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Why Using Influencers Could Enhance Your Company Safety Culture

You probably don’t follow Lady Gaga on Twitter, but you can probably guess that she has millions of followers. What’s surprising, perhaps, is how many people hang on the word of seemingly average folks.

Eva Gutowski, for example, seems like any other millennial who likes to make videos about beauty and fashion—until you learn she’s amassed almost nine million subscribers to her YouTube channel and has five million Instagram followers. So popular is she with her followers that she landed a deal with Proactiv and became the face of Wallflower Jeans.

Brands are falling over themselves to enlist these so-called “influencers.” Many of these “average folks,” primarily young people, are earning six figures to talk about video games or gadgets they think are cool. According to analysts, influencer marketing is rapidly replacing traditional advertising in social media.

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The connection isn’t obvious, but this strategy might be useful for LP practitioners who want to encourage staff to adopt a new company safety culture or embrace new retail security procedures. The idea behind influencer marketing is to focus marketing to specific key individuals, or types of individuals, rather than target the market as a whole.

There is actually evidence this might work in the security and surveillance realm. The experiment, which appeared in the January 2016 proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, involved the use of a “seed group” of 25 or so kids at 56 different schools to become the face against bullying. Among their activities, seed students created hashtag slogans against bullying, created online and physical posters, and distributed wristbands to reward students they observed engaging in friendly or conflict-mitigating behaviors.

It worked, said researchers. Compared with control schools, disciplinary reports of student conflict at treatment schools were reduced by a whopping 30 percent over one year. Moreover, it was determined that “social referent seeds”—cool kids who attract more student attention and have lots of social connections—“were the most effective at influencing social norms and behavior.” In short, getting a few key cool kids to speak out against bullying helped turned entire schools against it.

Elizabeth Levy Paluck, a Princeton professor and one of the study’s authors, says that proves that blanketing an entire population with a message isn’t always necessary. “You can target specific people in a savvy way in order to spread the message. These people—the social referents you should target—get noticed more by their peers. Their behavior serves as a signal to what is normal and desirable.”

How to Apply This Trick to Your Company Safety Culture

Maybe LP practitioners can do the same. Identify key individuals who seem to have the ear of the workforce, enlist them to promote security monitoring or model key behaviors, and then watch the security and company safety culture flourish. It’s not quite that easy, of course, but peer pressure can be a valuable part of an awareness effort. This is especially true when people are uncertain about exactly how to act. In these cases, people are far more likely to look for “social proof” of the correct behavior.

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Influencers might be a powerful tool for enhancing organizational data protection, according to SANS Institute research, Using Influence Strategies to Improve Security Awareness Programs. “Concentrating on those with the most power to sway the crowd’s mindset, the “influence leaders”, will allow the message to move quickly through the organization,” according to the study. “It is extremely advantageous to get the support of these influence leaders for a security awareness program, and even better for security professionals to become influence leaders themselves.”

So how do you identify key “seed people”? How do you know if someone would be good to carry the security banner for your company safety culture and programs? How can you be better at carrying it yourself?

Research shows that the best influencers are people who are socially connected, persuasive, smart, and open to new ideas. They typically derive their power to influence from the following:

  • They are perceived as competent and have a communication style that demonstrates confidence. Indeed, when it comes to being able to persuade others, being perceived as competent may be more important than actual capability, studies show.
  • They are trusted. If an individual’s motives are questioned, they will not be able to influence others.
  • They are generous, liked, and well connected. Being likable is key to being able to inspire others. Key factors in making someone likable include frequent exposure, interaction, and cooperation. Human beings are also hard wired for reciprocation, so a reservoir of goodwill is helpful.
  • They speak their minds and are willing to acknowledge and address (in this case, retail security) problems. When employees are not able to talk about the real problems they face and the real reasons behind them, they will not be susceptible to influence, notes the SANS study. “Influence leaders can help to create the environment where people give positive feedback about the right behaviors and confront the negative behaviors, by skillfully voicing the issues they have noticed themselves.”

This post was originally published in 2017 and was updated July 30, 2018.

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