Bill Nichols

2 May 2014

Bill Nichols

016 – May 2014

Social Influence – Three Key Touch-Points

You know that social media stuff works.  It’s always worth a punt.  But you’re not quite sure when, how or in what combination with other tactics you get ‘influence’.  Should you ‘pension off’ some old tools – like classic direct marketing – completely.

So what exactly do we know?  So far we have: firm principles; clear integration models for the process of exposure, feedback and engagement and exchange; and, from telecoms to pharma and online retailing, mounting evidence.  Research confirms the positive effects of social influence (or, unattractively, ‘social contagion’) on adoption.

As a result, social network marketing is part of the marketer’s canon.

Now new tech-product based research (*) offers more.  More than a direction of travel.  More than a punt. It’s founded on analysis of interactions and influence among relevant consumers.  It suggests three key touch-points to begin to manipulate social influence with some precision.

First Up, Catching Earliest Adopters

In the product cycle, the research finds, it is the earliest customer adopters – properly the pioneers – who exert the greatest social influence.  Further, if stimulated by traditional direct marketing, their incidence and power is augmented.

Tactically, this combination offers maximum early market impact.

It’s like the match to a newly-laid fire.  Early investment in classic MGC (marketer-generated content) kindles UGC’s (user-generated content) influence.   But, it seems, traditional potency flickers and quickly dies.  After launch, marketers should cut spend rapidly.

Second, Extending Online Sharing

But there is no time ‘bar’ on social influence.  Intriguingly, irrespective of time of purchase, each new adopter contributes independent effects.  The quantum of individual power depends not on timing but on:

  • ·         ‘Strength of tie’ – where the unique aspect of virtual communities relates to help asked                        and provided and the desire to meet in person –
  • ·         And homophily (degree of similarity, the ‘birds of a feather’ principle). 

Solely for his or her own close personal connections, each new adopter is like a pioneer.  A new burning ember.  So, long after launch, to continue to stimulate online sharing behaviour with appropriate content and incentives is a viable mid-term strategy.

But important distinction:  simply to rely on cumulative positive adoption effects across a customer’s wider network is unlikely to succeed.  In line with the fading (even negative) effects of simply repeated messages reported in my recent blog, The Power of Three, traction is lost.   Sparks may fly but will not kindle.

Third, Referral Anytime

Finally, by extension, the constant potential of new adoptions indicates that referral campaigns may be effective at any point – even very late in the product cycle.  Rather than general social pressure, it is the one-to-one power of those with strong ties or homophilous contacts which generates results.  And the fire sustained.

It suggests that careful mapping of prospective customers is a great investment.

Contagious even!


(*) Risselada, H., et al (2014), Dynamic Effects of Social Influence and Direct Marketing on the Adoption of High-Technology Products.   Journal of Marketing 78 (2).                                                


Bill Nichols

17 November 2013

Bill Nichols

Wakey wakey PR: The Convergence Train is Leaving  

010 – November 2013

Three years ago, our first Bucks Uni New Secularism conference pointed to disappearing boundaries, collapsing silos and the magical emergence of convergence: a new integrated communications.  Uni colleague and ex-Mediacom director, Vic Davies and I were – we admit – more than slightly tongue in cheek.

This week our third conference ( will find us in the midst of positive – even profound – change.

But disappointing to say, PR firms – at least – are missing the convergence train and failing to modernise.   Digital agency pioneer Gary Lockton, now ceo at says PR content creators should have hoovered up social media… But progress has stalled.  Badly.

What to do?  Here – based on three years’ development and my travels around the business – is a five-point ‘new secular’ manifesto for PR.

First, change our narrative.

My last blog – The Narrative Revenue Opportunity – identified means, motive and massive opportunity for PR teams to exploit their narrative skills.  At the PR Summit Ogilvy ceo, Christopher Graves, agreed (Holmes Report:  The old PR tradition emphasised marshalling facts and dispelling myths.  But the new narrative builds on neuroscience and plays to emotion.  It’s about creating myths (‘mythopoeia’) that sweep us along.  Yet few if any grasp this opportunity.  Why?  The PR low-esteem mind-set – our own industry narrative – cleaves to its old tradition, according to recent research (*).  It’s safer. It’s… ‘what we’ve always done’.  Physician heal thyself!

Second, love those numbers.

Like it or no, big data and analytics transform the PR business. Media strategy switches from ‘how many’ to ‘how relevant’.  Once we lobbed up as many media placements as possible – then prayed.  Now it’s about manipulation from A-F via B, C etc.  Or, in the jargon, ‘longitudinal contact strategy’. Small wonder recent PRCA Conference speakers on The Future of the PR Agency, called for consultancies to hire data analysts as part of a move to IMC. But, in too many PR firms, try talking stats and they’ll come over all squeamish.  Mention a regression and they’ll start looking for your little green friends.

Third, grasp the secular – multiple skills, multiple revenues.

Pitch a story.  Buy the space.  Manipulate a social exchange.   Fee, commission and bonus.  But all three? In the old world, ethics – our narrative identity – and complexity came crashing in.  In the new – perhaps Kotler’s (1997) fabled future ‘customering’ department – it’s all one. A process of managing interactions.  For progressive PR firms, this new is (or should be) palpitatingly, excitingly ambivalent.

Fourth, stay the course with authenticity.

Lovely word (though resonant of ‘austerity for some tastes!).  Authenticity is for the long-term.  It requires strategic commitment that (as upcoming research in which I’ve partnered will show) is the critical determinant of PR results.  But for now poor old authenticity is just a word.  Put a PR team under pressure? That knee-jerk old tradition takes them back to manipulating today’s perceptions and messages.  At all costs, kick that wretched old can down that pot-holed road.   Phew!

Fifth, embrace the world beyond traditional media.

Call it customer service, direct communication or collaboration. As you choose.  The digital transformation has personalised our world at every level (**).  It offers, according to Larry Weber ( a ‘budding business renaissance’ (  Yet, sadly, all too often that seems to mean little more than agencies cannibalising client budgets to handle the loading of mass production tweets… (Preferred pasting up cuttings myself!).

OK Larry is right.  OK these five changes are ‘unanticipated and unavoidable structural adjustments’.  OK, and absolutely, they may cause ‘profound discomfort’.

But they are the future.  They are now.  No tongue.  No cheek!


(*) Zertess, A. and Duhring, L. (2012), Between Convergence and Power Struggles, Public Relations Journal, Vol 6. No.5.

(**) Diehl, S. and Karmasin, M (eds, 2013), Media and Convergence Management,, Berlin: Springer Verlag.

Bill Nichols

4 February 2013

Bill Nichols

The Likes:  What IS the Brand Value of All Those Faces in Facebook?

003 – January 2013

So do the social media ‘likes’ – all those faces in Facebook – have any real brand or campaign value?  True, with SM in the mainstream, plentiful ‘likes’ are simply-reported.  They’re also superficially reassuring for page-owners.

But, troublingly according to many, actual impact on consumer preference is often negligible. And their monetary value minimal or non-existent.

Is this some limitation in the platform?  Perhaps a subset of the ‘monetisation’ debate?  Or is it a lack of practitioner expertise in manipulating a frontier medium?  Major new research (*) fingers expertise as the problem. Professional management of ‘similarity’ and ‘ambiguity’, it suggests, may transform outcomes for both brand and PR campaign management alike.

How might that work?

Well, traditional social influence theory (SIT) suggests that physical exposure is required to exert, or interpret, a meaningful social impact.  This is a well-trodden, well-researched path.  It aligns multi-sense neuroscience findings with social psychology.  The emphasis on physicality underpins contemporary retail and service experience design. We all apply it intuitively.  For example, when we pop our head cautiously around an unknown pub’s door to check out the clientele.  Or when we retreat from a retail space where the average age or appearance of the ‘actors’ (staff and customers) creates immediate discomfort for us.

But what about all those Facebook or web page images?  Can the physical rendered as ‘mere virtual presence’ (MVP) – the correct academic handle – help or hinder the process?

Yes MVP helps, say the findings.  If we have a clear target segment in mind, showing brand supporter similarity will signal affinity to visitors, facilitate liking and heightens visitor purchase intentions.  (Akin to the nice warm feeling from the friendly pub!).  Intriguingly a mixed (or heterogeneous) page can also function acceptably as the visitor typically anchors on some relevant images.   Even studied ambiguity (via e.g. silhouettes) may help although it is weaker where the visitor is exploring competitive brands.

But dissimilarity repels.  Just as we retreat from the perceived to be unwelcoming pub!

So, to summarise, owners may bask in all those ‘likes’.  But it’s not just insufficient.  The wrong ‘likes’ – casually presented – may sometimes explain the absence of positive outcomes.

To illustrate active planning, a brand entering a new segment will only release target images.  A second, uncertain of available opportunities, may choose studied ambiguity in the early phases.   A third running a major issues campaign will consciously display as heterogeneous a mix as possible to optimise potential support.

Of course this poses hard ethical questions.  Brands must notify selection via e.g. ‘fans of the day’ type features.  Otherwise they may fatally undermine the medium’s presumed transparency.

But, in short, the ‘face’ in Facebook may really count.  And that innocent charm of social media interactivity and inclusiveness – e.g. allowing any non-offensive user-posted image to stay up – may rapidly pall.