Letters, Jan. 10, 2011

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Difficult to Put a Measure on Influence

RE: Matthew Creamer's "Your Followers Are No Measure of Your Influence" (AA, Jan. 3).

Nice article, Matt, but nothing new. Influence is not something that can be boiled down to one number. That said, it is still an aspect of social networking that marketers would clearly like to put their finger on. But anyone that has tried to do this knows that the best way to detect influencers is to be active in the space yourself.

"Reaching a large number of more ordinary Joes and Janes with a message might be more effective than trying to tap into Bieber fever" because Joe and Jane might actually already care about your brand, while Bieber is busy signing autographs.

Metrics and social-media-monitoring solutions can quickly give indications of who you should zoom in on according to your company/strategy/product/brand, but if you spend time actually talking with people in that space you will discover who is truly influential within a given space and who tweets, for example, as if they were a bot.

Like with any good research, the question has to have a quantitative and qualitative approach to unearth the fine distinctions of the influence Justin Bieber has over a 13-year-old girl and a 50-year-old CEO in Brazil.

I love the SAT analogy, and think it is very appropriate for the current state of influencer-measurement tools in the market thus far. These tools are predominantly fixated on Twitter alone, and provide somewhat meaningless scores that are not providing the guidance marketing professionals need to make intelligent decisions. Put another way, these tools—and their scores—are great at providing a measurement for how people are using these tools to increase their scores!

Advertising professionals have long made buying and placement decisions based on influence—where are people saying things and listening to things that are influencing buying decisions? The decision for ad placements are often swayed by topical relevance—where are authors saying things of relevance to my audience, and of these authors who is most likely to drive the desired action from a campaign?

Proper influence tools should first look at topical relevancy to determine which voices are saying things relevant to my market. And from these voices, and only these voices, determine who the most influential voices are based on their ability to drive action.

Obviously Klout is nothing more than a service offered to judge the popularity contest known as Twitter, but there is some validity to offering Justin Bieber a high rating (I wouldn't go as far as 100%).

Think what you will about Justin Bieber, but as far as influence, he has got it. Of course, you need to look at the target market he is influencing. When it comes to tweens and teens, what he says goes. If he is promoting a product on Twitter, there are going to be millions of little teenyboppers shelling out their hard-earned allowance to get a piece of that pie. It is just the same as using him in a TV ad spot. He has the ability to raise brand awareness across all media—maybe not for you or me, but definitely for those Bieber-crazed fans that can't get enough.

Recent studies that show that more than 70% of tweets never get action, and that more than half of Twitter users admit to never reading anyone else's tweets back up your point, Matthew. I interpret that as meaning either there is too much clutter out there, or that many users' only interest is in building a large follower base and [they] don't give a hoot about engagement. Hopefully 2011 will be the year we school our clients that "getting 100,000 Facebook followers" isn't a meaningful social strategy.

You are 100% right that your followers are no measure of your influence. What matters is whether your followers pay attention to what you say and take action on it. It's easy to track this on Facebook and Twitter by looking at the number of people who click on the links that you post.

Last year at Ad.ly we had a couple thousand celebrities run over 20,000 endorsements on Twitter and Facebook for a couple hundred products and services. We found that celebrities with the same number of followers had 10 times the variances in the number of clicks they drove per status update. Some celebrities are just better publishers than others.

So for marketers, it really comes down to finding the celebrities whose audiences are most attentive to what is being posted, and then matching them with relevant advertising campaigns. It's very similar to traditional offline celebrity endorsements, which is a $50 billion per year industry. It's just a whole lot easier online because of the ability to measure the results.

While I found this article very interesting and worthwhile, I'll have to wait and see if Justin Bieber has anything to say on the subject.

I agree that it is folly to mistake popularity for influence, but it is equally folly to discount the existence and influence of certain personages within any community or on any particular individual.

The Justin Biebers or Ashton Kutchers of the world are not significantly different than the Hollywood hucksters of generations past. For anyone who can remember Orson Welles pitching Paul Masson wines, there is plenty of evidence of celebrities trying to convert their popularity into influence. They leverage their own personal brands to add cachet to what they are promoting: Branding 101. These people are professional or editorial influencers and to [to this group] also belong most politicians, journalists and analysts. Regardless of your aesthetic, political or social beliefs, it's hard not to acknowledge this class of bloggers, tweeters and authors. And it's hard not to understand that no matter where they come from, they are advancing their own or their sponsors' agendas.

There's another class of influencers who are exerting their presence of the web and across social media: brands themselves. Within every category, there are competing brands that are generating content aimed to influence the conversation about and the perception of their brands and the products and services associated with their brands. And like the editorial influencers, they unabashedly have their own agendas.

So what does that leave? The rest of the social world made up of individuals who demonstrate their influence by their expertise, their ability to communicate and the authenticity of their messages. These are our peers, like the best mommy bloggers, leaders in various forums—what Augie Ray of Forrester Research calls mass influencers. This group, which amounts to around 6% of the online population, generates 80% of the influence impressions.

All these different categories of influencers can be leveraged by marketers, both to disseminate their content, buoyed by the influencers own credibility, but also as a means of understanding what consumers are genuinely interested in.

When it comes to people, you are absolutely correct. But the reality is there is another player in the game when it comes to measuring influence. It's the search-engine algorithm. Search engines are now incorporating links shared on Twitter and Facebook, and "influence" is a measurement that helps them know which content shared in social media is worth incorporating into search-engine rankings.

So while a high Klout rating is essentially worthless in the real world, it is exactly the kind of measurement a search engine might use to determine influence of someone sharing a link and how that should impact the content of that page link's rankings in search.

One of my favorite things about social media is that it's actually impossible to generalize about things like this, though I appreciate the effort. Still, unlike, say, a commercial break during "Desperate Housewives," there is no way to know what a commercial Twitter user intended by being there, and therefore no way to really know if she's succeeding. Are they selling? Or are they servicing? Or are they trying to keep a platform alive? Or is it surveillance? This, too, is the problem with kludgy tools like Klout. Look inside that algorithm, and you'll see a geek's big fat assumptions about what success looks like, not an objective measure the way we could get in the old days when the mission was awareness and the metric was audience size.

A while back, some pundit or other said, "Everybody that's using Twitter well is using it differently." That's the truth. There aren't any template solutions anymore—one of the reasons the ad biz is in so much hot water these days. Social media would be a good place to start learning that.

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