How Twitter may really start influencing buying decisions

Let’s begin by looking at Hollywood star Ashton Kutcher. Anybody engaged with Twitter is in awe of the 13.7m followers that Kutcher has amassed – except for American professor Sinan Aral that is. The NYU Stern School of Business assistant professor wrote in the latest Harvard Business Review that he asked one of his classes how many of them followed Kutcher. Sure enough, nearly all his students raised their hands. Then he asked – but how many of you have actually ever done something because Kutcher suggested it? The hands collapsed into laps.

This made Aral wonder if, for all the hype about social marketing and the role of online influencers, corporate marketeers were wasting their time hoping that online chatter would do their selling for them. Worse, Aral suspects that the influence of friends and peer groups – who would flock together anyway as like minded folk do – is being mistaken for real, tangible social media influence. He thinks the influence of social media is way overstated.

Marketers are spending millions on social media strategies to that end; they’re working to gather followers, and they’re using “influence scores” devised by companies such as Klout and PeerIndex to try to understand how much leverage each follower exerts. Over time they hope to shift away from traditional, expensive, inefficient methods of mass advertising toward peer-to-peer, word-of-mouth campaigns.

So, are the marketing people who have embraced social media been fooled by appearances? At this point in time, he may have a point but things are about to change. And it’s the CEO of the aforementioned Klout – Joe Fernandez – who has woken up to the underlying potential of Twitter to influence. His company has up to now given Tweeters an influence score that boosts their ego and, it’s been reported, is used by some employers to measure potential recruits online impact. But Fernandez wants to go much further than that.

His plan – recognising the sort of criticisms leveled by the likes of Sinan Aral, is to directly link social media influencers to consumers at the point at which they’re making a buying decision. From this month, Klout is going to become a service where Tweeters can ask an expert when they need their advice most. As Fernandez explained to Wired:

In about a year from now, I hope that when I’m at Home Depot, I can pull out my phone, get an influencer in real time, and have a two-minute conversation about what to buy.

This will take Tweeters and Facebook users beyond their immediate circle of friends and family to informed and expert opinion wherever it can be found. Posting questions online isn’t new – Google and Quora have been putting up random and existential questions on life, the universe and everything for a while. But it’s the targeted and timely linking of expert to consumer that could be revolutionary. Klout will have a database of gardening, healthcare and cookery experts that could be segmented to very narrow areas of expertise over time. For corporates, this will mean having to monitor the emergence of uber-influencers who consumers will be able to engage with in real time.

So just when the skeptics were about to stick the boot into Twitter – the world of social media has recognised the problem and devised a smart solution.

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