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Influence in the digital age

by Joe Heath

In his recent Marketing Week column, Prof. Mark Ritson took to chastising a CMO for suggesting that the various digital pathways and short-cuts customers now chart to the moment of purchase, signal the death of the traditional sales funnel.

Ritson reminds the industry that despite these changes, the fundamental psychological stages that brands must help customers step through remain intact. As such the sales funnel – or to use Ritson's bookish definition the ‘hierarchy of effect’ – remains the most appropriate method of exerting influence over customer behaviour.  

Ritson’s goes on to stress that marketers should prioritise the fundamentals of marketing strategy over the haphazard deployment of new-fangled digital tactics, but Ritson also asks marketers to better understand how to influence customer’s journey towards purchase.  

The digitisation of the customer’s path to purchase may not have changed the fundamentals of human psychology. But it has shifted the dynamics of influence, which has deep implications for the application of ‘sales funnel’ thinking.

The traditional sales funnel is essentially a programmable system that enables its user to plan for maximum influence over a given audience at a given time. However, systems are by their nature products of their environment, and the sales funnel’s principles of ‘staged influence’ were constructed when ‘opportunities to influence’ were tightly defined and ruthlessly controlled. A time when a small group of media owners held a monopoly over the nation’s collective attention, allowing them to trade stocks of attention to the highest bidder, and with it powerful ‘opportunities to influence’ a particular audience.  

This more traditional ‘marketplace of influence’ is still very much in operation today, which means businesses can still buy access to blocks of attention and apply the principles of staged influence with reasonable success.  

However, this closed and tightly controlled marketplace has been totally subsumed by a new marketplace: a sprawling ecosystem of networked pathways, connected devices and crowd-based platforms, through which a profusion of behaviours, not just attention, now flows.

In this sprawling ecosystem, giant tech companies own the infrastructure and just like the media houses they manage a ‘marketplace of influence’, trading access to customers as they traverse the networked ecosystem. But the key difference is they are trading access to a space in which attention is fleeting, audiences are no longer captive and people are predominantly active not passive.

As the ecosystem is powered by behaviours, not states of attention, it becomes infinitely more difficult to wield influence over people. A moving target is obviously a harder one to hit. What’s more, people don’t just navigate their way through this ecosystem. They go about constructing their own realities, their own mini ecosystem built out of the information, content and connections they collect on their journey.

In this new reality, consumers not only actively deflect more obvious forms of influence or manipulation, but they’ve begun to trade influence themselves – creating content and collaborating together to influence each other. In fact, the ecosystem’s defining characteristic is that it’s open and democratic – anyone can gain access and wield influence. Which begs the question, how do brands and organisations compete and garner influence?

In this new world order, an actor’s sphere of influence is determined less by what they hope to extract from the ecosystem and more by their willingness to contribute and build value.

Brands that continue to hurl messages into the paths of their customers from outside the ecosystem, in the hope of ‘winning business’, will struggle to gain traction and fail to exert lasting influence over consumers. But those organisations who come down from their owned ivory towers, roll up their sleeves and start to create value from inside the ecosystem will reap the rewards, steadily growing a more resilient sphere of influence.

Ritson is of course right, marketers must always prioritise the underlying drivers of human behaviour. But when the system realities shift, we must also be quick to recognise when different drivers of human behaviour come into play. Especially when those drivers can critically impact on a brand’s ability to influence and build a sustainable position in the market. 

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