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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.

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