Posts about influence

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 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.

Attention + Influence do not equal Authority

In the dustup over whether it is a good idea to sort Twitter posts by authority – defined as the number of followers one has – John Naughton rises above the cloud to see a larger fallacy in the discussion: The number of followers one has does not equal authority. It stands for influence (or I’d say, it is a proxy for attention – and then, in some cases, influence).

The problem Naughton sees is the same one that plagues analysis of online discussion using media metrics. In mass media, of course, big was better because you had to be big to own the press: Mass mattered. We still measure and value things online according to that scale, even though it is mostly outmoded. Indeed, we now complain about things getting too big – when, as Clay Shirky says, what we’re really complaining about is filter failure. That is why Loic Le Meur suggested filtering Twitterers by their followers; he’s seeking a filter.

The press was the filter. And the press came to believe its own PR and it conflated size with authority: We are big, therefore we have authority; our authority comes from our bigness.

But the press, of all parties, should have seen that this didn’t give them authority, for the press was supposed to be in the business of going out to find the real authorities and reporting back to what they said. This is why I always cringe when reporters call themselves experts. No, reporters are expert only at finding experts. Now to put this back in Twitter terms: Reporters don’t have authority. They have attention and possibly influence because they have so many followers. But that doesn’t give them authority. There’s the fallacy Naughton pinpoints.

“So we need to unpack the concept of ‘authority,’” Naughton argues.

One way of doing that is to go back to Steven Lukes’s wonderful book in which he argues that power can take three forms: 1. the ability to force you to do what you don’t want to do; 2. the ability to stop you doing something that you want to do; and 3. the ability to shape the way you think.

In my experience, the last interpretation comes closest to describing the authority of the blogosphere’s long tail. It’s got nothing to do with the number of readers a particular blog has, but everything to do with the intellectual firepower of the blog’s author.

Naughton argues that the number to manage on Twitter is the Twitter_index – that is, the proportion of followers to (what?) followees. He believes it ought to be 1.0 – that is, equal – “otherwise one gets into the online celebrity, power-law nonsense that Le Meur describes.”

I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I’ll go halfway there. When I wrote for TV Guide and People, I supposedly had an audience northward of 20 million. I’ll hasten to say that was utter bullshit on many levels – the idea that one could trust syndicated research to count readers (as opposed to purchasers) and the presumption that every reader read every page (or ad – which is the real bubble in old media). Still, those were the numbers we bragged about, as if they gave us authority.

Dare I say that this blog gives me more authority – in Naughton’s and Lukes’ terms – than those publications did? My hackneyed example of Dell Hell reached more people in a more meaningful way than any review of Babylon 5 (though I still get in trouble for panning it).

But note well that the authority in Dell Hell was not me. I didn’t have authority (I didn’t write about PCs or pretend to any expertise in customer service). It was my message that had authority or at least relevance, as that was the reason it was passed around. And it was the passing around that invested it with authority.

So to that extent, Le Meur’s not wrong when he tries to find a way to express and calculate the idea that it’s not the author who holds authority but his or her audience. But his critics are also right when they say that number of followers won’t get him there. I think there is no easy measure, but if it exists it will be found instead in relationships: seeing how an idea spreads (because it is relevant and resonates) and what role people have in that (creating the idea, finding it, spreading it, analyzing it) and what one thinks of those people (when tells me that John Naughton follows someone, I’ll see more authority in that than, say, whom Robert Scoble follows – no offense, Robert – because Naughton is so highly selective). That is what the totality of the press-sphere will also look like as various players add varying value to add up to a whole (and in 3D, the sphere will look different to each of us, so one-size-fits-all measurements will become even more meaningless).

Part of the problem in the Twitter discussion is also that the number of followers is, in the end, a proxy for celebrity while links – which Google PageRank and, for better or worse, Technorati value – come closer to measuring at least relevance. As old media faced more and more competition it became more and more about fame (and that was when access to the celebrity became more valuable than access to the audience). The internet’s value is that it is more about relevance. So I think the reason some people reacted so much from the gut against Le Meur’s suggestion is that it unwittingly corrupted the new world with the crass celebrity of the old. The last thing we need or want in the web is Nielsen ratings.

: LATER: Case in point: Tim O’Reilly kindly retweets my link to this post and then I watch it get re-retweeted again and again. That happens because it’s O’Reilly retweeting and he has authority not becauase he has the most followers – though he has many – but because he’s smart and respected (he has authority); it also happens, perhaps, because my post is relevant to a discussion. Message + spreader (or author) comes closer to authority than mere reader ratings.