company or your product allows them to do something they love in their life. Your company has contributed to their life stories. They are customers, but they’re also friends. True friends of your brand. And they are the true word of mouth engine for you.

You can’t buy that passion. You can buy influence, whether you pay for it with cash, product or some other currency. So if you’re going to use “the word” (I’m weaning myself off it as we speak), make sure you know what the hell you’re talking about. Use it wisely. And ask yourself: Is influence really the word I want to be top of mind with my clients? Or is passion, as in passionate brand fans, a better explanation of the long-term relationship companies should be trying to build with customers?

The answer might be both. There could even be additional aspects to consider. But one thing is for sure — influence is not always the answer. We have to be smarter than that. The first step is admitting you have a problem.

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spikejones 5 pts

Down with influencers! Can we influence the demise of influence? I dunno. Food for thought.

Great post, Justin. And thanks for the shout out.

JGoldsborough 250 pts moderator

spikejones Thank you sir, for making me think. I always like that in a presentation. Perhaps we could get them to add this influence thing to "The Truth" campaign, eh? What do you think, spikejones ?

My latest conversation: WOM in-depth: Choose your own adventure

MattLaCasse 149 pts

Whatever smart juice you drink in the morning, I will begin drinking as well. This is simply inspired. The word influencer, or influence, in the PR and social media realm is quickly becoming synonymous with popularity or popular. It's kind of like if the prom king were to hang out with you one night. Sure, that's going to give you a lot of popularity for a short period of time. However, the endorsement of the prom king isn't going to do much for you in the long run. It's better to build your community and fanbase with those who love you for who you are rather than some kind of flash in the pan tactic.

You know me Justin, I love to trot out those phrases your grandparents or parents used to say, and I think one applies here. "Dance with the one who brung ya." Those "no name" people are the ones that will be true ambassadors for your brand. Not the prom king.

JGoldsborough 250 pts moderator

MattLaCasse "Dance with the one who brung ya," huh mattlacasse ? I like that a lot. So true. What I think I'm starting to realize is that we devote maybe 75% or more of our communications efforts to media and infleuncers and 25% or less to our passionate brands fans. Wonder what would happen if we turned those percentages around, you know?

MattLaCasse 149 pts

JGoldsborough I'm willing to bet that profits rise. Simple math really. 1,000 people have more money to spend with you than 10. No matter how influential they are.