Measuring influence

Steve Rubel declares dead the idea that blog links as a measure of authority. Steve likes declaring things dead; he’s kind of the grim reaper of measurements. He declared the pageview dead and now it is. This time, Steve’s point is that people do so much more than blog and so he wants to measure across those activities.

His colleague David Brain then takes up the challenge and tries to come up with a new measurement taking into account weighted activity and popularity on blogs, Twitter and company, Facebook, Del.icio.us and company, and more.

I’m all for coming up with new things to measure and new ways to measure them – things that start to capture the real value of the social-content sphere.

But I think that Steve gives an example that shows how tough it is to measure influence by the numbers. He points to Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle watching a conversation on Facebook between Steve and Robert Scoble and quoting that in print, thus multiplying their influence even if the source came in a closed and ultimately, for each participant, small medium. And here’s the problem:

It’s not how many people you interact with. It’s who you interact with.

In this case, old media still has higher influence value; Rubel and Scoble influence more because they influence Silverman and Silverman watches them because they’re Rubel and Scoble. Just counting each as a person, a linker, an influencer misses the multiplying factor of standing influence and also, importantly, the qualitative impact of who’s saying what about what.

Of course, one-size-fits-all measurement is in the end meaningless. If you’re trying to influence knitters, Scobel and Rubel are not in the least influential; you want the most influential knitter, whether they click their needles in blogs or Twitter or Facebook or on video or now Pownce or whatever.

And I think there are different kinds of influence: those who start memes and those who recognize memes just as they hit critical mass and those who spread memes (not to mention those who declare them dead).

So this is more difficult to measure than merely adding up links or traffic but ultimately much richer. It has to become qualitative: ‘This person in this area had this impact on this meme (or story or discussion or idea).’

How is that done? I haven’t the faintest. I think it involves visualizing the links among people and overlaying what happens to the ideas they write about. I think we need to measure the impact people have on memes to measure the impact they have on each other. And we need to have some sense of speed and weight. It’s 3-D and, worse, needs to measure speed and time. Good luck.

: LATER: And just as I published that, I read a post by Steve Peterson of the Bivings Report about just this: trying to measure influence in a given topic about a given subject. His example is Dell Hell:

However, not all voices are equal in their importance to a company. Concerning this fact, one of issues I’ve grappled with is how to weigh general influence and influence within a specific topic.

For instance, using Dell as an example, most of the A-list bloggers very rarely discuss the company and its products directly. Granted, top blogs like Engadget and Techcrunch should interest Dell since they focus on technology, but what about other blogs like Boing Boing and The Huffington Post?

I use Dell as an example since the company has had to deal with a top blog that doesn’t focus on its arena. Remember Dell Hell?

Although Jeff Jarvis and his BuzzMachine blog are prominent, they focus on media, not technology. Thus, they typically shouldn’t worry Dell, but when Jarvis blogged about his “Dell Hell,” the rules changed. In fact, sometimes when bloggers (especially an A-lister) complain about a company and its products, word can spread fast. Sometimes even the mainstream media picks up on such rants.

Measurement is tough in situations like Dell Hell. Does Dell need to devote resources to scrupulously follow BuzzMachine? No, since Jarvis mainly blogs about media and not computer hardware and software. However, Jarvis was worth Dell’s attention for a while.

This also says that spheres of influence are far from fixed. With the cumulative speed of links, one can spread or influence and idea to new people and people can coalesce around that idea (more than that person).

How can a company determine which bloggers who don’t focus on the company and its field require their attention? Then, when should they start and stop monitoring such blogs?

  • http://blogs.chron.com/techblog Dwight Silverman

    Jeff:

    I didn’t write about this in print. In his post, Rubel says I “took it all in,” linking to a Twitter update in relation to the exchange with Scoble. That’s all I’ve done so far — a “tweet”.

    Now, there’s a slim chance I’d write about this in print, but it more likely would go into my blog, where I deal more often with this kind of topic.

    Interestingly, my print column has a completely different audience than my blog. There doesn’t seem to be much crossover. My print readers are older, as you’d expect, and their origins of interest are different.

    Some print readers are computer novices, or are those who strictly see technology as a tool and don’t want to immerse themselves in it. I also have lots of technically oriented print readers, but they are what I call “practical technicals” — they work in the IT shops and engineering pools of Houston’s businesses, many of them energy-related. My blog readers are younger and more apt to be avid early adopters and fans of geek culture.

    So my influence is spread between two types of readers, I think, in two different media. If I write about Scoble and Rubel in print, I have to explain who they are. I don’t have to do so in my blog. This amplifies my influence into multiple spheres, but you could also argue that it diffuses it.

    What’s badly needed is some killer app that aggregates everything you say and do online — a kind of You Central. There are some startups trying to do that — Houston’s own Natuba.com is one — but I think a real solution will come from some company with a large reach and the technology to make it easy to use and ubiquitous. Facebook tries to do this, but as Rubel says, it’s largely a walled garden, a la the old AOL. I think Google could easily do it, using Google Reader as the underlying architecture, or Yahoo or Microsoft, maybe even Apple.

    Once we have a way to corral everything creators generate online, we can really begin to measure influence. Until then, it’ll be all guessing games and intuition.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . .

  • http://www.thepomoblog.com Terry Heaton

    I believe Technorati, for example, could do just what you’re seeking Jeff. Not all links are equal, but Technorati can “weight” links based upon the ranking of the link and thereby provide a quality statistic.

    It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.

    Measuring social activity is also possible but, I think, downstream a bit.

  • ged

    “Steve likes declaring things dead”

    Funny, I thought that was your job.

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  • http://verabass.blogspot.com Vera

    Setting aside the more general divisions between the most and less widely read bloggers, influence waxes and wanes. Social circles widen and shrink, and activity within them flares when something hot hits. I don’t believe that chart style compilations of ‘facts’ such as Steve’s company is using will ever quite represent an accurate image. At least not until activity can be represented as an organic moving thing in a dynamic network visualization.

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  • http://sophistpundit.blogspot.com Adam

    I don’t think that you can measure influence. What I think you can get a better sense of is how much attention a particular source is drawing.

    When we use GDP statistics to get a sense of how the economy is doing, we know that we’re not getting anywhere near the whole picture. Services are undercounted, luxuries such as leisure time are left out entirely, etc, etc. But GDP is still a valuable tool, and its value is increased as it is added to other statistics.

    Likewise, pageviews never died. They simply were supplemented by links. Now, things like feed subscriptions and social bookmarking sites are also available to help us get a sense of what sources are getting the most attention. This presents no new challenge–on the contrary, I think it makes the task of producing more accurate measurements much easier than it might otherwise have been.

    You will never get more than an approximation–but one ought not underestimate the value of increasingly accurate approximations.

  • http://woip.blogspot.com Patrizia Broghammer

    People tend to associate quantity with value.
    Which in one sense is true.
    If value is revenue, then quantity is value.
    And in this mainly superficial society in which 90% of readers are the ones who hear without listening, who want to be amused more than being interested, who understand life as an entertaining trip more than a hard walk, yes, value is price.
    And it is right, it is worth monitoring and reading the high number visitors’ blog. And quality links are worth as long as they provide quantity.(of readers)
    Patrizia

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  • http://net-savvy.com/executive/ Nathan Gilliatt

    How can a company determine which bloggers who don’t focus on the company and its field require their attention?

    I’ve done some research into companies that monitor and measure social media, including influence analysis. They usually consider factors like links (number and quality), volume of posts on the topic, and traffic (when possible). Some also pay attention to interactions between social media and traditional media, so the blogger who’s quoted in te newspaper would get credit in the analysis.

    A sudden increase in links correlated a keyword match (company name, brand, etc.) can indicate that it’s time to pay attention. The transition can be very quick, too. All it takes is one good post and the right Digg headline:
    http://net-savvy.com/executive/reputation/lessons-from-walmarts-latest.html

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