Small Networks Trump Influencers

With all the talk about online influencers over the past few years, you’d think they were the holy grail of online marketing. Klout has made a business of it and many bloggers use sponsored posts to help pay the bills. But, the funny thing is, if you want to get the word out about your brand, product, or cause, influencers aren’t actually where you should be focusing your efforts. Let me explain.

Yes, influencers do help – I’m not going to deny that. Get Lady Gaga to tweet about your charity or fashion statement, and tons of fans will go out to investigate it. Want mothers to start using your diapers? Yes, try to get the mommy bloggers to write something up about them. But that tactic will only do so much. It leads to a spike in sales, but not a long-term trend. As a word-of-mouth marketing strategy, it’s limited.

Oprah Winfrey

This has been known in the publishing industry for quite some time as an effect of book clubs. An initial spike is launched by one large book club, like Oprah’s book club (she’d be your influencer), but the long-term trend continues as smaller book clubs pick up the torch and then those readers pass on the good book to their friends in turn.

This phenomenon becomes traceable as a long tail. It’s not just about the niche topic, it’s about the niche communities, of which there may be several for each topic.

We did a joint study with our sister agency Blonde not too long ago that illustrates this nicely. This study was actually where we developed the concept for the content tracking feature of Pulsar TRAC, our recently launched advanced social intelligence platform that pushes social media research beyond keyword tracking.

Meet Irn-Bru

Irn Bru

Irn-Bru is a soft drink that’s spectacularly popular in Scotland. So much so you wouldn’t be far off calling it the national Scottish drink. In fact it is one of the rare carbonated beverages to outsell Coca-Cola in any market.

Coming from such a position of strength in its main market, the marketers at Blonde decided to do something a little different when launching a recent commercial. This allowed us to demonstrate the power of small groups in spreading something – and even compare this with the power of influencers.

Releasing a Commercial

Blonde released this commercial by giving it to just one person: a regular young woman on Twitter who had won a competition. Rachel Orr (@larachie on Twitter) started out with just 153 Twitter followers – bang on average. Irn-Bru promoted her account and managed to increase her follower count to 329 – still not exactly Lady Gaga levels – before they gave her the link to the YouTube commercial.

But a few of those followers were “influencers”. Blonde encouraged some of Scottland’s top tweeters to follow @larachie with the incentive that they’d use this as a way to measure their influence. Some of these people included @AndrewBurnett, Head of Social at Yard Digital, and the band Bleed from Within (@bleedfromwithin).

After @larachie tweeted the initial YouTube link, the video reached 100,000 views in one day, led by her but amplified by these influencers.

Small groups trump influencers (at sustaining growth)

So, we have learned that influencers are really awesome at jump-starting an ad campaign. Likewise looking back to my book club example, influencers jumpstart sales. (Thank you, Oprah!)

But how do you keep those sales growing? This is where small groups trump influencers. Small groups, not big influencers, are the Holy Grail of word-of-mouth marketing. Sticking with our book club example, these key groups are the smaller book clubs, the ones that hear about a book from the big influencers and then bring it to people in their community, who then carry the book to another gathering or tell a friend who is part of another book circle, and so on. This is how something goes from an initial spike to a burgeoning trend.

We can see this play out online. In the microcosm that is Twitter, that Irn-Bru commercial continued to grow even after the influencers had played their initial role. Over the next 21 days, the commercial’s YouTube stats increased from 100,000 to 650,000 views. That’s about 26,000 people per day. This coincided with the commercial being passed around smaller, interconnected groups.

The visualization above  depicts not the number of shares or mentions, but the number of connections each account has with other accounts that have also mentioned the YouTube video. As you can see, quite a few are really small – those would be the small groups. Those are the ones that are apparently behind the growth in views for the next three weeks after @larachie launched the commercial.

Yes, the influencers were really helpful. Yes, they probably jump-started the whole thing. But the ones who kept it going, who probably got the video mentioned on the Poke’s Viral of the Day three days after the launch, were the small groups.

Here’s the difference:

  • Influencers: Contribute a big spike, good for a jump start and initial push
  • Small Groups: Contribute more sustained engagement and spread, good for the long term

Find content small groups can get behind

This commercial managed to appeal to many small groups because it was funny, original, and took creative risks. And, of course, because it was Irn-Bru and in Scotland.

This won’t always be the winning content recipe (especially if you’re not Irn-Bru and in Scotland). You need to find content that appeals not just to your audience, but which appeals to specific niches and communities within your audience – the more the better.

Once you do that, your content has a higher chance of spreading naturally – virally. You may still want to include some influencers in your release strategy, of course – It’s not an either/or situation. But if your content isn’t something small groups can get behind, it won’t travel.


In May we’re releasing a substantial new study into the dynamics of viral video. Sign up for our mailing list here to be one of the first to know.


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