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, 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?