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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. Juergen says:

    I agree, although I think reaching masses might make it obsolute to have to reach influencers. So it depends a bit on how many people participate in this contests.

  2. Gary Hayes says:

    Great post Damian that is part of how we are evolving/returning into a society where social status is far more valuable than celebrity or popularist values and I think many of us believe popular has never equalled influence (apart from the specific and blinkered fans of celebs/gurus) – Laurel Papworth covers similar trust/value/influence issues last week related bizarrely to the same superficial Fastcompany campaign over at… – must be something about trust and influence in the zeitgeist?!

  3. Mark Borden says:

    Hey Damien and Brian

    Thanks for the post on The Influence Project. I'm always open to criticism and informed opinion, especially as I report my larger story about influence and influencers for the November issue of Fast Company. That said, please keep in mind that the project itself is only part of a larger examination. It's an experiment that has already yielded some fascinating insights. As I explain in a recent blog post (, “We didn’t give guidance on how people should pursue their influence goals. Some people may engage in deception to get others to click on their link (hello 4Chan), some may use tactics that feel like spam to boost their results (hello, SEO consultants). Some may want to use charity as a lever to push engagement–go ahead, we won't stop you. Is that inappropriate? Is that unfair? Is that a popularity contest? Maybe. But it's also reflective of behavior that happens on the Internet every day.”
    I do believe that people are more influential than perhaps they realize. Sure, there are those who you and Danny Sullivan (and others) refer too in your posts, the thought leaders and stars of the business landscape. But don't forget the power of lesser known individuals who can rally a network and exponentially take a message to the masses through sheer force of will and conviction. The Influence Project is as much for them as anyone else.
    Again, thanks for the thoughts and words. I'd love to talk more about your thoughts on this subject as I continue to gather information…cheers…mark

    • DamienBasile says:

      I agree with you on the different types of influence in my post. What's not ok is hiding that if I click through I'm voting for the person I click on. One extra sentence would have fixed that. Being upfront about what happens if I click through is necessary. If someone is winning something it's necessary.

      The Influence Project will definitely fail to include some of the most influential online people, from “the thought leaders and stars of the business landscape” to the smaller influencers who sway most of their small group of friends all of the time. Not everyone will know, care or want to be included in it. With your “experiment” you'll only be reaching a percentage of a percentage of a percentage of the different types of influencers online. Even if you're just looking for a small statistical representation of influencers you still won't get it because the nature of your project alienates and excludes certain types of influencers.

      When it's all said and done you'll have some great findings. Will they be conclusive? Probably not. My only true qualm with Fast Company & The Influencer Project is your upfront nondisclosure. MTV did a good job with disclosure for their TJ contest. They set a precedent in the near past that FC could have followed yet was ignored. People don't like to feel like they were taken advantage of, especially for insights.

      Looking forward to hearing more from you Mark. I'd definitely would love to talk more about this with you and welcome any opportunity to do so.

    • Mark Borden says:

      Hey Damien

      Thanks for the response. I'm not sure “hiding” is the right word, but let me try to explain. We discussed giving examples of what people could write in their posts when spreading links through any and all media, but ultimately decided against it. The thinking is that it is up to the person participating to choose how they want explain their motives (it seemed more creative and open to let people do what they want instead of telling them–or even suggesting–what to do). If someone tricks a person into clicking through and creates a bad experience, chances are the person on the bad experience side will let others know they feel they were bamboozled–and perhaps even send that ripple throughout the network they share. Now others that direct people to the site in a constructive way that gets others to feel the intended positivity of the project, they will have a different experience. But in the end it's up to the individual to choose how he or she wants to exert their influence.

      As for “failing” to involve some of the most influential people online, I disagree with your word choice (failing just seems so defeating), but certainly would be a fool to argue against the statement. It's too bad, but maybe the small (as you refer to them) will reveal something big and show–to paraphrase Guy Kawasaki–that the nobodies are the new somebodies (this is a link to an interview I did with Kawasaki, not a lure to click my influence URL:

      In response to your statement that the project “alienates and excludes certain types of influencers”, that's just categorically false: The Influence Project is open to anyone who wants to participate in it.

      Finally I'll address what you call Fast Company's “upfront nondisclosure” (which does have a nice ring to it in its own oxymoronic way). When I wrote the story about Mekanism in the May issue of Fast Company (, I was very clear and open and transparent about what our intentions were. We even went to the extreme of including Mekanism's brief and presentation both online via hotlinks, and more unusually, in the magazine, employing what could be called digital footnotes that bridge print and digital. There really has been no subterfuge.

      Thanks for the tip on MTV, and of course, thanks for the dialogue. I too look forward to talking live sometime soon…mb

    • DamienBasile says:

      As the company implementing the project the onus is on you to let people know exactly what their click means. Each individual link is equated to a vote if I follow through to the end of signup. I don't feel slighted by the person. I feel slighted by the company implementing this flawed plan. I searched my Facebook friends updates and I found the exact same wording for every single one. That tells me it was automated and no one had a chance to change it the first time it was sent out. It would have even been ok if you disclosed on the click through page that I am essentially voting for the person who's unique link I clicked on.

      The problem here is curiosity. If I see a link telling me that Fast Company is searching for the most influential person online and that I'm more influential than I think I immediately think that by clicking through I can be the most influential person online. What I don't know is that I could give my valuable vote (that I again don't know about) to someone else participating who is more influential to me. You're quantifying influence through random curiosity. Just because I click on someone's link doesn't mean they influence me outside of that one moment of interesting content.

      As far as Fast Company disclosing, you can't assume people have read past issues, viewed your website or even know who you are. All you have is the point of entry – the blurb and link that my “influencer” is sharing with me at the moment.

      Looking forward to speaking with you on Cathy Brooks' show tomorrow.

  4. Thedivinemisswhite says:

    No small relief to hear the voice of reason here, yet again.

    With a broad background in PR, particularly in Government, I'm 'too' acquainted with the game of smoke and mirrors.

    I recently witnessed a cute, but no brainer competition in my own network. The one with the most 'likes' wins; irrespective of whether the post is a 'winner' or not. The field was mostly fillies, but when a male post showed up, the fillies cantered over and 'liked' his post.

    My first reaction to these situations is a guffaw and eye roll or two, but it begged the question, is this how we want to use our influence?

    There's not only a need for more rigour in social media, but influencers need to beware of companies buying their influence. The recent Telstra Desire campaign in Australia was a social media disaster; for the influencers! The campaign here is almost identical.

    Influencer beware …

    Thanks Brian. I love your no nonsense approach; your input at a Social Media conference in Australia this year was Gold Class.

  5. Batman says:

    Great article. I couldn't agree more with all your points. Nothing more need be said.

  6. Paul Farkas says:

    Great post Damien. This campaign is super thin for testing influence, FC should consider broadening its scope and restart to shoot for richer results off the bat.

    • DamienBasile says:

      The damage is already done. The Influencer Project does test for influence, albeit a very specific shallow version of influence. I sense that Fast Company is doing this project for larger insights in the project and surrounding the project. It will be interesting to see the findings once they publish them. Thanks Paul.

  7. I personally think Fast Company wanted to create a viral campaign that would bring them tons of traffic and create evangelists.

    What ended up happening was something entirely different. They misrepresented what influence meant, and they caused a pyramid-scheme monster. Anyone with real obvious influence was adamantly against this project, and vocalized it very clearly.

    Now Fast Company have the chance to create an awesome corrective experience. They can either tweak the project to reflect some semblance of actual influence instead of “tweet our link to your groupies.”

    Another alternative they can explore is shutting down the project and avoid being continually scolded for this mishap. And, in the process, sparing us the spam.

  8. Kristen says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. Convincing friends to click is a far cry from being highly respected and regarded enough to prompt people (who may or may not even know you personally) to re-think their own ideas and belief structure, or from a purely marketing perspective, to actually move people through the consideration phase to the point of purchase for a specific product or service. A campaign that seeks to set off a viral reaction to spread content virally with a simple click can certainly have value from the standpoint of brand awareness, but it should be clearly positioned that way and not as a campaign to see who the most “influential” person is. There is an unfortunate tendency to make everything about numbers — a more is more mentality — that overlooks true influence.

  9. startabuzz says:

    I'm so disappointed with Fast Company for this little … scheme … stunt … whatever you want to call it. I think that, given their reputation, lots of folks were duped into signing up at the outset — many who have since spoken out loudly about their displeasure — but I'm still seeing people tweeting the links out. Influence has ZERO to do with popularity; there are plenty of people that I like a whole bunch, but to whom I'm not likely to listen when it comes to my business, etc. Influencers are those people in our lives whose opinions we trust, whose ideas get us thinking and changing our actions, not clicking a link. In my opinion, the people who are tweeting those Fast Company links out are doing themselves a great disservice, as they're aggravating their followers, whether by polluting their streams with the tweets, or by the reactions they're getting when they DO click the link; in the end, it'll end up diminishing the influence that they do have. Thanks, Damien.

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