Michael Wu, Ph.D. is Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.
Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwu.
Over the past few weeks, several friends in the social CRM industry have pointed me to a provocative post by Lisa Petrilli: Three smart reasons to empower instead of influence. They were seeking my thoughts and point of view on that subject. Subsequently, another friend, Wim Rampen, has written a follow up article at Customer Think, which led to yet another post by Barry Dalton on this topic. Now I felt compelled to offer some clarification on the subject between empowerment and influence. So I must apologize for another interruption on the cyber anthropology mini-series.
Empowerment and Influence are Orthogonal Concepts
First, I must clarify that empowerment and influence are not mutually exclusive as implied by Petrilli. They are related, but in an orthogonal way. You can empower people in a way so they become more influential, but you can also influence people in a way that they become more empowered.
If you must compare these two different concepts, at least compare them on the same ground. That is, you must specify who you are empowering (or influencing), and what you empower (or influence) them to do. One cannot compare empowering employees with influencing customers. Likewise, one cannot compare (a). empowering your customers to become your brand advocate, with (b). influencing your customers to buy your product. They are apples and oranges that should not be compared. The comparison is only fair if you compare between (a). empowering your customers to buy, and (b). influencing them to buy. I urge you to think hard and creatively about how you are going to empower your customers to buy. Do you give them money, or do you lower the price and have a lower profit margin? How do you give people more power to buy?
Both Empowerment and Influence Can Be Good and Bad
Although the word “empower” may have more positive connotation than the word “influence,” both can be positive or negative. Empowerment is simply the act of giving power, authority, or permission to someone; it does not dictate what they do with that power. We are all empowered by the internet and social media, because we, as individuals, are given great power to spread idea, coordinate, self-organize, and act.
But what if some people use that power to do something that is “not so good.” For example Pro-Ana, which is a support movement (enabled by social media) for anorexic girls to continue their clinically diagnosed eating disorder. A more extreme case, what if people use that power to spread racism, suicidal religious cult, or terrorism? Still think empowerment is positive? Do not be fooled by the mere words that people use.
Empower and Influence Are Both Necessary
If the posed question is “should businesses empower or influence?” My answer is they should strive to do both! The concept of empowerment is more appropriate for the customer service and support organizations; whereas the concept of influence is more suitable in marketing and sales. But any healthy company in a competitive market is going to need both (see Figure).
You certainly want to empower your customers to become your advocates. This is certainly more impactful than continually influencing them to buy more, because they are already your customers. So the task of empowering is probably most appropriate for the service and support teams in your company. However, for people who are not your customers, you want to influence them to try and adopt your product. Therefore, this job is for your marketing and sales teams. You may empower non-customers, but probably don’t want to do that, because they may be your competitor’s customer.
No doubt customer empowerment is very important, because it can turn your customers into brand advocates. But why do you want these advocates? Treated well, they are probably going to buy more and become your most valuable customers. But ultimately, you probably want your advocates to influence their friends and followers to adopt your product, so you get more customers, scaling your sales reach. So empowering your customer is like building a passionate external marketing agency that will partner with your company’s marketing and sales team to drive awareness and conversion. And they are doing this for free. But don’t forget that when you empower your customers, you are empowering them to be more influential.
Empowerment and influence are really two orthogonal concepts that have their own place in every business. To choose only one between the two is like asking companies to either shutdown their support/service arm or halt their marketing/PR functions. That, to me, sounds pretty absurd.
The final reason Petrilli argued in favor of empowerment rather than influence is that there is no proof influencers actually exist. Many have cited the famous study by Watts and Dodds 2007 as scientific validation that influencers either don’t exist or don’t matter. Although I have great respect for Dr. Watts, and I’ve personally learn a great deal from his research, his results on influencers are often misinterpreted by people who are not mathematically savvy enough to dissect his model. Since this analysis will be rather involved, I am saving it for my next post, which I will dedicate to the discussion on whether influencers really exist. So, if you are interested, come back next week (BTW, you can also vote for my SxSW proposal to hear me talk about this topic).
For now, let’s further our discussion on the topic of empowerment vs. influence. Kudos, comments, critiques, and challenges are all welcome as usual.