[Viewpoints] The power of influence to drive relevance

Since the US Presidential Election on 8 November there has been a lot of head scratching on how Donald Trump won in the face of improbable odds. Conventional wisdom pointed to a Clinton win, with a vastly superior advertising budget, the support of celebrity surrogates, most of the mainstream media and significant portions of the political establishment. However do the communications norms of past elections still hold true and what can brands and organisations learn from this?

1. Know who influences your audience

As communications practitioners, we have long been valued for our ability to connect our clients and the stories they want to tell to the audience through the media and other cultural influencers. In the past, media lists focused on two key criteria; scale (how many people could see the story) and receptivity (how likely will the story be shared in the way we want it to). This approach relied heavily on our media relations superpowers to earn valuable coverage for our clients, driving awareness but not always relevance.

Now, the most credible forms of communications, across paid, earned and owned mediums, comes not from organisations direct or even via the media, but from the people we know and trust. In the Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Survey, it found that 83% said they completely or somewhat trusted the recommendations of friends and family and 66% said they trusted consumer opinions posted online. Meaning we can evoke an action that goes beyond awareness.

We see Hilary’s campaign heavily used celebrities, but even that industry fallback didn’t have the impact that was expected.

In a recent study by Nielsen Catalina Solutions on an influencer marketing campaign by Whitewave Foods for its Silk brand of plant–based beverages, it found that consumers exposed to the brand through 250 fitness and food influencers, bought Silk products 9% more frequently than the control group. The campaign, also measured a 10% incremental sales lift.

While influencers generally expect to be paid, what makes influencer marketing particularly compelling from an ROI standpoint is that it’s the gift that keeps on giving – with its evergreen content remaining online indefinitely, costing minimal in creative costs and being immune to ad blockers.

In a recent article by BuzzFeedNews, it found that viral fake US Presidential Election news generated by hundreds of hyperpartisan Facebook pages and political websites, outperformed real news on Facebook – generating more engagement in the critical final stages of the election race than stories from major news outlets.

While Facebook has defended its position that fake news only represents a fraction of the total on their network and couldn't have swayed the election, it does highlight the incredible reach and impact information found online, especially when amplified by people you trust in your network, can have in shaping public opinion – a phenomenon termed 'social influence', which is better known as 'herd behaviour'.

2. Make your message relevant

In the TV series Mad Men, lead character Don Draper famously tapped into one of the most powerful of human emotions – nostalgia – when pitching to a fictional client using a heartfelt slide presentation of his life. He likened nostalgia to a "twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone" evoking emotions of happier times in the past.

In the same way during his election campaign, Trump reignited nostalgia for a time when America was dominant in the world using Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election slogan (Let’s) Make America Great Again. While his promises to close borders, rip up trade deals and bring jobs home may be seen as protectionist, impractical and prejudicial – his message played on people’s concerns and ignited a yearning for the perceived better times of the past – a message that worked and was relevant to the lives of many who voted for him.

Influencer engagement isn’t new to PR but it is it rapidly evolving. Demographics are changing and multiple tribes are appearing - meaning more credible, one-to-one programmes and influencers will be needed to really make an impact. Feeding these influencers with a message centered around what the audience wants to hear, what entertains them, rather than about what your brand is selling, is key to staying relevant to them.

Jane Morgan is managing director at Golin, a member of the Council of Public Relations Firms of Hong Kong (CPRFHK)