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.