In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy challenged the common wisdom of the time, which said that history is forged by leaders, arguing instead that “kings are the slaves of history.” In other words it is individuals and society that truly shape history.
I’ve always thought he was right. Think of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who fought to cover the Watergate burglary. Or Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who set himself on fire in Tunisia and started the Arab Spring. We see it every day: individuals are sufficiently angered by something that they blame their member of congress, or your brand. They start start boycotts and petitions with a few clicks, witness #DeleteUber.
We see it in countless YouTube stars who create a video and start a meme—can you hear Gangnam Style in your head right now? Or Ezra Levin, Lea Greenberg, and Angel Padilla, who wrote the Indivisible Guide that is turning people out in droves this week to protest to their members of congress.
These individuals are not influencers in the way professional communicators think of “influencers.” Generally, we in the business think of an influencer as an industry analyst, or a thought leader that shapes an industry. But those who overlook those pesky other, individual influencers do so at their own risk.
All of which argues for a complete revamp of how communications professionals think about influence. They key to success is not “getting into The New York Times,” (not that it ever should have been). In today’s fractured media environment, your goal should be to influence the individuals that matter most to your stakeholders. Whether it is an author, a YouTube star, or your neighbors, the key to success today is to develop a strategy to influence individuals—not “everyone with a pulse.”
Bowling for community
Decades ago, Robert Putnam proved that communities that had more bowling leagues and church groups were healthier, stronger, and more prosperous. His research showed that when people know each other outside of work or home, when they share a common interest or cause, they’re less likely to cheat each other, less likely to commit crimes against each other, and more likely to want to peacefully co-exist—even if they have different beliefs.
All of which suggests that rather than praying and spraying press releases, you might want to try praying or bowling together. Or at least finding the commonalities between you and your key influencers. The good news is that social media has made it infinitely easier to identify those commonalities. (Here’s a review of tools to help you do just that.)
The bad news is that there is no one easy way to influence them.
Food for (agreeable) thought
But new research might have an answer. According to University of Chicago researchers, food plays a large role in getting people to agree with you. It’s not surprising that when people sit down to eat together, they feel closer to each other. Now Ayelet Fishback and her researchers have proven that if people are eating the same food they are more likely to agree. In her experiments, she found that when volunteers ate the same kinds of food, they reached agreement much more quickly than if they didn’t.
And, in another part of the study, levels of trust were tested among volunteers who listened to someone offering a product testimonial. The person giving the testimonial was eating while doing the testimonial. It turns out that if volunteers were given the same food, they were more likely to trust the information in the testimonial.
Building trust is a major component of influence, so to build influence you might consider a banquet, rather than another blog post. Just make sure everyone is eating the same food.
The ultimate measure of success is, of course, whether your stakeholders are persuaded to share your beliefs or act in the way you’d like them to. But a secondary measure should be the budget it takes to persuade them. So remember that, instead of a full page add in The New York Times, it could be cheaper to take them all bowling and feed them pizza afterwards. ∞
(Thanks to Breaking Bread for the image.)