Influence Maps—The Best Marketing Framework You’ve Never Heard Of

When you find a tool that massively improves your work’s effectiveness and dramatically cuts down on poor decision-making, there are two natural responses:

  1. “This is amazing! It’s gonna save me so much heartache.”
  2. “WTF?! Why didn’t anyone tell me about this before?”

That’s exactly how I felt when I stumbled across the behavioral design field’s Influence Map Framework. In a single, visual structure, an influence map captures hypotheses — and, after iterative experiments, conclusions — that are core to every marketing strategy.

Example of an influence map for marketing strategy

Oddly, almost no marketer I’ve met has ever heard of them. And very few know whether anyone at a leadership level in their organization (or, in the case of agencies, those for whom they consult) has asked these crucial questions in any format. Not good, friends. This is how we make bad decisions. Heck, it’s how smart decisions don’t even get considered!

Behavioral Design and Marketing Strategy Should Intersect

Decades ago, the field of behavioral design embraced a simple idea: that people’s actions are driven by forces around them. Our environments, culture, media consumption, friend groups, families, personal lives, passions, hobbies, transportation options, finances—they modify how we behave in statistically measurable, and often, influenceable ways.

By understanding and leveraging these forces, organizations can shift those behaviors. Seems obvious, right? You learn about people’s relationship with a given activity, industry, interest, and then try to nudge change through the sources that influence those relationships. Marketing 101. No brainer.

But, weirdly, the marketing world has no adoption of this concept. As best I can tell, not a single marketing publication has written about extending influence frameworks or using the tool of influence maps into our world. Despite old-school, 1950s-style advertising strategy using very similar concepts, the digital marketing era has bizarrely ignored a simple truth:

Understand how people learn about and engage with your space and your marketing will be far more effective.

Behavioral design world thinks of it this way: all organizations need answers about how to change people’s minds on an issue, spark consideration of a new product, modify their behavior, or make them aware of new information. For example:

  • Say you’re trying to prevent forest fires in California. You might look at how campers, hikers, smokers, and residents of areas bordering high-risk forests get information about dangerous, fire-risk activities. Maybe campers and hikers all interact with a particular website, or have interactions with ranger station checkpoints? Perhaps there’s a popular private organization that takes people on excursions and could be a powerful voice for safe practices. It could be that messages about forest fire prevention don’t resonate as well as those that focus on the loss of wildlife or effects on climate change.

    Behavioral design would focus on where these fire-risk-creating populaces exist, what they interact with, and how to best nudge them about what not to do.
  • Imagine you’re working for IKEA, trying to improve consumers’ experience with building flat-pack furniture. How can you help make those anguish-laden moments less painful for buyers, and thus create better experiences and fewer returns? Well, IKEA shoppers often go to an IKEA, so maybe in-store displays of the trickiest “gotcha” bits of popular pieces could help. Maybe the checkout clerks could receive an on-screen message when they scan a particular item and give buyers a friendly, verbal reminder? Maybe the behavioral design process discovers that 80% of furniture builders search IKEA’s website when they encounter challenges.

    Behavioral design would prioritize the most impactful kinds of changes (packaging, illustrations, instructions, website searchability, store clerk tips, etc) with the content that makes the biggest difference.
  • Or maybe you’re working with NGOs to create a more direct connection between the many recent climate disasters and the concept of climate change, with the goal of increasing political support for carbon reduction. There’s likely a few regions and demographic groups in a handful of countries that may have the most malleable opinions and the biggest impacts on this thorny problem.

    Behavioral design would suggest you identify the lowest-hanging fruit, find the messages that work to create the mental connection you’re seeking (connecting a long-standing drought, a deadly local flood, or horrific heat waves to the broader issue of climate change), and amplify them in the places where your climate-skeptical audience is most likely to be receptive.

If all of these sound like “marketing,” you’re right! It’s the strategic, big-picture side of marketing instead of the tactical, ad-optimizing, keyword-researching, content-producing side. That said, I have empathy for why a psychologist, UX designer, or ethicist might prefer calling their work “behavioral design,” vs. “marketing.” The former sounds like it’s going to cost a bundle more, not to mention more lexically prestigious.

How Do We Answer Strategic Marketing Questions?

For those of us in the marketing world, influence frameworks should center around our own “jobs to be done,” i.e. the work that we’ll do better once we have answers to essential, strategic questions.

Questions like:

  1. How do people get exposed to your company’s industry/niche/problem/space?
    Is it through their job? Leisure activities? Needs at home? Interest in a particular topic?
  2. How does a person discover they have the problem your product/service solves?
    Does a particular event occur? Do they learn about it through media? Friends and family? Professional colleagues? It could even be a biological need or a cultural norm that nudges discovery.
  3. How do people learn about new products in this field that solve this problem?
    Once they have the problem, how does this audience research solutions? Do they use social media? Search engines? Tap their network? Seek out experts? Subscribe to newsletters, podcasts, YouTube channels?
  4. What (relevant) sources does your audience pay attention to?
    In each of the various channels (e.g. Google, Instagram, review sites, webinars) there’s almost always a number of specific sources that earn audiences and nudge behavior (e.g. specific search keywords, particular accounts on Instagram,
  5. What is the consideration process for would-be buyers?
    I.E. How do they determine which products/services to purchase? What criteria or analyses do they do?

What we can all agree on is the importance of those answers. Without knowledge of how potential buyers learn about your sector, data on which channels they use at different parts of their journey, and insights into which channels and sources influence their decisions, marketers are sunk. We literally cannot do our jobs.

Disturbingly, today, most of the way we answer these questions is:

  • Guesswork (we use our best guess about how people might start learning about lawn care, accounting software, 3d laser printing, or whatever our employer/client sells)
  • Following a pre-existing roadmap (pattern-matching the same strategies that previous marketers already have, and simply optimizing the tactics)
  • Letting Google, Facebook, and Amazon sort it out (we use their ad tools to do some targeting, and assume these monopolies will figure out where to show our ads)

But, we don’t have to fall into these historic pits of poor decision-making.

Just as a structured communication process can elevate our conversations, or a to-do list methodology helps make us more productive, so too can great marketing frameworks help us make better strategic decisions. Where to experiment, how to impact the right parts of the buyer journey, what messages to convey—Influence Maps can help with all of these.

What’s an Influence Map?

Influence maps are visual frameworks that try to answer core questions about what people’s behaviors are and how they can be influenced. In simple terms: a high-level way to illustrate how and where marketers should do their jobs. It’s where behavioral design and marketing (should) intersect.

Maybe the best way to explain is with examples.

Personal Finance – say you’re helping a new financial planning tool to determine where and how to capture an audience that might someday use its product. You could start buying Google Ads for terms like “investment,” and “saving for retirement.” But you’re smarter than that. You’d do your keyword research, find search phrases that are likely to match the audience you’re after, seek out less expensive terms with fewer competitors.

An influence map is just like that, only at a much more strategic level. Instead of asking “which keywords should I bid on?” you’re asking “where and how should we do marketing? And to whom?”

Those questions and the influence map framework might lead you to something like this:

Note: I don’t know the personal finance space intimately, and these are merely examples (almost certainly wrong ones). They’re meant to be illustrative of the information you’d learn in a real research process, through surveys, interviews, and yes, using audience research tools like SparkToro, too.

Now, if the personal finance tool’s problem is with brand awareness, you can invest in channels that have an impact on the audience in that stage. If your tool already has brand awareness, it could be that you’re not capturing enough attention or positive brand sentiment in the further education stage. If you’re placing articles on Forbes when you should be investing in NerdWallet or with influential accounts on Twitter, the influence map framework can reveal these mismatches.

The idea is straightforward: know the buyer journey and you can invest in the right places, through the right channels, and with the right sources of influence to have the desired impact.

Ad Agency Selection – let’s move to a B2B service example, specifically: a mid-size brand choosing its first ad agency. Once again, you could start in the weeds, with specific tactics like building thought leadership on your blog or landing talks at advertising conferences. But even though those things might work, it’s wise to step back and think strategically.

I know the ad agency space a little better than I do the personal finance sector, and while the (overly simplistic) boxes I’ve filled in aren’t comprehensive, I did cheat a little and use SparkToro to help uncover these.

Now, if you’re a big five ad agency looking to convince more brands that they should invest in outsourcing the process, you know who to influence, where, and when. Likewise, if you’re an agency targeting the solution-seeking side of the puzzle, you can put your efforts in the right places, too.

How Do I Get The Data?

To start, I’m suggesting you fill these in based exclusively on your gut-feel guesses. Totally unscientific? Yes. But you need a starting point, and even just thinking through a buyer’s journey in this way will likely expand your thinking and have you considering better ways to market.

Next, add these three sources of data (whichever ones you have available, and hopefully all three):

  1. Customer interviews – conversations (ideally structured, but informal is fine, too) with folks in your target audience. These could be actual customers who’ve already bought from you, but ideally includes potential customers who haven’t yet, and even some folks who might never be customers, but share many traits with them.
  2. Surveys – like customer interviews, there’s the polished, statistically-rigorous, many-thousand-person panel with professionally written questions, randomized ordering of answers, time series variations, etc. and then there’s how most of us do it: imperfectly, but good enough. In most cases, anything that’s reasonably well-designed is better than nothing, and surveys (so long as you capture folks in all segments of the journey) can often give you a sense of the biggest channels and sources of influence for a group. Just don’t assume you’ve got knowledge on people at the start of the journey if your survey panel only includes folks who’ve already signed up for your email newsletter 😉
  3. Passively collected social/web data – in a perfect, creepy world, several hundred people at each stage of the buyer journey would hand you their phones, give you their unlock codes, and let you record everything they’ve searched-for, every website they’ve visited, their podcast app listening history, their YouTube subscriptions, their social feeds… Yeah, not gonna happen.

    The next best thing is to take a sample of your audience who make their social and web profiles public (on networks like Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Reddit, etc) and record what you can, anonymize, aggregate, and see where the stats fall. This is the type of audience research SparkToro and products like it (Helixa and Audiense are the most direct options I’ve found) offer, and in combination with surveys and interviews, can beautifully flesh out Influence Maps.

Will these three perfectly provide numerically unassailable answers to the questions on an influence map? No.

Will they dramatically improve the rough draft based on assumptions you started with? Massively.

Are they the best combination we’ve got in a privacy-protecting world? Yup.

Influence maps aren’t just about targeting optimal sources of influence, picking the right Google keywords, or investing in phase-of-journey-appropriate channels. They’re about bringing the scientific method to your strategy, not just your tactics.

With influence maps, you form hypotheses about audience behavior. You design experiments to validate them. You learn. And you improve.

Maybe, after a few months of investment in the “further education” step of the journey, you discover the real problem is higher up, and you need to focus on raw brand awareness. Or perhaps you’re in an industry with long consideration cycles , and there are more granular steps you need to include in your models, hypothesize, experiment, and invest-in.

That’s why this framework is so valuable—it’s flexible. It can scale equally well to the simplest buyer journey and the most complex one.

When startups I advise, or people and brands reach out for marketing help, this framework’s invaluable to my thinking and process. Even better, it’s easily digestible and shockingly un-controversial. Folks I share this with say, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.”

Try it for your organization, your clients, your projects. Let me know how it goes. I think those behavioral design folks are on to something. As Amanda so wisely asked:

p.s. The team at Whimsical has created a fillable template for influence maps that anyone can use here.