How to Influence Public Perception: A Blueprint

 Professor Antonio Damasio has revealed much about the role of emotion in decision making. Photo from Wikipedia.

Professor Antonio Damasio has revealed much about the role of emotion in decision making. Photo from Wikipedia.

The perception of your business or even industry is the primary mechanism that drives potential customers to make decisions. We like to imagine that we are totally rationale beings, but the truth is that most of our decisions are actually based on emotions, and these emotions come from our perceptions of reality.

Understanding and influencing these perceptions of the people who might buy your product or service has been at the core of marketing for as long as marketing has existed. Many of us forget this while wading through the deluge of marketing/advertising tools that are constantly cropping up. It is easier than ever to get lost in the weeds. 

Whether you are a hotel trying to book more room nights or a company trying to sell more widgets, the first thing you need is a positive perception of your product or company. If you are a hotel in Hawaii, you primarily depend on the positive perception of Hawaii to generate demand for hotels in Hawaii. You can create micro-influences on existing demand by offering deals or special events, but these are short term benefits that may or may not drive long term gains. If nobody is interested in going to Hawaii, then it doesn’t matter if you have a better deal than your competitor down the street.

 Yeah...this is a pretty easy sell...

Yeah...this is a pretty easy sell...

In order to ensure long term success, you must focus on long term perception of the public. You may think, “Well, that’s easy for the hotels in Hawaii because they are in paradise!” But people forget that it is all branding. We have been influenced to believe that we all want to go to a tropical paradise to get away. Take, for example, Oregon’s recent success. Home of hippies and granola fanatics. They are in their seventh consecutive year of tourism growth hitting a record of $11.3 billion in 2016 due in large part to their branding efforts. Their video series has taken off like wildfire and has redefined, in many respects, what people are looking for from a vacation. It isn’t just sitting on a beach; it is going on adventures. While this example is at a state level, it applies to any level, even as granular as a neighborhood. It can also be applied to any industry including B2B industries.

Keep in mind that ‘public’ doesn’t have to mean the entire world or country. You can narrow your definition of public to a specific niche. To continue the Hawaii example, you probably only care about people who can travel to Hawaii so your definition of ‘public’ are people in the top 10% of household incomes in northern cities with less sunshine and easy flights to Hawaii. If you are selling granola in Portland, you are focused on a different demographic. There are always exceptions to any rule, but based on the 80/20 rule, you can secure the majority of the benefits by investing in this group of people.

Understanding & Monitoring Your Niche

The first thing that you need to do to properly influence public opinion is to understand what the opinion is currently of your topic. It is far easier to do that nowadays than it used to be when you would have to conduct expensive polls and focus groups which were unreliable at best. The first modern method of understanding and monitoring opinion is to do sentiment analysis on social media posts. Using platforms like Hootsuite, Twitter Advanced Search, Semantria and many others, you can very quickly understand how people feel about certain topics. Looking for positive/negative words you use with your key topics, or even emoticons, can give deep insights into what your potential customers are thinking. If you narrow your analysis to a core list of influencers, hashtags and publications, you can get a very clear view of how people are feeling with less noise.

Another great method to further clarify the current perception of your topic is to use keyword search data trends from Google to see how sentiment is changing. For example, if you see a YoY increase in volume for the search term “alternatives to X” with X being your product/destination/company then you can clearly see a need that is growing in consumers. You can also narrow geographically where these changes are happening. 

 Search volume for "oregon travel" over the last 5 years. You can clearly see when they released their major branding pushes.

Search volume for "oregon travel" over the last 5 years. You can clearly see when they released their major branding pushes.

Next, use a tool like BuzzSumo to understand what types of articles are being shared about your topics. Feed the titles and even the content into the sentiment analysis tools to understand how people are talking about the topic. You can use this to better identify what publications are actually influencing public opinion. No matter what industry you are in and no matter how democratized the social networks make it, influence is almost always concentrated in a small percentage of the participants. If you can identify who that small percentage is and focus your campaign on changing their perception versus the entire niche, you will save in spades. 

 Screenshot of Buzzsumo search for "oregon wonder" in the past year with number of Facebook shares. Notice the amount of headlines using the term 'wonder' after a few years of pushing that in their branding campaign. 

Screenshot of Buzzsumo search for "oregon wonder" in the past year with number of Facebook shares. Notice the amount of headlines using the term 'wonder' after a few years of pushing that in their branding campaign. 

Influencing Perceptions

Now that you know where you stand and whose perception you must change, you must set about creating the change. The first and most important thing you must do is create a message that has resonance and stickiness. How to write incredible copy is far too deep of a topic to get into here. A good copy writer is essential for this and I recommend doing small tests of variations using paid ads to A/B test response rates before committing to any single one.

Once you have your core message in hand, you must seed this to the influencers. If you can influence the influencers, they will disseminate the message further and wider. If you don’t have the relationships to accomplish this, the next best thing is to use the credibility of others to send your message. The least expensive way of doing this is through guest posting on prominent publications. Many people in industries like SEO do not promote this method any more because of changes in Google’s algorithm but this is still, by far, the most powerful way to quickly influence an audience and gain credibility.

Another option which requires a bit more time investment and a special talent is to give talks at conferences. This is one of the surest ways to instantly gain an audience that is all ears. No matter what method you use, the key is to put your message out in as many different credible places as possible in a short amount of time. The window of time depends on how established your industry is, how saturated, etc. Whether your window is a few days, months, or even years in some cases, you are accomplishing the same goal.

Once you have begun planting the seeds of your message, you must achieve a critical mass for it to take root. You must get a high enough percentage of people talking about your message that your target audience sees that same message in multiple places. Think of this as starting up a fly wheel. It is very hard to get it to start turning but once it gets going, it is very easy to maintain its velocity. This is why you need to place your message in so many different places. To add extra fuel to the fire, you can use paid ad channels such as YouTube, Search, Social and Display Networks. All of these channels allow you to dial in your targeting to your core niche, so you are efficiently spending your budget and accelerating the adoption of your message. The stickier your core message is, the easier all of this will be. That is why it is so important to use a good copy writer and spend a good amount of time in that phase. 

Reap the Rewards

If the whole process went well, your business can experience unprecedented growth. This change in perception can create more demand for what your business offers, create more trust in the consumer and therefore make sales far easier. Not to mention all the secondary benefits of this process such as gaining links to your website, generating branded search, and building new relationships.

In many cases, these tactics may help your competitors as well because, in essence, you are increasing the size of the pond that you are all fishing in. But the key difference is that you are in control of the message and can use that to benefit you the most. You will be the one at the center of the web of influences. Any competitors that want to take advantage of that will have to pay a greater amount to siphon off of the network that you have built to point at your business. So at the end of the day, this isn’t a concern.

As long as you are focusing on building positive perceptions that your consumers actually want, it is hard to find a more powerful marketing strategy.