What do people see when they want to buy

We’ve been working on the idea of a ‘Trail of Influence’ recently. Like most things, it’s not new, but rather a build on Roger’s innovation adoption curve.

The short version goes like this:

  • Brands talk about their products…
  • …which is reported on by the media
  • …and by influencers
  • Then picked up by early adopters on social
  • Who help the rest of us decide.

What is new is that the interactions between these players and the mechanisms they use to influence each other are easier to see. All this activity leaves a trail which is captured in social data.

Interpreted correctly, this lets us understand how brand ideas actually reach the mass market. How messages are heard, repurposed and filter down to help consumers decide what to buy.

This gives brands an opportunity to see how much of what they say reaches consumers, what they take onboard and actually care about.

Introducing the stops along the trail

There’s a simple (if easy to forget) truth behind all of this. We’re all, give or take the odd moment, mostly interested in what we’re interested in. Not what other people might want us to care about (see the excellent ‘Nobody wants to read your sh*t’).

  • Brands: want to talk about what they’ve been working on, the features, benefits, USPs and all the other good stuff that’s going to make their launch a success.
  • Media: traditional media need to keep their audiences and broaden their circulation. They’ve got hungry minds to feed and publisher’s targets to meet. They do this by sharing their unique perspective, experience and insider knowledge.
  • Influencers: sound like a new thing, but they actually operate in a very similar way to traditional media. They use new channels and grow their audiences in a different way – but the business mechanics are the same. Their platforms (blogs, YouTube, Instagram) feed their audiences and please their advertisers. They want to talk about what’s going to keep their audience and paymasters happy.
  • Early adopters: are the people you call when you need to find out about something new. It’s my brother-in-law when my car’s broken or it’s a call from my mates over Easter looking for advice on roasting potatoes*. They’re Gladwell’s Mavens. They want to talk about their specialist knowledge and experience with the product in question.

Every step along this trail has the potential to directly or indirectly influence everyday consumers as they search for new things. They may interact with it in a linear way or jump around as their research progresses. It’s interesting to see the message chain they are exposed to and then how it translates or is replayed in their comments, reviews and ultimately, purchasing decisions.

The trail

This different content is being captured on social and digital channels. Opinions and experiences are flowing from actor to actor leaving a trail in the social data we can analyse and understand.

This is important.  When you follow this trail, you see how the communication flow between brands and consumers evolves along the way. It shows you what each group actually cares about enough to pass on to their audiences.

So what?

Here’s a snippet from some recent work which shows what we mean nicely. It’s from a project exploring influence in the beauty category.

The trail of influence

There are three layers:

  • Brands: when we looked at how the brands in our study talked about their product, they focused on the science bit (ingredients, research, big words) and the ambitious claims for the magic held within (life-changing results!).

“A bio-ingredient derived from yeast fermentation that resembles your skin’s Natural Moisturizing Factors. PITERA™ contains over 50 micro-nutrients like vitamins, minerals, amino acids and organic acids to condition skin’s natural functions.”

  • Media / Influencers: pick up on similar themes to the brands but add their own interpretation. They’re OK talking category terms about ingredients (they get the jargon), but their goal is to evaluate what brands ‘say’ vs. what products ‘do’. To compare, test effectiveness, assess value, and ultimately, have a position for or against. Interestingly, in the category we looked at (K-Beauty inspired sheet masks) they introduced a new topic, the importance of the practical comfort and fit of the mask. This was missed by brands but important to media/influencers.

“My final thoughts are: slightly weird, slightly creepy, slightly unusual and definitely slightly impressed. I wasn’t expecting my skin to look and feel so nicely plump and hydrated as it does”. My Pale Skin, YouTube, reviewing Dr.Jart+ sheet mask.

  • Early adopters: They care much less about what the brand is communicating. They’re also interested in the practicalities, but also the experience and the impact. They talk about how it makes them feel, the ritual of using it (beyond immediate efficacy) and their aspirations for the result. They want to know if it will help them live ‘their best life’. This is where the insight gold dust comes from – for product developers, innovation ideas, and comms teams on the Holy Grail of nailing authentic consumer connections.

“This is so cooling to the skin is love it! It slips around a little so I need to lay down and not move when I use this but so worth it. Kinda forces me to have a little me time. My skin is so glowy and hydrated after using this. One of the best sheet masks I’ve used so far” Consumer review


Seeing how different groups talk and assess products reveals what gains attention, ‘sticks’ and makes it through the filter. It shows what matters most and is significant enough (good or bad) to share and pass on the trail.

Brands can learn:

  • How to work with media/influencers and early adopting consumers – what makes them tick, what they’re interested in and what they need to provide for their audiences and sponsors.
  • They can improve how they talk to consumers in terms of:
    • What to say: what will catch their attention, resonate with their needs and inspire them? When to talk: how your product can be part of the experience sought, in the moments that matter,
    • How to say it: what language and imagery to use, how to set the scene to build desire and the opportunities for your branding to be a visible / verbal part of the stories they share.

And so much more…  these insights can help, among other things:

  • Innovation and NPD: understanding performance, frustrations and unmet needs.  
  • SEO strategy and tactics: who to target, what terms to use and what to lead them to.
  • Product naming and messaging: reflecting how people actually use, talk about and understand the product.

We help brands explore this Trail of Influence to understand people better. So that they can then design products, services and experiences that people actually care about.

Drop us a line if you’d like to know more.

* Roast potatoes: I like a fairly small chunk these days, they cook quicker. I tend to buy Rooster reds. Get the oven on if it’s not already (200C) and pop a tray in with a good glug of olive oil. While that’s heating up, peel, quarter then boil your potatoes for 4-5 mins – till you see the edges start to change colour. Drain and allow to steam dry in a colander. Give them a little shake to rough up the edges. Take the tray out, CAREFULLY add the potatoes to the hot oil (my arms have many hot fat scar marks…). Get them back in the oven – an hour should do the trick. Enjoy.

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