Are We Seeing the End of Influence?

As businesses adjust to permission based marketing, the online conversation, and the impact of word of mouth advertising, they have become more and more interested in consumers that wield online influence.

Business models like Klout, celebrate the interaction of the online consumer, and laud the high traffic user by awarding them in a variety of ways. Klout congratulates you for the “score” calculated by algorithms utilizing the frequency of your online interactions. Then when you demonstrate enough online interaction, their clients award you “stuff”. Coupons, samples, memberships, schwag of every size and description. PeerIndex has joined that particular bandwagon by creating “Peer Perks” for people of sufficient score, and (find the airline here) has even offered access to their lounges in various airports for people with higher scores.

Providing people with some celebrity with products and cash in return for their endorsement is nothing new, and hasn’t been since merchants offered their wares to royalty in hopes of using that relationship to impress other potential customers. In fact  , and the FTC has even codified how bloggers need to handle such relationships, so there are some guidlelines, but what about the impact on consumers.

Consumers aren’t dumb. They know when a celebrity endorses something , the celebrity is being paid somehow, and the amount of trust they put in that endorsement is substantially less than it might have been a hundred years ago or so, when we were all a lot less sophisticated. How long will it be before we stop trusting our “friends”. Not the real, proper friends we have and know face to face, but those other friends. The ones we’ve never met. The ones we know only from our online interaction. The ones whose motivations we impute rater than know.

As companies try to find and utilize online influences, are they hastening the time when consumers will become as cynical about online endorsements as they are about those they see in magazines, on televisions and online? Will individual channels become less valued as users question the motivations of other participants?

We’ve already seen people delete their Klout profiles for various reasons.  Pam Moore, who deleted her Klout profile noted “We are the product of Klout, not the client”  and noted in her blog post the issue of conflicting agendas. As more sites emulate Klout’s successful business model, will they engender cynicism about recommendations made in other places? We pay less attention to promoted tweets and the PPC portion of Google’s search page already.

The concept of Klout or Peer Perks, is not in itself a bad thing, but it does encourage chatter for the sake of chatter since the main gauge of influence , and therefore the key to rewards is quantity of engagement, not the quality. If participation becomes a means to an end instead of the end in itself, will it devalue the messages it carries?As people are driven to participate for the positive feedback we feel when anyone gives us a good score at anything, or for the material rewards we might receive, are they polluting the very core of social media engagement? Will we create an era where grass roots support of products or services become less organic and more astro0-turf?

We rely on the recommendations of others because we believe that those recommendations are not influenced by the personal gain of the person making the recommendation. If the chatter becomes too loud, will the influence seekers and those who wish to use the influence they gain make the channels  suspect and the value of personal recommendations become diminished?

The question bothers me. How about you?


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