Ashton Kutcher, American Airlines and the Nature of Influence

Gary Lee, CEO of mBlast

Guest blogger Gary Lee is the CEO of mBLAST and has over 25 years of experience in high-tech marketing, development and executive management in various global telecom and high-tech companies. Join Gary’s conversation on Twitter.

Actor Ashton Kutcher is known for a lot of things – “Punk’d”, Demi Moore, etc. But lately his acting career has taken a bit of a back seat to his status as a Twitter superstar. The first account to exceed a million followers, his @aplusk handle is now watched by millions. And unlike many celebrity tweeters, he often uses his account to promote issues important to him, most recently the “Real Men” humanitarian public service campaign he started with his wife to raise awareness for human trafficking and child prostitution.

This campaign is something that seemingly no one would disagree with. However, a few weeks ago Kutcher became involved in a Twitter war with the Village Voice, which published an article critical of some of the facts behind the Real Men campaign. After the article was published the two sides traded critical tweets back and forth until the Village Voice’s tweets reached a level that could only be described as “taunting”.

The Village Voice’s tweets are probably – in and of themselves – a good PR crisis management case study (in the “do NOT do this” category), but perhaps the most interesting outcome of this event was a lesson in raw influence (as opposed to the topical influence I usually write about) that was unleashed by Kutcher’s response.

It took a single tweet to begin a major media sensation and to force several Fortune 500 companies into action:

American Airlines, for its part, responded quickly:

The airline, along with other major companies like Disney and Domino’s Pizza were similarly affected by Kutcher’s responses to the Village Voice, and all three companies quickly withdrew their advertising from the publication.

Does this mean that Kutcher is an influencer on airlines, theme parks, pizza and advertising? Or is this one of those cases where popularity is enough? I have been pondering this story, trying to sort out exactly what it can tell us about influence in general and influence on the social Web.

As marketers and PR practitioners, we want to move markets. And we often look to influential voices to help us in that task. As I study how influential voices move information across the Web, I find these voices more often than not break down into two types: generic and topical.

Generic Influencers: These are popular voices. These individuals have a huge following, whether on Twitter, Facebook, or traditional media outlets. And through the immense scale of their social graph, they are able to raise general awareness of any topic and create outcomes indirectly.

Topical Influencers: These are active in a particular market segment. They are subject matter experts. While their audience may not reach the same scale as that of the generic influencer, their followers are vested, engaged, and passionate about a specific area or topic. In short, these influencers have authority ¾ when they speak, their market listens. As a result, topical influencers have the ability to directly drive action in a given market area.

Which brings us back to Kutcher. While we can debate the level of his specific influence in the airline or periodical advertising industries day-to-day, the size of his social graph is indisputable. Kutcher has over 7 million followers on Twitter at present. As a result, his Tweets to and about Village Voice advertisers reached an enormous number of people, raising the general awareness about the issue at hand and prompting immediate responses to his tweets.

Due to the sheer volume of his social graph, Kutcher’s voice rippled across the Web ¾ indirectly driving actions, in this case, the flight of advertisers from the Voice. This is generic influence at work. And sometimes, to be honest, generic influence is exactly what you’re looking for.

For example, if I’m interested in raising awareness and donations for victims in Japan or Alabama, you bet I’m going to look for influencers (a.k.a. celebrities) with a very large platform in order to get the message out to the biggest and broadest group possible.

But if I am, for example, releasing a new line of precision manufacturing parts, my focus will be different and far more granular. In the first place, if you’re involved in precision parts, good luck getting Ashton to respond to your email pitches. But beyond that, you’re looking to reach a very specific audience segment with a very specific message. And this audience probably isn’t listening to Kutcher very much, at least not for manufacturing advice.

Of course, when it comes right down to it there’s still much we don’t yet understand about the underlying drivers of influence, particularly how these messages resonate across the social web. Marketers have been grappling with the concept of influence for decades and this debate is certainly intensifying given the sheer number of voices around today. I still wonder what other kinds of influence Kutcher has on airline travelers? What would happen if he told people to fly Southwest instead? Like any subject of substance, we’re left with more questions than answers here ¾ but the ensuing discussions are sure to be fascinating.

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