Dear CMO:

We’ve talked often about how reciprocity and liking play into the signal strength of your social media and branding message. One area we haven’t discussed at length is the role of scarcity and it’s been hiding in plain sight as one of the most powerful tools in your online arsenal.

Scarcity is buzz. It’s the definition of viral. Scarcity is learning something someone else doesn’t know and communicating that secret knowledge in a trusted environment. This simple act – giving someone the inside scoop on a band, a brand, a video or a blog – adds to the giver’s social capital, conveying all the rights and privileges associated with being “someone who knows stuff.”

Once we add social capital into this mix, we need to discern the credibility of the “buzzer.” We only listen to those we believe are telling us something worth listening to, after all. In areas of subjectivity – of taste – we typically turn to others “like us” to help us make up our minds. In areas of objectivity – of fact – we turn to those we view as authorities. Research at my old alma mater shows that this isn’t a typical “influencer” model of finding those who sport the most followers on Twitter or even those who pontificate from the podiums of the most conferences. Wharton’s Raghuram Iyengar and Christophe Van den Bulte suggest that commonly acknowledged opinion leaders – those their peers describe as being people they’d turn to for advice, as opposed to self-described “thought leaders” – are the ones who connect disparate social networks, have more credibility and actually spread word of mouth most effectively.

“Researchers… identified a group of… “self-reported opinion leaders,” doctors who reported themselves to be well-connected, influential members of the community. The researchers also asked all physicians to name up to eight other doctors with whom they felt comfortable discussing the clinical management and treatment of the disease, and up to eight doctors to whom they typically referred patients. These nominations from fellow physicians produced a second group, whom researchers called “sociometric leaders” — the most influential and well-respected physicians in the community based on how often they were mentioned by their peers.

“Our study shows that these two measures of opinion leadership do not overlap very well,” said Iyengar. “Asking people how important they are is not the best measure of how important they really are. Just because people think they’re important doesn’t mean it’s true. And some people are actually more important than marketers believe, or even they themselves believe.”

(The most effective sociometric leader) didn’t fit the description of an individual who marketers thought would be the most effective promoter of their product — an outgoing, high-profile doctor whose name often pops up on research papers or on conference speaker lists. “(He) was self-effacing. He did not want to stand on a soap box,” said Van den Bulte. “He was respected, but not in a flashy fashion. He was the opposite of a rock star.”

The shorthand here suggests that buzz equals scarcity to the power of authority. Information that is new, not commonly known or exclusive is deemed to be more valuable – and the source of that information, when viewed as credible and sporting the right trappings of authority, exponentially increases the value of what’s being conveyed.


PS: The original article quoted here is via the Knowledge @Wharton newsletter, which is very much worth subscribing to.