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Influence and the Perfect Storm

25th July 2017

Grayling CEO, Peter Harris, unveils the firm’s new research into the nature of influence in an age of technological, demographic and societal change.

Today, we unveil some of the findings of our new Inside Influence research, with which we set out to explore the nature of influence at what I would argue is a unique point in history.

I say ‘unique’ because of the powerful collision of technological, demographic and societal factors we’re currently experiencing, which was the spark for this research.

Technology’s tectonic plates

For the longest time, newspapers and other mass media were the primary means of influencing opinions and behavior. It was the stock in trade of the PR industry since its inception. But over the past 20+ years we have borne witness to a long, slow and often painful decline of print media, by almost every metric. To cite a few: Circulations of daily newspapers are falling at a rate of around 10% a year; newsrooms shed 20,000 journalism jobs between 1994 and 2014 (the latest year for which figures are available), representing a 39% decline. The number of actual newspapers is in decline, too – more than 100 have disappeared since 2004.

This is of course an inevitable consequence of people looking elsewhere for news, reviews, information and opinions. At the turn of the century, just 1% of Americans had access to high speed internet; today it is in the high 60s. The tectonic plates have shifted, and widespread high speed internet access – and, more recently, smart phone ownership – have changed forever the way that people look for and consume information, and the ways in which it is disseminated.

Setting up a newspaper was never cheap, but today, anyone can build a website and find an audience. This has led not only to a proliferation of specialist sites and blogs catering to every possible niche interest, all discoverable through the ubiquitous Google, but also the fragmentation of audiences along multiple lines.

Our Inside Influence findings confirm the important role that online sources play in the modern influence landscape: Three out of four people look online for information or inspiration when considering a purchase, especially at the start of the journey, the ‘research’ phase.

Information access makes everyone a critic

But the other technological shift brought about by internet access, and accelerated beyond all imagination by the explosion of social media, has been the socialization of news, reviews and opinions.

Our research shows that seeking the wisdom of crowds is now a key part of the process for anyone researching travel destinations or which laptop to buy, through sites like TripAdvisor or trawling through the customer reviews on Amazon.

You want opinions? The internet’s awash with them. Good, bad, unfiltered. Everyone’s a critic. But that’s democracy, right? A technologically-enabled democracy. I would argue that this hyper-transparency keeps brands honest, holds them to a high standard of accountability, forces them to consider potential consumer reaction before putting a product out there, and can even inform the product development process. 

Mass affluence, mass consumption, masses of opinions

Most analysis of the changing nature of influence looks at it through this technological lens. But this is not even half of the picture. Because while technology has given us the ability to search for and share opinions like never before, all of this would be for nothing were it not for the mass affluence that fuels our consumer economy.

While definitions of affluence vary and are hotly debated in some circles, and it is by no means a uniform picture, average household incomes (for the middle classes and above, at least) have been increasing for the past 50 years, and personal disposable income hit an all-time high in May 2017. And we are spending it. On travel ($683.1 billion in 2016), on consumer electronics, and many other categories.  

Baby Boomers, in particular, have money to spend. While they may no longer be the largest generational cohort, having recently been overtaken by millennials or Generation Y, they do have the most spending power. America’s 75 million Baby Boomers control about 70% of all disposable income in the US, according to Nielsen. 

It’s the demography, stupid

Demographic patterns are the third factor affecting the nature of influence, specifically the co-existence of four generations, all with purchasing power and, thanks to that technological democratization, all with the power to make their views known, and to influence others. 

From Generation Z (16-20 years) to Baby Boomers (53-71 years), we have a perfect storm of more people with more money to spend on more stuff, and all with access to the technology that enables them to share their opinions on what they have bought. 

One of the things we set out to explore with our Inside Influence research was the influence that different generations have (or don’t have) on each other’s purchasing decisions. And some of what we found surprised us. 

I’m not going to give away the crown jewels here, suffice it to say we have been able to map influence as it applies to different generations, how it varies between categories, and how it changes throughout the purchasing journey. But the big surprise was this: Influence is personal.

I don’t just mean that we seek out and trust the views and opinions of those closest to us – our family and friends – I mean that despite the mass of information available, despite the review sites, the ease of access to expert views, the ubiquity of social media, despite all of the channels we have to communicate with each other… despite all of this, most people still prefer to get those views in person. According to our research, three out of four people who solicit the views and opinions of others, want to talk to someone, either face to face  (58%) or on the phone (17%). 

The more things change, the more they stay the same

This has significant implications for marketers, of course, in terms of channel strategy and budget allocation; to influence your bullseye consumer you also have to win over their inner circle of family and friends – and our research reveals which ones, at what point and how.   

Our Inside Influence research is a treasure trove of insights, of value to anyone interested in marketing to consumers. But the bottom line for me is this: Yes, the means of influencing people have expanded beyond all recognition since the days my father and grandfather were practicing public relations, but some things remain the same: Influence matters. It makes a difference. Sometimes the difference between making a sale or not, the difference between success and failure, between being a celebrated brand and an also-ran. But understanding how to navigate that … well, that’s what our new research is all about.

Download the free PDF summary. For more information about how Inside Influence may be applied to your business, contact Peggy Carlton in New York, or Jon Meakin in San Francisco.

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Grayling Team

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