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The Problem With Influence

Guest Post by Damien Basile, Read his blog | Follow him on Twitter

Just recently Fast Company launched a contest to find the most influential people online. I say contest because that’s what it is. People vote if they’re encouraged or reminded to do so. The prize for “these” influencers is that the winners get their photo in Fast Company in varying sizes according to who is more influential (aka has more votes). I suppose the  The more influence, the larger your photo. The only problem is that this has nothing to do with influence. It does however, have everything to do with duping friends, followers, and peers into a link bait scheme that boosts the “popularity” of the person sitting at the top of the pyramid.

Brian Solis believes that “influence is not popularity,” but it is often confused through the creative stunts and social measurement apps and services that are getting a fair amount of attention these days. As such, he defines social influence as the ability to cause deliberate and measurable action and outcomes. Yes, you can pull numbers on website views, article views, article comments, retweets, twitter engagement, friends/followers, Facebook shares and likes as well as from a variety of other social networks. What you can’t truly define however is how deeply someone is influenced by someone else. What you also can’t define is the influence that takes place in the back channels – IM, DM, email, text message, telephone and offline. I spoke about this issue in a previous guest article here, Social Media Influencers Are Not Traditional Influencers.

The type of influence Fast Company is attempting to measure is simply the ability to influence someone to click a link. The exact wording of their advertisement is “Fast Company is searching for 2010’s Most Influential Person Online. You are more influential than you think.” Essentially this is a bait and switch ponzi scheme of sorts. If you first say you’re looking for the MOST influential then proceed to say that the reader is MORE influential than they think you are leading them to believe that they can be the most influential person online. What you’re not telling them is that they are voting for that particular person as well signing up to pimp out themselves as well.

You have a better chance of winning if:
You understand how to play pyramid schemes
You get in early
You broadcast, share, cajole your social networks more often
You have a larger social network
You don’t mind dipping into the well of support from your community every time you feel like validating your popularity

Let’s put aside the fact that Fast Company’s click campaign shrouded their intentions in a well worded enticing phrase. The problem with this type of influence is that it’s not influence at all. It’s a shallow and very specific ploy rooted in misdirection and vilified through the opaque pandering of votes. Asking your social networks to click on a link is measuring their ability to click on a link. Nothing more. It doesn’t measure the type of influence brands need to know about for their brand, product or industry vertical. A better way to do that would be to quantify who someone is connected to, how many people they are connected to and what happens to their message once it is shared exponentially. You could also figure this out by doing a test campaign to find out who YOUR influencers are. Who gets retweeted the most or has the most views and comments on their article about your brand becomes your influencer by default. You can look at who your competitors as well as other industry leaders are interacting with online.

You need to ask what type of influence you’re trying to measure. Are you trying to reach mass influencers or influence influencers? Broadcast influencers or purchase influencers? Fast Company chose to measure a very specific type of influence – a broadcast campaign that banks on people’s egos. Only some campaigns pander to people’s vanity. Some bank on their charity. Most bet on their actual interest in the product.

The one thing this campaign and influence measurement doesn’t take into account is that “true” influencers are busy influencing decisions and decision makers in the back channels. “It’s fair to say that some of the most influential people on the web aren’t going to take the time register in a project, to begin with. I mean, they’re influential! As part of being influential, they’re probably busy doing the things that made them influential in the first place, not worrying about proving their influence.” – Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Land via SF Weekly.

In my Facebook social graph, 34 people have signed up for this in an attempt to quantify their popularity. I won’t call them out here because they’ve already called themselves out enough. If you’re cool, you don’t need to tell anyone you’re cool or have anyone tell you that you’re cool. The same goes for influence. Asking people to validate that you’re influential only tells others that you’re really concerned about being viewed as influential. True influencers know that they influence others by what they say and do. They don’t need someone to tell them they’re influential. They already know.

106 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The Problem With Influence”

  1. Brian! Love that this is posted. I'm even happier that Damien wrote about this topic on your blog. It's both creative, outside the “box” and goes hand in hand with other content here.

    Damien, you, sir, are totally right. What upsets me more about these “social influence” campaign life Fast Companies and that even of the MTV's TJ contest is that they are doing something else other than pimping out themselves and their friends. They are buying into the nonsense. When these people click a contest or register for the contest they are buying into that company, the cost, their attention. When these “influencers” ask their friends to vote they are taken to Fast Companies contest page. Unfortunately you are costing time and attention rather than money. This also, creates an illusion that you “back” this brand.
    MTV's TJ contest does the same through facebook. One is forced to like a page before endorsing their friends. I believe in friends and people before I believe in products. Realistically, I'll buy a product if I believe the person behind it. These types of contests and ideas of “influence pyramids” just take advantage of our trust in our own networks and friends with gimmicky schemes.

    Great post, Bro!

    • DamienBasile says:

      Making your valuable audience go through unnecessary pain by spending time and energy (which translates to money) flies in the face of common knowledge. This is the reason why Facebook Connect is so popular – so people don't have to go through another step. After the contest is over will people care about the sponsor brand that they had to 'like' the page to participate? Probably not. Instead of making it gimmicky the brand could make it relevant, all encompassing. No one likes a tacked on engagement. That's the quickest way to turn potential influencers into anti-influencers. No one likes to feel like they're being taken advantage of. That's the bottom line.

    • I just 'liked' your response when I meant to reply haha. Anyways, you're right, Damien. The idea of actually creating value for adding profiles and brands to your own online identity has not yet been reformed or recreated. I think it deals with the models of monetization and measurement. Right now, or in the public eye, we equate followers, likes, and fans to a potential metric of profit. Unfortunately this can create some idea of a brands value to their consumers but it doesn't really craete a good preception of how people value the brands they like. Offering coupons doesn't mean I value a brand, just means that I want something for less. If brands, connections and companies understand the idea of true value, as humans value others, then I think their idea of “engaging” will change. If Fast Company could have thought of another way to do the same project, a more humanistic way, then maybe the real thought leaders would join in because it strikes something that stands true on its own rather than a popularity contest.

  2. 40deuce says:

    Great take on this.
    I've recently been getting very interested in the idea of online influence, influencers and the metrics behind them. When I first saw Fast Company's “contest” I almost signed up, but then I looked at how it actually worked. This is more of a popularity contest for people who have time to bug their networks for votes, it in no way shows influence.
    Influence comes from people taking action based on the influencers opinion or own actions, not on their pandering for link clicks.
    I was thinking about writing a blog post about this as well, but you basically summed up what I was thinking Damien.
    Nice job.


    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

    • DamienBasile says:

      I would implore you to write that article with a new spin. Find another way to answer some unanswered questions. Possibly talk about the MTV TJ contest that basically did the same thing yet was upfront with exactly what they were doing. We need more people invested in the healthy delineation of influence. Thanks Sheldon!

    • briansolis says:

      I agree…remember the Murphy-Goode social escapade?

    • DamienBasile says:

      Exactly. When you're not 100% clear and disclose things up front in a very precise way that only leads to confusion, annoyance and backlash. Companies need to learn they can't get one over on people in the social landscape.

    • 40deuce says:

      Thanks for the encouragement.
      I think I will because I've also been meaning to write about the Klout and Virgin promotion in which I got to take part in. I may just combine them all into a big post on online influence/influencers in general.
      I'll make sure to pass it your way when I get it up.

    • DamienBasile says:

      I'd love to hear about your personal involvement in the Klout/Virgin promotion. Looking forward to it.

  3. I'm glad you wrote this post because it saves me the time and effort to express the same opinion.

  4. cr8tivejen says:

    Agreed, Agreed Agreed!

    Call me selfish, but the worst part of this “stunt” is that a mainstream publication – which many brand executives read and value the opinion of – is now promoting what we've all worked hard to disprove ie: clicks don't always=influence. ::sigh::

    Jen Grant

    • DamienBasile says:

      Large brands have large influence and responsibility with their size. To equate clicks to influence and call it a day is irresponsible to the unknowledgable public. The public at large looks to large brands for direction so when they see this they believe that this is the only way to measure influence.

    • led signs says:


  5. Ian Lyons says:

    About a year a top 50 influential twitter list emerged for Australia – I happened to rank in the 30s but noticed a significant flaw in the algorithm. I knew the author so picked up the phone, had a conversation about how it might be improved and the next day the new algorithm dropped me off the list. Measures of influence are extremely situational and I'd like to see more tools which allow clients to control weightings.

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