Thursday, December 17

Influencing Nothing: Social Media Influencers

There is seldom a week that goes by without at least one early social media adopter advising companies to target "influencers."

And every time I read such advice, I cannot help thinking that for the best intentions, some of them are missing the point. In attempting to transplant the media influence concept onto social media, they drift further and further away from the truth.

Individuals as "influencers?" Not really. It seems much more likely that real influence is a function of authority, credibility, and ideas than anyone who happens to enjoy some temporary position of popularity based on comment counts, follower counts, or any other algorithmic measure.

Authority. Whether they are "popular" or not, people in authority have influence. The owner of a social network, for example, can order the change of any number features, leaving members to weigh any changes against the value of their connections on the network. Sure, some people might gripe, but their "influence" is confined to the length of membership.

Or, if you prefer an offline example, the President's approval rating has dipped below 50 percent but he still has significant influence in this country and a somewhat diminished influence in the world. His predecessors have much less influence after leaving office, naturally. The same can be said for authors, who tend to be as good as their last book once the buzz dies.

Credibility. The primary reason the media became influential is because they remained objective and largely unbiased, which is a fundamental criteria in being credible. Journalists pursued the truth, with their influence only waning in the last decade in favor of affirmation-slanted journalism, advertiser pandering, and tabloid sensationalism.

With social media, credibility might be established with authority, but credibility will dictate whether or not they will retain any influence once they leave a group. Pander too much to "friends" or tactical "followers" or attempt to profit off those relationships and the crowd that followed certain people at the last expo will be gathered around someone else. (We've all seen it.)

Ideas. Establishing credibility is long-term investment in new ideas or the ability to draw new perspectives on old ideas. While there is always healthy discussion on whether or not content is king, it certainly is a commodity that separates real influence from perceived popularity or a temporary association. Ideas build credibility.

For example, some people are followed because they are popular or were recommended by someone else. Other people are followed by smaller crowds because they consistently add value. But on any given day, someone with great ideas related to a specific subject will surge ahead for a variable amount of time.

Where does this leave the influence brokers?

Considering that none of the above is trackable beyond maintaining real time insight, it leaves them on a path to nowhere. In some cases, in terms of social media, several influential adopters have already fallen by the wayside as their authority drifted away with the loss of a position, their credibility was crushed by making some questionable choices, or their ideas didn't measure up beyond a flash in the pan.

The real takeaway here is that individuals aren't influencers at all, but rather the actions that some individuals take have influence within very specific spheres that do not necessarily cross over into other spheres. And not surprisingly, the most credible communicators know it.

David Armano frequently reminds people that a surge in popularity doesn't always mean quality. Jay Ehret has enough insight to know people and companies ought not bend to consumers and keywords for want of traffic. Geoff Livingston took time out from his travels to include a line about people who are "legends in their mind." Shel Hotlz recently cautioned companies that catering to consumers can fragment a brand much like a "Yes Man" eventually destroys his own credibility. And Valeria Maltoni purposely made it a point to avoid sensationalized topics that help boost popularity. The list goes on.

The other list, those who preach influence as the key to the equation, goes on too. I thought of including links to them as well, but don't want anyone to mistake one bad idea as indicative of them being bad people. They're not. They are instead stuck much closer to the middle of their social media thought process.

Suffice to say that the best of them know they don't influence me or anyone else, but sometimes they have an idea that might influence me and everyone else. And the most mistaken think they and others have influence over people indefinitely and across almost any subject.


Anonymous said...

More nonsense is written about Social Media than almost any other subject now, but this is good. I contend that few people understand the true nature of Social Media for several reasons, perhaps the main one being that it hasn't been around long enough for conclusions about its nature to be reached.

Rich on 12/17/09, 12:09 PM said...


You might be right. Though I've always considered the challenge not so much how long it has been around, but rather more of a mistake not to recognize that what occurs in this space is much the same as any other environment. It's not unique.

I was thinking about including an analogy to regular professional organizations. People come in, become or attempt to become "influencers," and eventually leave with almost nothing they set out to influence sticking as the next wave of people do the same. Maybe in the near future, but not too much on social media, given I'm more an integrated communication kind of guy.

All my best,

Mark on 12/17/09, 12:32 PM said...

I've had an uptick in targeted email spam from small outfits that feel I just have to say something good about whatever ware ore service they are hawking. It seems to me that these people have essentially bought into the misguided notion that you are debunking. The funny thing is, they often want comments on something my blog has nothing to do with, because they only got as far as identifying it as related to education.

To speak to your larger point, you are essentially saying that social media work like any other public discourse, whether scholarly or otherwise. There is no magic bullet. But how do you satisfy those advertising types that need something to measure?

Rich on 12/17/09, 5:16 PM said...


The first part is the mistaken notion that "some" can target bloggers much like they targeted the media. Welcome to what some public relations pros call a relationship and others call spam.

To the larger point, you have to measure outcomes. All those followers, etc. represent reach which is nothing more than the potential to change a behavior within a specific context.

But none of that is related to influence. After all, just because you buy some soap or follow a funny soap gal or guy on a social network doesn't mean his or her company is going to influence which washing machine to buy, which clothing to buy, or who to vote for in the next election.

All my best,

Sean Williams (CommAmmo) on 12/18/09, 7:16 AM said...

Rich - you hiding in my shrubbery this morning? I just commented on Lee Aase's blog ( regarding his assertion that social media is this millennium's Gutenberg Press or Television. Social Media may seem like a mass comm phenomenon, but I increasingly believe it's more like a cell phone. This is especially likely if we look at the "relationships" built in the space -- it's one-to-one, even in a commercial context. I don't want to have a relationship with Crate and Barrel, I want to browse and sometimes buy products from it. I may follow C&B on Twitter, and may read a C&B blog, but unless there is a real human behind those avatars, I'm unlikely to stick around to get advertised to...And, I'm not likely to be any more swayed in my purchase behavior by an "influencer" blog post than I am to buy a Tag Heuer watch because Tiger Woods wears one.

Rich on 12/18/09, 9:50 AM said...

Hey Sean,

Why yes, I suppose I am hiding in your shrubbery, at least until I wrap up my conference call for a state commission I severe on.

I might say you and Lee are both right. It is both those things at the same time — a broadcast medium and a mobile one-on-one medium, among other things.

On influence, you are EXACTLY right. Marketers have forgotten how this stuff really works.

Let's take the Tag Heuer example. Consumers don't buy it because they see Tiger wear it. Tiger only makes it visible so a few people might say ... cool watch, I think I'd like to know more about it.

Then they search for it, learn about it (from the company or consumers), and make their purchasing decision.

Other than that, there have only been a few personalities that have truly achieved anything close to an influencer position, e.g. Oprah could tell people to read a book and, by golly, they would read it. But even then, that is because she consistently maximized authority, credibility, and ideas for a very long time.

Thanks for the Lee Aase post tip. I'll be sure to visit today!


Eric on 12/18/09, 12:46 PM said...

Rich, I have some follow-up questions for you. In the industry of "social" media, how else is influence created other than individuals? Even if that influence is fleeting and conditional, as all influence is, isn't that still influence? I view the most influential sources in the social media world as individuals with ideas, or ideas created by individuals.

Rich on 12/18/09, 3:36 PM said...

This is very funny stuff, Eric.

I think you answered your own questions with the last question within the context of ideas and influence. It's the idea more than the individual that has influence. And just because a person creates an idea that has influence doesn't make them influential or mean they hold influence over others.

But even more amusing is the measurement of influence in social media. Most measures and algorithms would have you believe that the number of followers somehow equals influence.

It doesn't. Followers or readers or "friends" aren't worshipers no more than everyone you might read or follow or whatever will influence you.

Or, closer to home, according to the current measures and algorithms, your comment will be counted as an indication that I have influence over you. I hardly think so.

All my best,

Eric on 12/18/09, 4:20 PM said...

This is very funny stuff, Rich.

An idea is created by someone. Therefore, the individual is the true source of the influence. No?

I agree that followers or friends does not DIRECTLY represent your influence. And im not sure what acceptable measurements would tell you that. But it can (and does) correlate, as followers represent a population to which you have direct access, and therefore the potential to influence with your ideas. By no means is it an accurate measure of influence, but it is one factor of it.

You don't have to worship something to be influenced by it. That something just has to penetrate your conscious is some way.

With regards to you influencing me. You haven't changed my opinion of what influence means, but I have taken time out of my day to interact with you. I have engaged in a discussion on this topic that was created by your presence. And now, when I think about the topic of influence, I will probably remember your post and our discussion. So, I would say you have influenced me in some, albeit small, way.



Rich on 12/18/09, 4:29 PM said...

Thanks Eric,

I think this is one time where we will have to agree to disagree, because based on that model Tiger Woods is currently the most influential person on the planet.


Eric on 12/18/09, 4:47 PM said...

Not sure I see the connection with my logic and that statement. But I am always one to agree to disagree. Debate is the best forum for applying knowledge.



Eric on 12/18/09, 4:49 PM said...

Also, I think most people would agree Tiger Woods is a pretty influential figure.

Rich on 12/18/09, 5:02 PM said...


Absolutely discussion is the best forum for best forum for applying knowledge. You input is appreciated and welcome.

The Tiger Woods connection is simple enough. More people are reading stories about him today than probably any other person in the world. Your model supports the idea that popularity and influence are intertwined.

And yet, it's been proven time and time again that a Twitter account, lets say, with 40,000 followers might send fewer people to a site on a recommended link than a Twitter account with 1,000 followers. Where is the measure then?

A potential to influence people and actually influencing people are two different things. Just as influencing someone and being an "influencer" are two different things.

Sure, the difference is subtle enough that your original comment made me smile over the play in semantics, but it's also one of the most important.

People working in social media might consider getting to know people who are respected within an industry over guessing at numbers. At least, I think so. Popular or not, I'm looking for people who consistently find the truth.



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