Look at big corporate brands, and you’ll find plenty of businesses paying millions to cultivate influence by creating the next viral moment. Good luck. The impulse is understandable, but the tactics leave much to be desired. Obsessing over “the big one” all too often means missing out on the smaller moments of influence that really matter and you do not have to wait for. Viral moments were not named in haste. They’re called viral because they happen quickly and without notice, grow exponentially, and are very difficult to control for any business caught up in the wave.

That’s not to say big viral moments are bad, but once the meme is out there it tends to take on a life of its own, such as with Oreo or the John Stewart and Pharrell Arby’s exchanges. Those viral moments happened because the brand had teams of social listeners on the lookout for opportunities and basically got lucky. Now, many businesses claim that kind of listening either isn’t in their budget, or the approval process is too onerous, or it does not “perfectly” align with an ongoing campaign. Tell me what “campaign” did Oreo or Arby’s aligned with? We need to focus less on artificially creating viral moments, and turn our attention to the massive influencing opportunities that have been waiting right under our noses.

When Everyone Is an Influencer, the Possibilities are Endless

The real influencers, the ones you can count on – the ones who matter most – aren’t the John Stewarts of the world, but are the everyday people that patronize your business, then talk about their experience with their social connections off and online. Think of a star like Peyton Manning, who most non-football fans will recognize from his clever turns as a pitchman in television commercials. Funny guy, good timing, but even if you remember the commercial, you’re probably not going to put much stock into which insurance company (or whatever else) he recommends.

Now let’s say you’re talking to your neighbor, who you’ve known for years. They just bought a shiny, new luxury vehicle and tell you about the great experience they had shopping for the car, or car insurance. Are you going to listen to the camera-friendly star quarterback, or the husband and wife next door who have provided you with valuable advice on countless occasions?

These smaller moments of influence happen all the time via social channels, apps, product reviews, and anywhere else that one person can leave feedback for another. Like the one I just had on Facebook when looking for a new vacuum cleaner… “Need advice, moving to my newly renovated apartment in Pompano Beach. We’re naturally skeptical of reviews from strangers, but significantly more likely to listen to people we know and trust (see how I made my decision for the vacuum here and imagine how far this conversation ultimately spread and influenced others).

Identify and Engage on a Personal Level

Here’s where many businesses fall short. While it’s easy to understand the concept that every consumer is a potential (or actual) influencer, using that reality to your advantage is often a different story. In this case, the answer is deceptively simple. If you want to build influence, you need to be present. You absolutely, positively, cannot participate in the social conversation around your business if you don’t bother to show up in the first place. You don’t have to have the marketing budget of Nabisco to seize on opportunities to influence—but you do need to spend to less time campaigning, and more time empowering your employees to listen and participate.

Taking it a step further, you need a plan to identify and engage the many people who ultimately shape the conversation around your brand. That means listening intently, keeping an open mind, and engaging when the moment presents itself… and it will every day. Not the big home-run “viral” moments, but the every day conversation moments. Yes, it takes time and effort, but in the end a predictable, repeatable payoff is much better than crossing your fingers and hoping to hit the viral lottery.

Massive viral moments like those experienced by Oreo and Arby’s come from time to time, and it pays to be prepared to jump in and leverage them “if” they happen to your brand. But cultivating true influence is really all about evolving to a point where your brand can learn to interact with consumers, advocates and influencers in a fluid, real-time way. Your customers are already creating these opportunities every day, but you’ve got to empower your employees to be present to hear them, respond to them, and enjoy the benefits. #FollowThePath… #NoLetUp!

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