Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Social Media, Celebrity Endorsements and the Phantom Referral

I always wondered why a battery company thought I'd buy their batteries because Michael Jordan said they were good. I mean, he played great basketball for sure, but how in the world did that make him an authority on batteries?
And, honestly, with all Tiger's money, did I really believe he actually drove a Buick? And that, if he says so, I oughta go ahead and buy one myself?
The concept of the celebrity endorsement depends on a socio-psychological reaction to a perceived person of power or authority. Note that "power" and "authority" are not the same: in the cases above, there's no logical connection between the athletes and their knowledge or expertise in batteries or cars - it's not their authority that influences us, it's our perception of their power to which we're more willing to acquiesce.

Similar to the celebrity endorsement is the phantom testimonial. We've all been pitched by someone selling something, and along with their spiel is the obligatory "John S. in Springfield says it's the best widget/investment/decision he ever bought/made." Whoa, stop the presses - who is John S.? Is he even a real person? Who knows, but the approach is fairly standard. I just received a promotional email today telling me to "act now" (of course, the offer is time-limited) because I don't want to miss out on what one "actual subscriber" (yeah, right) wrote in an email: "everything is wonderful, thanks for changing my life!" Signed, First name-last initial, from somewhere in some state.
One might consider these age-old stand-by methods as the standards that inform an industry. However, it's not a stretch to consider them potentially misleading, perhaps even a little manipulative. Thankfully, like so many other relics of the Industrial Age, these standards may be pushed aside by the new referral standards of the Information Age's Social Media platform.
What's the difference? With Social Media, you can know four things that didn't exist with either the celebrity endorsement or the phantom testimonial:
  1. you actually know the person making the recommendation;
  2. you know if they actually used the product or have experience with the service;
  3. you know if they liked it or didn't, and would recommend it to you or not;
  4. you'll know if their experience was local, near you, accessible to you.
These factors make Social Media far more reliable an indicator of your chances of experiencing satisfaction with a product or service than some paid actor or athlete talking about something they likely neither use nor even actually like, and surely can't discuss in your immediate local circumstances.
Even the more contemporary online reviews are suspicious when you see glowing accolades. Somewhere in the comments thread you're likely to see someone accuse a raving fan of being a confederate of the seller, seeding the comments with biased recommendations with something to gain by increasing sales. Again, since we don't know who's making the reviews, there is always some smidgen of doubt eroding confidence.
But not with Social Media. If you get a referral from a friend, you're far more likely to trust that friend, and be in a position to explore their recommendation locally. That's just based on the assumption that they told you because they had an honest emotional reaction - they either loved it, or hated it, and wanted to share that experience with friends.
  • "We got together at this restaurant and everything was fabulous - the menu had something for everyone, the prices were reasonable, and the service was perfect. We're going next week, want to come?"
  • I went to buy football cleats, they tried to tell me soccer cleats are just as good. They don't know what they're talking about. And their prices? Don't waste your time there.
  • You need a saddle bag for your bicycle? Go to that bike shop, they're great. I took my son's bike in to get his gears fixed, the guy did it in 5 minutes and didn't even bother to charge me. Knowledgeable staff, great service, I told them I'd tell my friends about them in appreciation, so I'm telling you. When you go, tell them I said "hi" so they know I'm trying to help them out, too.