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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.

    Cheers,

    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:

      THAT'S RIGHT I AGREE TOO

  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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 http://laurelpapworth.com/3-surefire-ways-to-wi… – must be something about trust and influence in the zeitgeist?!

  8. 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 (http://bit.ly/dhhNT7), “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: http://bit.ly/cN9Go5).

      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 (http://bit.ly/cN9Go5), 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.

  9. 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.

  10. Batman says:

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

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. Thank you for this post. It is very timely, and helps shed light on the value of true influence instead of popularity contests. Your quote of Danny Sullivan hit the nail on the head. True influencers are indeed busy being influential and don't need someone to tell them they are influential.

  16. Funny and Sad, it also has to do with human behavior in certain cultures that showing what you do is not always of appreciation, who of the monkey do Influencing the Influencer 🙂

    Themelis Cuiper
    SEO Social Media marketing Expert

  17. Hi Brian Solis I found these buttons to press on your Blog about Influencing the Influencer
    found your blog on my research about measuring influence as a metric to put in a software
    counter on in my program but i found out that we are all related to each other like mussel
    in a riverbank in the content stream filtering from upstream.
    What is relevant and what we are relating and vibrating to is on individual purpose.

    You are right Brian, measuring the clickies will not do

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