Friday, October 26

Influencing And Being Influential: They Are Different

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information, which was headed by George Creel and staffed by several notable figures (and somewhat notorious) like Edward Bernays, who went on to become credited as the father of modern public relations. They were largely responsible for creating anti-German hysteria in the United States to promote war efforts during World War I.

Some of what they told the public was true. Some of what they told the public was made up. All of it was by design. And yet, despite exerting one of the most influential campaigns in history, one wonders whether the men themselves could be considered influential as the ghosts behind the propaganda.

Why influence cannot be measured by actions. 

Most people include actions as a measure of influence, online and off. While there is some truth to the notion, it is becoming one of most misunderstood and misleading measures employed by marketers, public relations professionals and social media advocates. Any communication, after all, can produce a response, a.k.a. action. But not all actions represent a compelling force on an individual or group.

For example, if Subway drops the price of its foot long to $5 and I happen to buy one, it would be difficult to argue that Subway influenced me or had influence over me. Sure, some might say the price point did (and many marketers do). But the truth is that nobody really knows why I bought it (or if I would have bought it without the social media coupon). 

• Maybe I was already inclined to order a sandwich and stumbled upon the coupon after the fact. 
• Maybe I intentionally follow Subway on Twitter because it offers coupons from time to time. 
• Maybe I know someone who likes Subway and I'm increasing my so-called influence over them. 
• Maybe I ran out of salami and the lack of salami and proximity of Subway influenced me to go. 
• Maybe there really is something to the Mayan calendar and I'm stocking up.

You don't really know. Even when we measure using benchmarks and look for upticks along the social graph, we don't really know much more than what seems to be. But more important than that, even if I execute an action, it doesn't mean Subway has any influence on me whatsoever.

I will give Subway some credit in terms of marketing. It has successfully positioned itself as a healthier alternative to fast food. However, even that doesn't necessarily mean that it influences people to eat healthier. All it means is that it has positioned itself to meet the needs of people who are already influenced to eat healthier. Ergo, the action could be a result and not a persuasion.

Being influential is different from influencing. 

The same case can be applied when people click a link, share a tweet, or post story. Sometimes it might be the individual who shares it because of their reputation or popularity (not because they have direct or indirect influence over me), but sometimes it is the headline or topic. And then? Once I read the story, it could have any degree of an outcome — ranging from reading a sentence to subscribing to ... name it.

Online, most measures are tracked at the click or the share. The irony is that most compelling forces do not occur at the click or the share. They only occur at the compelling force (content), assuming the thoughts and opinions exert any influence. Not all of them do. And that is different from an influencer. 

Influencers, on the other hand, are something different all together. They are people who exert influence for any number of reasons. 

Oprah, for example, can consistently put a book on a best sellers list by merely recommending it (regardless of the author or subject matter) because she earned influence. Sometimes someone in a position of authority has influence regardless of awareness or the number of interactions they have with someone (and sometimes people with authority have no influence). Sometimes someone who has dedicated a lifetime in the pursuit of knowledge is influential. Sometimes nobody is influential until fate requires it. It all depends. 

What is missing from marketing and social media from being able to accurately and authentically account for influence is the immeasurability of the "compelling force" required to be influential, which is largely based on the charisma and possibly reputation of a person combined with their ability to deliver the right message within the right sphere, at the right time, in the right environment, to the right environment. 

What is happening all too often in communication today is that individuals are too worried about taking actions in order to give themselves the appearance of being influential rather than taking actions that elevate themselves to positions where people are known to become influential. And this simple fact is why I lead with Creel and Bernays. The pursuit of an influential appearance isn't communication or influence as much as it is manipulation and propaganda, which is the exact opposite of being influential.
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