The Future of Influence: 5 How-to Tips to Make Sure You Actually Influence Your Audience

This article discusses the new and changing nature of influence, and the high likelihood that your efforts aren’t influencing anyone. Five how-to tips are provided to help you learn who you are influencing. This article is part of our special Future of Measurement issue.

Back in 1987 I asked my boss if I could rename the PR department “Influencer Relations.” It was clear that I had been hired to influence industry analysts, reporters, and editors. My job was to get them to say nice things about our products, while also convincing them not to bash our controversial CEO. So, I figured my job was to influence the influencers.

As they say, you’re never wrong, you’re just early. Sure enough, I’ve encountered several PR departments that have recently rebranded themselves as “influencer relations.” Regardless of what you call it, the fundamental job of PR—and in fact almost all communications—is to influence the behavior or the attitudes of the target audiences.

You are probably not influencing anyone.

Back then just “getting less bad press” was enough to keep my bosses happy—at least for a while. But it soon became clear that senior leadership’s expectation was that PR would to contribute to the business by getting our key messages out to the target audiences. If people didn’t know what we did and have reasons to buy our products, then we couldn’t grow.

Today, just getting messages out there isn’t even close to keeping the bosses happy. Now, you need to “cause or contribute to a change in opinion or behavior,” which is the way The Conclave on Social Media Measurement Standards has defined “influence.”

So, I hate to break this to you, but all that coverage that you are so happy about? It’s probably not influencing anyone. And even if you think it does, I’ll bet you have no real, hard evidence to prove it. Because unless you have good data by way of a solid survey or a robust marketing mix modeling system that proves you are changing minds or behavior, then I repeat: you don’t know if you are influencing anybody.

Is there a future for influence?

The existential question I keep asking myself in this era of alternative facts and fake news is: Does influence as we know it still exist?

Sure,  people are being influenced, but not necessarily by the media that we are used to. And the rules have changed. In particular, the media isn’t mediating like it used to. Two years’ worth of media bashing has brought a spike in skepticism. According to Pew Research, only about one in three Americans now trust the media. Add to that the million other ways to get information that have been created in the last decade, and you have to question whether the media is influential at all.

Your audience is now so skeptical it probably believes few of your messages that appear anywhere. Which is why your courageous efforts to influence your audiences may be a Quixotic quest.

Here’s how you can know if you actually are influencing anyone, and who they are.

1. Figure out if your “key media” is actually influencing anyone at all. (Hint: count leads and clicks, and/or survey)

In other words, go back to the definition, above, and be honest. Do you really know whether or not the media you are reaching out to is changing the opinions or behaviors of your target audience? Specifically, do you know whether those journalists and outlets on your “Top Tier” list are swaying the minds of the people you need to reach?

The insidious reality is that far too many “Top Tier” media lists are based on purported (and frequently vastly exaggerated) reach numbers and the frequency with which the outlets cover you. Which of course produces a self-fulfilling (if not self-defeating) result, to wit:

If you are judged on the number of “placements” you make, you are naturally going to go after those journalists most likely to cover you. But the problem is that your job as a communications employee is not to “generate hits” but to contribute to the organizational bottom line.

So, if those “hits” don’t produce leads, or clicks, or something that relates to your business goals, at best your budget will be slashed. And at worst you’ll be looking for a new job.

To get past this outmoded thinking and develop your own data on which to base your decisions, follow these simple steps:

  1. First check your Google Analytics goal conversion data and see if there are any media URLs in the top 100 sources of clicks and goal completions. (Learn how to set up goal conversions with this video.)
  2. Next walk down the hall and ask someone in your marketing or market research department if they have an answer.
  3. If no such people exist, and you haven’t asked that question of your target audience in the last 18 months, it’s time for a survey.

2. Understand what influences the behavior or opinions of your target audience? (Hint: survey)

Even if you have a clearly defined “target audience” and a reasonably good media list, do you have any solid evidence that those media play a role in the path to purchase? Far too frequently these days, communications decisions get made based on management assumptions that probably predate the iPhone. (And we all know the trouble that assuming can get you into.)

Your role as a communications advisor is to challenge assumptions and make sure your decisions are based on facts. That means surveying your target audiences to find out what really keeps them up at night and on what they base their assumptions. Particularly in the B2B space there is an astonishing reliance on anecdotes and assumptions rather than data-driven decision making.

I know you probably think that surveys are expensive and time consuming, but today’s technology makes it far easier to get good data on your customers. Surveys don’t have to be expensive nor particularly difficult. There’s a ton of good software and even some free survey questions. Check out your local college or university and see if they’re teaching an applied research course. Chance is you can be part of a class assignment. Even if you have to buy a list, you can probably do a good influencer survey for under $10K.

3. Does your “Top Tier” media sway purchase consideration, preference, or behavior? (Hint: survey)

In business, “influential” refers to something that accomplishes an important goal. For instance, on the marketing side, if media are “influential” then they drive sales or market share, and marketing would probably pay to advertise in them. If Investor Relations says an outlet is “influential” then it presumably has the potential to influence your investors. If Talent Acquisition says an outlet is “influential” then it is reaching the universe of people you want to recruit, and as a result they’re applying for and filling jobs.

So what does PR think is influential? And how does it impact the business? It’s very hard to take PR’s recommendations seriously if you don’t provide evidence that you are impacting business decisions.

It’s not enough to determine whether journalists you are targeting write for media outlets that are read by your target audiences. How do you know if those outlets have any actual impact on the decision-making process? If you can’t make a direct connection between that reporter who calls you a lot and his/her ability to change opinions or behaviors, then you’re probably wasting your time.

The “standard” way of determining whether journalists are influential is to call them up and ask them what they cover. But that is a waste of resources, because what really matters is whether your customers are paying attention to that media outlet or that type of coverage.

So, go back to the survey data from your target audience to find out what specific media sources they trust. Or look at the Source/Medium breakdown in Google Analytics.  For example:

4. How efficient are your efforts to influence? (Hint: cost per goal achieved)

Folks in the “paid media” world have learned through their research that word-of-mouth, recommendations, and social networks have proven to be far more influential on behavior than beating the audience over the head with repetitive and ever-louder messages. With data from social media profiles, search engine usage, and purchase behavior, it is far easier and more accurate to reach your target audiences with programmatic messages that automatically show up wherever and whenever they use the Internet.

In the future PR will need to evaluate success on a cost-per-outcome basis. So you need to know how you stack up on the influence hierarchy before you can lay claim to that old trope that PR is more cost effective.

Here’s a real life example: When we were doing an evaluation of Atlantic City, the client was doing quarterly surveys of the target audience to find out what was influencing their consideration of Atlantic City as a vacation destination. The research was testing specific messages as well as specific ads and types of communications. Research showed that:

  1. People who believed the message that “Atlantic City is a fun place to go with friends” were more likely to prefer an Atlantic City vacation over competing venues.
  2. People who had seen news about the city in their local media outlets (as opposed to just seeing ads) were far more likely to believe that Atlantic City is a fun place to go with friends.

Bottom line is that the PR team had achieved a significant increase in belief in that message for one-fifth the cost of the paid ad campaign. So of course, when it came time to slash budgets, the ad spend was cancelled and the PR program was continued for another year.

The math is simple: How many goal conversions or agreed upon desirable actions were created by your efforts? Divide that number into the cost of the effort to determine the cost per goal achieved.

5. Do you know what or whom your audience trusts? (Hint: survey)

But, but, but you say, there’s credibility in “earned” media that you don’t get from advertising. Are you sure? What’s fake to me may be influential to you. Fake news is defined by SNCR and the Conference Board as “content that lacks trusted sources and often uses sensational headlines (in digital, clickbait) to encourage the consumption and spread of unverified or false information. It is neither left- or right- leaning, it is simply content that seeks to persuade without verified sources.” (To participate in their survey about the impact of fake news contact SNCR associate director Alex Parkinson (alex.parkinson@conference-board.org)

For the PR person, the question is not whether an item is fake or real. The pertinent question is: Does it persuade or not? If PR can get over its aversion to metrics and start using data to connect the dots between activities and actual changes in opinions or behaviors, then it might find a golden opportunity in this tumultuous media environment. Nothing is stopping PR teams from using the same data mining techniques that helped to shape the opinions of British voters towards Brexit, and to elect the president of the United States.

Those techniques start with understanding what influences your target audiences. Which means PR people will have to talk to salespeople, marketing folks, development, and research teams—and, yes, maybe even to customers and prospects—to find out what keeps them up at night and what problems they might look to you to solve.

Whether it’s a survey of the audience or conversations with the sales department, PR must learn what sources its audiences go to when they are in the research and consideration phases of their decision-making process. Armed with that data, you can build a media list that has meaning, impact and, ultimately, actual influence.

Thanks to ivanacoi on Pixabay for the image.

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.