The hunt for the elusive influencer

Maybe there is no such thing as an influencer.

We keep hunting the elusive influencer because marketing people, especially, but also politicians (marketers in bad suits) and media people (marketers in denial) think that if they can find and convince or brainwash that one influencer, he or she will spread their word like Jesus and their work will be done. But I think this quest is starting to look like a snipe hunt.

At this week’s very good Brite marketing conference at Columbia, Duncan Watts, Yahoo research scientist, presented interesting work trying to track down the influence of influencers via Twitter, with help from the data Bit.ly provides about links. He asked — hypothetically, thank God — whether it would be worth it to pay Kim Kardashian $10k for a tweet to her alleged 3.27 million followers. He found that targeting instead lots of people who have far fewer followers would yield “much, much higher ROI.”

What that says to me — ironically — is that trying to find the big influencer with big audience is really just old mass marketing in a cheap dress. Old mass marketing (go with the largest numbers … and breasts) isn’t economical; neither, it turns out, is marketing to just one or a few powerful people — the mythical influencer. That brings us to a new hybrid to mass marketing, which is what I think Watts is suggesting: Target many people who at least have some friends who’ll hear them. (Disclosure: This was a key insight in the development of the company 33Across that made me invest in it.)

Or to put this question in the current argot: Is there more influence in the tail than in the head? If you talk to 100k people who talk to 10 people each, do you get more bang than talking to one person who has 1m followers? (Watts did also say that a combination of mass and tail marketing is effective.)

In his talk, Watts referenced me and Dell Hell as an illustration of influence. But I protested. I’m no influencer, I said. When I wrote about Dell, I had no juice in the tech/gadget world; still don’t. I then pointed to the amazing Dave Carroll, he of the “United Breaks Guitars” viral phenom, who’d spoken earlier, and said he was no influencer in airline travel or customer service. What was influential in both cases was not the messenger but the message.

But if it’s the message that is, indeed, the key to influence then there’s really no way to predict and thus measure and replicate its power; messages spread on merit. That is a frightening idea for marketers because the viral influencer in social media — pick your buzzword — is their messiah for the digital age, the key to escaping the cost and inefficiency of mass media (and the cost and apparent tedium of real relationships with us as individuals). If you can’t bottle influence, you can’t sell it.

Now it’s true, of course, that the most magnificent message ever won’t spread if no one hears it, if a person with zero followers on Twitter says it. (Tree, forrest, etc.) But a banal message in Miss Kardashian’s Twitter feed — I know, it’d never happen — will go thud and die no matter how many people she speaks to if no one cares about it. Some people need to gather around the speaker for what she says to be heard. But more people doesn’t equal more influence. And this doesn’t make that speaker an influencer. The speaker is merely a node in a network.

So the message spreads not because of who spoke it but because the message is worth spreading. What makes us spread it? First, again, we spread it if it resonates and it is relevance; it has value to us and we think it will have value to others. Second, trust or authority is a factor. If I see Clay Shirky or Jay Rosen or Kevin Marks tell me to click on a link I’m more likely to do so because I respect them and trust their judgment and I’ve found in the past that clicking on their links tends to be worth the effort. They give me ROC (return on click). But if I followed Miss Kardashian (I don’t) and she told me to click on a link, I’d be less likely to, both because I don’t put her in the same intellectual corral as my other friends and have no relationship with her and because I have seen that clicking on her links gives me lousy ROC. Is trust or authority or experience influence? In a small circle of actual friends, I don’t think so. And in any case, having only a small circle of friends isn’t the one-stop-shopping influence marketers are seeking.

So abandon the hunt, marketers. You’re not going to bag the influencer. She doesn’t exist (well, one did but she quit her TV show).

What does this mean then for marketers in social media? I think it means they need to reread The Cluetrain Manifesto (out in a 10th anniversary edition) and recognize that messages and influence aren’t the future of marketing; conversations and relationships are. No getting around it. No shortcuts.

Think about it: I don’t want someone to influence me. I don’t want to be influenced. The whole idea of looking for influencers is so old marketing: spewing messages to people who didn’t ask for them. So looking for influencers only perpetuates the mistakes of marketing past. Stop.

: MORE: Brite organizer David Rogers wrote about influencers and Watts earlier.

  • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary Arndt

    The problem is transaction cost.

    Finding and contacting 100,000 people is difficult and costly to do. Moreover, how do you contact those 100,000 people? That in itself would be a type of advertising.

    This is why newspapers and television are still getting a disproportionate amount of advertising compared to the web. It is easier to sell one Super Bowl ad that reaches 50,000,000 people that it is to sell 500 ads that reach 100,000 people.

    While there might be a bigger ROI on finding smaller people on Twitter, Kim Kardashian is easy to identify and there is only one party to negotiate with. If you factor in the cost of identifying 1,000 tweets for $10, the ROI might change.

    • http://www.jeremymeyers.com/ Jeremy Meyers

      I think ‘finding’ is the trouble here. When one is communicating well, providing value, and has a good product, your people will find you. When you nurture the relationships with the 500 people (to pull a number out of the air) that find you, then THEY share with their networks, and so on and so on… thats how you get to 100,000.

      We weren’t ever able to get to 100,000 interested people, we just thought we were.

  • http://disqus.com/ro Ro Gupta

    Why wouldn’t trust or authority or experience be direct factors in determining influence, regardless of size of group? Certainly are for me.

    Agree with a lot of points D. Watts makes, but using Kim Kardashian as a case study doesn’t seem that convincing — I don’t think she has any of the above, even within her core fan base.

  • http://twitter.com/mrinaldesai mrinal

    Oh no – relationships? commitment? Can I not just leave an (asynch comment here and be ‘friends’?
    Really enjoyed this piece. But what do you do – its easier to have a cat (low maintenance, asynch) as a pet than a dog (high commitment, investment, synch).

  • http://www.netbooknews.com Sascha Pallenberg

    “messages and influence aren’t the future of marketing; conversations and relationships are. ”

    i couldn’t agree more.

    great article, thank you!

    • cm

      Surely messages and influence are still the role of marketing. You’re trying to explain the products and get them to buy.

      All that might have changed is **how** you go about doing that. Historical communications, apart from word of mouth, have been limited to broadcast of a single message through large one-way broadcast channels.

      Now there are more channels and many of those are not one-way and allow. You can tailor your messages to have better personal impact.

      You’re just using different mechanisms to try to get your messages across and influence buyers.

  • http://twitter.com/hornokplease Richard

    Thanks for this analysis, I think you are really on point for the most part. The one area where I see a bit of wiggle room is when you talk about trust and authority, and how they impact the likelihood that you will click a link.
    As another commenter has pointed out, trust and authority seem to contribute towards influence. I think you sidestepped this subject a bit in the post and would be very curious to hear any further thoughts you might have about WHY trust, authority and experience are not the same as influence.
    Cheers!

  • http://www.laurenkates.com Lauren Kates

    I agree that there are more factors to influence than size of the group, but what good is trust or authority if it has no reach? It’s easier to get reach once you’ve got trust or authority, but it’s the reach that attracts the marketers.

    Honestly, the entire idea of “influencers” has gotten under my skin every time someone has questioned me on it, and I’ve only just figured out why. We know that the true value of social media comes from the idea that almost anyone can be an influencer to someone else. It’s the spread of good information that is valuable. Seeking out the influencers seems like a way to turn social media into outbound marketing… yet another avenue to push your message through that people, if they figure out what is going on, will simply find a way to avoid.

  • http://wyman.us Bob Wyman

    It’s not that influencers don’t exist, but, perhaps that people are looking for them in the wrong contexts.

    The search for “influencers” in computer system marketing really began in earnest in the 80′s as computer technology began to move out of the backroom and onto desktops in the form of office automation applications. At that time, the problem we had was figuring out how to get new ideas and methods to spread through companies in such a way that more people would be motivated to use the computer systems (email, word processing, database, presentation tools) without our having to market to everyone in those companies. We had a “social adoption” problem as much as we had one of building technical solutions to problems.

    Thus, we would seek “influencers” in organizations who we could convince to do things like send what would be considered “valuable” emails, whose willingness to use keyboards would establish that you could be macho and type at the same time, or who would make presentations whose style others would want to emulate. We also focused heavily on concepts like “train the trainers” and finding “internal champions” which are very related to the “influencer” idea. Within the closed communities of departments and/or enterprises, these ideas worked very well indeed. However, I’ve always been skeptical about applying them to the more general world of communities of interest in society at large.

  • http://www.byjoeybaker.com Joey Baker

    I think we can all agree that chasing follower counts isn’t an effective way to influence a network. Now that analytics are more plentiful and reliable, it’s obvious that taking the shotgun approach – trying to reach as many people as possible via mass marketing – is asinine.

    However, I do believe that there are still such things as influencers, and I do think it is possible to determine who they are. The issue, is that every person has different influencers. Klout tells me that @jeffjarvis influences me :)

    Klout is of course right, and speaks to the point about ROC. I believe, that this is where your conclusion Mr. Jarvis, goes awry.

    I do want people to influence me. I rely on people influencing me. If I didn’t know who to trust or who to follow on Twitter (since that’s the medium addressed), it would be worthless to me. Imagine being forced to use Twitter’s firehose instead of your personalized stream.

    Put another way: influencers are curators. We all rely on curation to find the signal.

    If services like klout can automatically determine who influences who, the commercial opportunities are re-opened. It’s not practical to market through one main stream, but it is possible to market through many powerful ones. As you say Mr. Jarvis, the ROI for that approach isn’t there – but it’s coming, and I look forward to it.

    I want my influencers telling me about products/services they’d recommend. For example, I eat up posts on usethis.com because the recommendations are personal. The recommendation doesn’t come in the form of a traditional advertisement, or involve paying the spokesman. But, hey – that’s fine by me. The mass market may be dead, but that doesn’t mean that marketing can’t be effective.

  • http://iamdavebowers.com Dave Bowers

    I believe that many companies preach that conversations are the future, but seriously look at Twitter and how many people are really communicating? I mean REALLY communicating It’s broadcast broadcast broadcast. Engagement just doesn’t scale. I believe Gary the first poster nailed it. Should my company have a thousand marketers that could work all day on targeting key influencer’s, fine. But there’s 3 of us.

    Yes you should use Twitter as a market research and customer service tool, but that’s not the same as speaking in true conversations with a large user base.

  • http://brianfrank.ca/ Brian Frank

    Dave Carroll’s story makes me wonder if we should talk about everyone’s inevitable “15 minutes of influence” instead of “15 minutes of fame.”

    • Milton Pincus

      The bigger question may be: “How does ’15 minutes of fame’ turn into an hour/day/season of of influence”? Influence is a multiple of something — fame, credibility, authority. The ratio is not 1:1.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Regarding “But I protested. I’m no influencer, I said. When I wrote about Dell, I had no juice in the tech/gadget world; still don’t.” – you’re too modest there. You have substantial juice in the media/web-journalism world, and so you were able to make it an issue in a way someone without such influence would not.

    “Influence” is a complex concept, like “power” or “fame”. But it doesn’t follow that there’s no such thing, because the concept is complicated and extremely simplistic models can be knocked down easily. Many rich would-be politicians have discovered it’s possible to waste a huge amount of money trying and failing to get elected to office, but that doesn’t refute the idea that raising money has a big effect on who gets elected to office.

    I mean, if one starts out with an implicit model that’s roughly, all influencers affect all topics in direct proportion to a simple numerical count, it’s not surprising that’s incorrect. That there’s vast, immense, exponential inequality in (topic-specific) influence – overall, this has been well-supported by much research on the subject.

  • http://spotinfluence.com Dave Angulo

    I find it interesting that people are taking reactionary interactions and trying to apply the same principles to all interactions. The cases you cited are about the message probably because the contents were appalling and involved familiar brands. They either started with someone who had a substantial following or were repeated by one. My point being, these are anomalies, not norms, and they involved consumers trying to get the attention of a company. I’m not even sure how much you ar the other consumers wanted to converse as much as vent and force action.

    So, to your point on cluetrain. It is about conversations, the new reality being that every product and service has a networked market (thank you twitter, facebook, etc) and conversations take place between individuals in each camp. If a consumer wants to start a conversation with a company, at the progressive ones (zappos, et al), someone is listening and will engage. However, if the company wants to start a conversation, who do they talk to? Who should they listen to?

    Maybe the term influencer is too overloaded and ill defined. But, in general, they want to start conversations with people who discuss relevant things, with some amount of reach, a history of generating buzz, and that they can access. Because those people will be able to provide the information and feedback, the company needs to be successful. Not to mention, those people, if they don’t start the interesting conversations, will be involved.

    There are definitely situations where the message is more important than who said it. But, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to know the influential/important/cool people. They just aren’t the same ones or even same types you paid attention to 2 years ago.

  • http://scottgould.me Scott Gould

    I disagree. “Relationship” here is a new word for influence.

    Sure, people might not be saying “influence me”, but when you have a relationship, lo and behold, you do influence them.

    To deny influence is to deny thousands upon thousands of social studies….

  • http://www.prohiphop.com Clyde Smith

    “But I protested. I’m no influencer, I said. When I wrote about Dell, I had no juice in the tech/gadget world; still don’t.”

    You’re living in denial or playing some kind of disingenuous game here.

    By the way, nobody I know that works with influencer concepts is interested in Kim Kardashian. They’re doing something else that you don’t describe at all.

    “messages spread on merit”

    That’s just delusional. Do you not actually study real people or what?

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Well, that was informative and helpful. Let me guess: you’re in … yes, marketing. Threatened a bit, are we? Don’t shoot your spitballs at the messenger.

      • http://www.prohiphop.com Clyde Smith

        No, I’m not in marketing although I used to blog about it a lot.

        No, I’m not threatened. That’s just silly.

        I just honestly expressed what I felt in the moment. But I am interested in this topic and also in research and how it’s misrepresented in public forums.

        I’ve looked for more on this study. So far, the only summaries I’ve found don’t provide enough information to evaluate the findings.

        Got anything on that? So far it looks a bit weak to support the conclusions I’m seeing. But I will look some more.

        Note: at ProHipHop I have followed a lot of marketers, the new directions being taken, etc. Dropping a tweet in Kardashian’s stream isn’t really anything other than buying an ad on the web publication of a celebrity, in my opinion.

        So it may be that this study does speak to advetrising as opposed to influencer based marketing approaches but so far it seems like you’re taking this to support conclusions you’ve already made though it doesn’t really seem to support your dismissal of the influencer concept.

      • http://www.prohiphop.com Clyde Smith

        Follow up to my second comment:
        I understand why you came back at me the way you did based on what I said. But I would like to approach this more reasonably.

        I found DW’s research page but he doesn’t seem to have anything up on this:
        http://research.yahoo.com/Duncan_Watts

        I’ve written for a copy of the research or something that would explain but, as I wrote him, the influencer concept is much more interesting and nuanced than buying an ad on a celebrity’s account. But I realize that many marketers may have turned it into that since any idea tends to become rather debased in the marketplace.

      • http://www.twitter.com/OSXyZ Osandi

        @ Clyde,

        messages my spread, but they don’t always catch fire.

        influence, which by definition insists that people ‘act or make decisions based upon (e.g. behavior, beliefs and/or lifestyle) goes a bit deeper.

        meaning has been misunderstood by marketers and ‘business-types’ since the cancer elixir first hit the shelf.

        if anything, this is a real look at ‘real’ people and what sticks and makes them tick.

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  • http://www.sanatoga.org Joe Zlomek, The Sanatoga Post

    Followers who trust you, I suggest, are the best influencers.

    I don’t want my Twitter or other social media follower lists to be overly large. I want them to be overtly trusting: comprised of people who value and rely on what I or my publications have to report.

    I’m confident that when they trust, they will convince others to trust too; maybe not in the tens of thousands, but if I pick up a few readers daily from each of several trusting followers who spread the word to others that I can be trusted, I’m into thousands of new readers by a year’s end.

    That’s an huge ROI, and it’s got nothing to do with money.

    Great column, by the way. Thanks for your observations.

    • http://www.twitter.com/OSXyZ Osandi Sekou, experienceDesigner

      i love the word trust in conjunction with principle.

      with access to the infinitude the web has to offer (and believe me it does), what one reps becomes the brand of their intentions and if anything leaves a trail of trustees or investors of their influence.

      one’s principle is the foundation or ‘co.sign’ in which people associate themselves with or begin to trust in.

      ones domain should be insightful, carefully curated, thoughtful and considerate even if it is disgraceful and tasteless.

      no principle, no pillar.

      “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning”

      what is twitter but a chain (collective) of reasoning(s)?

  • Paul Wipf

    Great entry as usual.

    No disrespect for Kim Kardashian, but isn’t spreading an important message through her like spreading seeds on a rocky shore? Maybe a few will fall in between the cracks, and maybe there will be some dirt between the cracks and maybe the seed will sprout.

    I totally agree with this story the heavy lifting is in the message. However, I do think people can be influenced. I want to be deep enough and able make up my own mind about issues. Am I ever influenced by someone else (a messenger)? Yes, I am.

    I don’t have a big list of folks I follow on Twitter. When I’m in a time crunch there are certain people’s tweets that definitely carry more weight than others. Those are the tweets I pay more attention too. But if a tweet is very relevant and it hits that point of interest I’ll read it before I skip to the folks that carry the more weight. Btw I have only met one of the folks I follow in person. That contact is not one of the ones that carry a lot of weight.

    In social media, where your message has a few seconds to get noticed, the message has to strong and highly relevant to take root or get notices.

    Let’s say I’m launching a new website for niche X. I’m interested in attracting traffic that is ready to purchase my product or service. Traffic that is in heat right now!. When I do my keyword analysis for the initial copy I will only keep the hyper-responsive keywords (short tail).

    I’m not really interested in attracting just any traffic. I’m not interested in attracting the tire kickers – the long tail traffic – the Kim Kardashian type traffic. I only have seconds to peak and keep a visitors interest so the relevance better be in the message.

    If the message is strong and highly relevant the relationship and trust will grow much, much quicker.

  • http://www.benlamothe.com Ben LaMothe

    Thing is, Jeff, you’re an influencer.

    It’s a small, niche circle, but within it, you’re considered influential.

    Influencers don’t have a specific size following. The only relevant factors are what their role is within the niche that they consider themselves a part of. If they are well-known within their niche, then they are an influencer.

    As marketing – and indeed journalism – becomes more subject-specific and niche driven, small market influencers will become increasingly important.

    Finding a big influencer with massive reach is difficult and often fruitless. But connecting with an influencer in a small group is not difficult and will give you greater return overall.

  • http://www.spotinfluence.com Rich Grote

    You’re right, to a certain degree. Spending a lot of resources trying to bag the big influencer is a waste of time.

    Kim Kardashian has millions of followers, but unless you’re trying to influence people about boob jobs or Khloe Kardashian, the message they’d send out on your behalf wouldn’t be relevant to the majority of their audience. It’s mass media all over again.

    Paying 100,000 people $10 to talk to their friends would probably give you more useful exposure – never mind that it’d be impossibly painful to make that many agreements and that in doing this you’d generate as much ill will as good. (“Um… why do you keep pimping out ____?”)

    Sponsoring messages from someone with a huge number of disinterested followers is probably a waste of time. In my opinion, mass marketing across non-related social networks is just lazy and spammy.

    In reality, who you want talking about you are people who are already connected, and who are already talking about relevant stuff. You’re spot on about the Cluetrain Manifesto. Thanks to sites like Twitter and Facebook, those predictions on connected markets came true – people have self-organized into communities that care about whatever it is your company does.

    That doesn’t mean influence isn’t important. Just the opposite, in fact. As a marketer, you still have to find those relevant communities. Those are groups of folks who have said, “I like the conversation that’s taking place. I like what you have to say, and I want you to influence me.”

    At that point, your job as a marketer (or smart, modern business person of any kind), is to engage with them in a way that’s useful, interesting, and human.

    Writing this, I realize that I’m talking about a different kind of influence than what you were describing at the front of your post. I think it’s incredibly useful to know who’s influential in those highly connected groups. And I think it can be a huge benefit to engage with those kinds of influencers.

  • http://ptechnorati.blogspot.com Paramendra Bhagat

    The message is important. But the messenger is also important. You don’t follow Kardashian (I don’t either) but more than three million do. Only 30,000 follow you. (I am one) Those three million give her a certain Twitter weight, sure. Intellectual heft is not the only thing that matters.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Yes, she has the power of media. But what Yahoo found, I think (I can’t speak for them!), is that that doesn’t have the force of influence.

  • Arash Robinson

    “Messages and influence aren’t the future of marketing; conversations and relationships are. No getting around it. No shortcuts.”

    That about sums it up. This is a great post. Thanks!

  • http://ericaglasier.com Erica

    Does old marketing ever die hard! You’ve identified an insidious tendril of old-school thinking trying to creep its way in. Calling it out will hopefully lop its slimy head off.

    Remember the two-middle-fingers-up rant from the woman who’s privacy was so endangered by Google Buzz? She may not have been a giant influencer by the numbers, but her message was so compelling that it spread far and wide by “lesser” influencers and ultimately summed up the response to Buzz, at least for me.

  • http://www.meteorsolutions.com Taddy Hall

    Great Points, Jeff.

    Meteor Solutions data from dozens of studies of Online Influence shed some light on these issues.

    Some Specifics:

    Jesus is not on Facebook: Leaving divinity aside, our data is unequivocal that there is no “chosen few” who tell the rest of us where to shop, what to wear, and how to eat.

    Online Influence is real and is subject to Power Law distribution: please see http://www.barabasilab.com. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi is the author of the popular Linked, in which he explains how, in complex networks such as the internet, influence concentrates in a very small number of nodes. In our client work at Meteor, we refer to this as “The 1% Rule” based on our consistent findings of .4% – 3% of visitors to a given site routinely driving from 20% to >50% of TOTAL site traffic.

    There are 3 Strands to the DNA of Influence: WHO, WHAT, and WHERE all matter. In other words, influence is highly contextual and often involves a combination of each of these three elements in terms of explaining overall influence and impact. For example, with a Meteor entertainment client, we have seen powerful instances of the right content (WHAT) reaching the right site (WHERE) explaining virtually all of the social impact. In other instances, the WHO clearly matters most…think about Oprah recommending a book.

    Online Invisibility is for Real: Consistent with your argument, >90% of pages on the internet have <10 links pointing to them – making them essentially invisible (Barabasi, Linked). Hot content or a big brand name is insufficient to drive traffic – not to mention move the needle on consumer Attitudes (Brand Preference) and Behavior (Sales). To illustrate in a case that generalizes across many marketers, a senior CPG online marketing exec confided to Meteor only yesterday, “for the past year we’ve been busily building Facebook Fan pages for our biggest brands, and they’re like signposts in the desert. Nobody sees them and they have very little value.”

    So thanks for sharing, Jeff. Good discussion! As my friend, Giovanni Fabris (former head of Global Media Planning for McDonalds) likes to say, “keep shining light where the dark is!”

    Where shall we explore next?

  • http://www.newsvetter.com Andrew

    “…the message spreads not because of who spoke it but because the message is worth spreading.” Why can’t we just focus on that? What else matters? Screw the influencers. Focus on creating great content or messages through creativity and humor and you’ll get to them eventually.

    The other day I did a Q&A with Dave Carroll about his United Breaks Guitars campaign. I thinks it’s amazing (but not surprising) what he was able to do with a creative idea, some fun-loving pals and $150 (yep, that’s what it cost to put together the first video).

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  • http://davidrogers.biz/ David Rogers

    Hi Jeff,

    Great to have you at the BRITE conference, and joining in on Duncan’s discussion in the morning on influencers.

    Duncan tells me they will publish the paper soon with the results he presented at BRITE.

    I’ll be sure to share a link when it is available!

    best,
    David Rogers
    Host, BRITE conference

  • http://www.familygreenberg.com/index2.php Brian Greenberg

    Everyone’s swinging their hammers, but no one’s hitting the nail on the head.

    If you ask me (and even if you don’t), I think the question isn’t “who is the influencer?” but rather “who is the influencer right now?”

    Influencers change based on the topic, the timeframe, and, seemingly, the whim of the online community. When “Dell Hell” was going on, Jeff was the influencer. His posts were the “go-to” source for information on that topic, a position solidified by his own oft-touted concept of “GoogleJuice.” On the topic of airline luggage, Dave Carroll was the influencer. Whitewater? Matt Drudge. Rathergate? Powerline. Heck, today the big influencer seems to be some guy telling his four-year old that he isn’t a “single lady.”

    Could Kim Kardashian be an influencer on a particular topic? Sure – it’s possible. Theoretically, she could tweet something tomorrow that gets picked up by every major media outlet (old and/or new media), and there you go. The trick is to understand when and why it happens.

    I’m not aware of a single study that claims to explain (or predict!) the concept of “viral.” But if someone (e.g., a marketer) to figure out who’s message was the next to “go viral,” they could certainly get a high ROC (and, subsequently, ROI) by delivering their message through that channel.

    • http://www.familygreenberg.com/index2.php Brian Greenberg

      *whose.

      (damn lack of a grammar checker…)

  • http://herd.typepad.com Herdmeister

    Great post, Jeff. I’ve been arguing much the same for the last few years, for various reasons.

    On the one hand, as you point out much of the influence/influencer obsession is just a pretty crude reworking of old message-transmission model of broadcast TV (high rating slot and persuasive copy – but with a human face).

    On the other, it seems to work the other way round – influence is something we take from those to whom we are connected/see not something they do to us (it’s “Social learning” and “Social proof” btw not social teaching!).

    This is think is the big message of the work of Duncan W and the likes – the heavy work of influence is really done by the influenced not the influencer. Influence is probably best understood as a pull- rather than push phenomenon.
    And you describe well his notion of “accidental” influentials.

    Here’s another way of thinking about the relative importance of the few: there are some times when ideas or behaviors do pass through a handful of nodes in social networks but mostly the underlying structure of these networks is not the hub and spoke style that would suggest something like the influential model. More often – as Watts, Salganik & others like Paul Ormerod – the underlying structure of such networks is messier and more mutual.

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  • http://sputnik.pl/ Michal Tatarynowicz

    I think there should be a single place to take your marketing money to, and it should be your marketing department, which in turn should disperse that money between most economically viable ways to market your products. If your marketing department just funnels money to 1-2 big companies that do if for them, you might just as well outsource and get rid of it entirely.

    (Not that I’m complaining, I’ve been on the receiving end of that money funnel of a few large companies for many years now. I just think it would be more economical, not to mention pleasant, to get rid of their marketing depts.)

  • http://www.pursway.com Eran Livneh

    This is a great post and a great discussion. I would like to offer some data based on the purchase behavior of over 100 million consumers that Pursway has analyzed in our work with some of the largest consumer organizations worldwide.

    The data shows that real influence is indeed in the tail and not in the head. On average, 50-70% of all purchase decisions can be traced to the influence of 7-15% of a company’s customer base who are the “Everyday Influencers.”

    The data also shows that most online “friends” and “followers” are neither friends nor followers when it comes to buying decisions. Having 10,000 Twitter followers, blog readers, or Facebook friends doesn’t make one more of an influencer than the person next door. Interestingly enough, other social network researchers such as James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis came to very similar conclusions when studying social influence in other areas.

    As others here rightly pointed out, there are two key elements to leveraging influence for marketing: (1) Finding 100,000 or 10,000,000 influencers cannot be done using any conventional methods. It requires a breakthrough technology to be scalable and cost-effective so it can deliver the ROI. (2) Turning the influencers into advocates for your brand is not trivial. Influence is driven by trust, and marketers that try to “bribe” the influencers can in effect strip them from any influence power they had.

    But when influence can be recognized, measured, and incorporated into the company’s customer relationship management strategy, it can be a game changer.

    I have also posted a more detailed version of this post in the Start Influencing! Blog.

  • http://www.gianninimpr.com Gaetan Giannini

    Experts and known authorities do influence us. Having relationships and conversations with them make that influence even greater, but they influence us just the same. Fame, as pointed out in your Kardahian example, doesn’t mean that that person is an influencer, but there are those that can influence us with their actions and opinions regardless whether relationships or conversations exist. Authenticity is the key. (If the opinion is “bought” by a marketer, there goes the authenticity. Remember Dr. Jarvic.) This is also why the relationships and conversations we have with our friends influence how we behave and what buy so much. Let’s not kill the notion of “influencers” let’s just recalibrate our understanding. Thanks for a thought provoking post, Jeff.

  • http://www.scps.nyu.edu/scpsresearch Rebecca Pearson

    Conversations are not the future; they’ve been around for more than 30 years. Remember the old forum and SIG days? Remember when discussions had threads upon thread of impassioned opinion, feedback, and argument?

    They still exist today on a broader and more populous scale thanks to the affordability and accessibility of the Internet to the masses. It’s just recently that marketers are waking up to where the crowds are gathering. Problem is they believe that by simply butting into a conversation, they’re likely to make a sale. Imagine this: you’re among a circle of friends in a cocktail party. Somebody squeezes in but instead of trying to listen to the conversation and easing into the discussion by contributing thoughts, he merely jumps in and says, “You know, if you try this product, your hair will never fall out. Kim Kardashian uses it. If you order now, you’ll get 10% off.”

    Facebook is a classic example (IMO) of butting in. I become a fan of one or two products, and suddenly my wall is littered with messages that have nothing to do with the conversation among my friends and family. It’s not that I don’t like you, Mr. Marketer, but you’re being very intrusive. Not only that, there are bots that are reading my posts. I posted on a blog with a sentence that said “We’ll need to shelve this discussion for another time.” Soon after I saved the post, ads for industrial shelving popped up. (Insert head tilt here)

    Now if marketers paid attention to the conversations, listened in first, then we all just might pay attention to what you have to say. Example: I just returned from a Caribbean vacation and happen to mention that apart from a delayed JetBlue flight en route, I had a great time. If JetBlue was listening, they’d jump in and say “sorry about what happened on your flight. Next time you fly us, let me give you a free seat upgrade.” Wouldn’t that perk up all my friends and family as well?

    Yes, I know. There is the argument that listening to conversations and developing relationships just takes too long to convert into meaningful and measurable ROI. I disagree. This is the very essence of what starts a long term relationship with new customers or strengthening retention with those who already are. These are the lessons of Peppers and Rogers in their 1to1 customer relationship. Javis is right. He gets it. Chasing the million followers based on whom you perceive as an influencer of those million is no different than getting a subscriber list to do an email blast. It’s old and the ROI is poor. You need to find the people who have a personal relationship with their followers and typically they’ll be just a few. But because they engage in deeply connected conversations, they are the real influencers.

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