Are Influentials Actually Influential?

I got an email yesterday with a curious subject line:  Adweek Creative: Ray-Ban Viral Looks to Make a Splash

Semporersclothes Hmmm ... I thought to myself.  If a video is truly viral, why would the agency/brand that created it need to pitch the story to Adweek?  Wouldn't it be enough to engage a small group of influencers who would - assuming the creative is compelling - pass it along? 

I've written about Duncan Watts before.  And I've been generally opposed to his "big seed" theory.  But I'm giving pause to my opposition.  Not drinking the Watts Kool Aid just yet, but I'm listening. 

The same day I got the Ray-Ban email, a friend sent me this AdAge article called What's Plaguing Viral Marketing?  I encourage you to read the entire article, but here is an excerpt ...

For a few years now, Mr. Watts looked at how big cascades of behavior begin, focusing most recently on the theory of influencers, those people disproportionately capable of triggering big change and featured in books such as 2003's "The Influentials." What he's found, through computer modeling as opposed to real-world research, is that they're not necessarily all that effective.

The crux of Mr. Watts' argument is that even if influentials are several times as influential as a normal person, they have little impact beyond their own immediate neighborhood -- not good when you're trying to create a cascade through a large network of people, as most big brands do. In those cases, he argues, it's best to skip the idea of targeting that treasured select group of plugged-in folks and instead think about that group's polar opposite: a large number of easily influenced people. He calls this big-seed marketing.

Sounds a lot like mass marketing, doesn't it?

"Most of what's happening is happening in the network," Mr. Watts said. "If the network is conducive to contagion, then it doesn't matter where you put a match to it. Ordinary people can do much better than you think."