Discuss: Why Social Media Is A Bad Measure of 'Influence'

It Shouldn't Be the Only Measure, Not By a Long Shot

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Chasing the "Influencer" set is a long standing marketing strategy - not a novel concept newly minted from the social media revolution. We may have called them by different names 20 years ago - thought leaders, trend setters, early adopters – but we always understood their disproportionate power to drive business.

Back then, it was not hard to know who influencers were (usually confined to public personalities) but it was hard to determine which "influencer," a.k.a. celebrity, was worth more than another. To solve the problem, a company called Marketing Evolutions introduced "Q Scores", a well-known popularity metric as one way (albeit limited) to compare one personality's influencer value from another.

Then, as social media "happened" - BOOM - brands had easy and really really cheap access to more influencers than ever before. The only trouble was sheer quantity made finding the "influencer diamonds in the rough" really - uh – rough.

True to Silicon Alley DNA, an early set of companies emerged to address this problem. Arguably, Technorati was the first company to measure a blogger's influence with its "authority" rating. Initially, it was a great tool but ultimately it rewarded media companies (e.g. Mashable) with high authority given the sheer quantity of content they can pump out. This left many highly credentialed but narrowly focused bloggers in the authority dust.

Next wave of influencer tech tools focused on simple Twitter "grader tools." Typically, Twitter users were given a grade from 1 – 100 (the higher the better) but these early attempts were fairly light weight in their capacity to predict an influencer's value. Not surprisingly these tools withered once more robust options emerged.

The first tech company IMHO to stake a claim to measure influence was Klout ("The standard for influence") and they always impressed me with their genuine desire to create a useful and game-proof solution to help standardize the business of measuring influence. Next, PeerIndex ("Understand your social capital") came on the scene with a similar vision but with their own spin on the individual social graph data they were scraping. Both companies have similar business models – giving brands access to influencers , the differentiator being the quality/ quantity of the respective networks and programs.

And then in an exuberance burst of technology bravado, Empire Avenue took this whole notion of social currency to its gaming conclusion and launched the first "Social Media Exchange where you can buy and sell your friends and own anyone on the social web!" Folks are still wrestling with the "WIIFM" factor – but at a most basic level – a stock worth a lot is going to be more of an "influencer" than a lower priced stock. They too monetize through a diversity of options including offering marketing programs.

Wow! I should be dancing the happy dance. In barely 24 months, here are three different yet interesting ways to help me tag and bag big game influencers – solving a decades' old problem.

Ah – if only it were so easy. The more I thought about it – the more something was bothering me about this whole influence measurement business on a few levels.

First, it seemed problematic to standardize a vague concept such as "influence" that is eminently impacted by time and context. When you poke at their methodology it becomes clear that , like Technorati before it, all systems disproportionately rewarded scale – in terms of amount of content and number of followers. One "thought leader" profile for instance, had 170,000 followers but was following 170,000 "people." I could not reconcile how "Twitter monkeys" (people who gain followers mainly through automated reciprocal following), would be viewed as thought leaders.

Then, even if you came to some consensus of how to measure influence, I am stumped about this notion of standard. AFAIK, the term "standard" usually means same methodologies of measurements can be applied by lots of companies. Yet here, these rating companies have their own proprietary secret sauce interpretation of the information, so as a marketer, which standard should I go with? Should I be looking to reconcile alternate methodologies? Maybe I am taking the term "standard" too literally. I am stuck.

Finally, though, I realized that what was really bothering me was this heavy-handed, misplaced emphasis on influence. For marketers, influence is merely a means to an end. We use influencers as an intermediary or as an extension to a brand's ongoing efforts to create the trust needed for on-going, repeatable and honorable revenue.

So to see these cool tech companies focused on measuring influence based on a somewhat limited set of social-activity indicators is a far cry from real marketing-based influence which is a very very far cry from the real point which is to create trusted commerce. In fact, there is yet to be evidence for the presumed high corollary between social influencers and their ability to generate trusted commerce as this Forrester study reveals, Social Media Has Little Impact on Online Retail Purchases .

I appreciate the vision of what all these companies are doing and I can imagine many ways to work with them. I can also imagine at each might evolve and create terrific businesses.

But in understanding influence – it's the fundamentals of trust that marketers really need to think about.

Everything else is noise.

Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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