Michael Wu, Ph.D. is Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and online communities.
He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwu.
I was wondering what I was going to write about this week. Then I came across the Influence Project that was launched by Fast Company yesterday. I accidentally clicked on one of their links from my tweet streams, but quickly figured out that it was a link-bait with no actual substance. Moreover, it was designed solely for Fast Company to collect lots of emails and get lots of traffic for free. Subsequently, it has received a lot of negative coverage by bloggers, analysts and news sources. I’ll list a few links here, but I won’t bother to repeating the story, so read them if you like.
However, I must say that this influence project really has nothing to do with influence. According to Amber Naslund, FastCompany promotes this game by saying that “(1) You can use any means to spread your unique link to your online network… (2) Your goal is to influence as many people to click on it as possible.” Unfortunately, this pyramid scheme is not influence, it is not even popularity! What if someone tricked, manipulated, or even spammed/frustrated you into clicking the link? What you get at the end is, at best the biggest link-spammer, at worse the biggest trickster and liar, on the November issue of their magazine; definitely not an influencer.
This led me to think why are there so many deceptions around the search for the elusive influencers? Part of it may be companies are taking advantage of the public’s ignorance. But I believe that part of the confusion is that the term “influencer” is so misunderstood that it has almost become a cliche. It means so many different things to different people that we are all confusing ourselves. And part of this is our fault for not clarifying what we meant when we use the word “influencer.” I want to start to correct that here.
The Marketing Influencers
When Esteban Kolsky, Amber Naslund, Maria Ogneva, etc. speak of “influencers,” I believe they mean someone who can influence another’s decision process. For most businesses, the decision of interest is usually the decision to adopt/buy their product or service. This decision process can be anywhere along the purchase funnel (i.e. it can be a real purchase decision late in the funnel, or merely sentiment about the product or service early on).
If you are in marketing, you should be very interested in this type of influencer for obvious reasons. You can market to this select group (which is easier and cheaper, because there are usually fewer of them), and then they will do the rest of the work for you. Their influence will essentially drive the message to their friends, families and followers on your behalf. Since this type of influencer has the potential to drive sales through their word-of-mouth (WOM), I will call them marketing influencers. They are the type of influencer that I studied earlier this year. To identify marketing influencers, you need the six factors of social media influence.
Content relevance: This is the context that Maria mentioned in her tweets.
Timing (temporal) relevance
Target confidence: This is the trust that Amber mentioned in her blog post.
I must emphasize again that each of the six factors necessary for influence, but none of them are sufficient without the others. All six factors must be met in order to find the true marketing influencers.
The PR Influencers
But wait, there's more! What about influencers like Dave Carroll (in United Breaks Guitar) and Kevin Smith (who was allegedly Too Fat to Fly Southwest)? They certainly do not fit all the six criteria above (e.g. Neither Dave nor Kevin is an expert in the airline services industry). But they certainly have demonstrated their influence in this area. Are they not influencers?
Strictly speaking, I wouldn’t call them influencers, they are simply celebrities. But if you insist on calling them influencers, then they are not the marketing influencers we talked about earlier. I would call this type of influencer, the PR influencers, because they have the ability to spread your bad PR very rapidly among their numerous followers.
You would not use a PR influencer to drive sales: just as you would not use a PR expert in your company to do a marketer’s job. If you do, what you get is a pay to play advertising, not influence. This may work for a while, but people will quickly question the authenticity of these pay per tweet ads and ignore them altogether. Moreover, this will tarnish the credibility of the tweeter and the company they represent.
So how could you best leverage these PR influencers? I’m afraid to say that besides treating them with the respect they deserve, there is not much that you can do with this type of PR influencers. The most important thing with these PR influencers is don’t aggravate them, and the best thing they could do for you is to avoid a potential bad PR that could cost $180 million as in the case with United Breaks Guitar.
The search for the influencers is on, and they’ve certainly become highly desirable commodities. Many companies are claiming that they can identify influencers. This is good news and bad news. It is bad news because influencer identification is complex. Not only are there different types of influencers (in this post we talk about only two types: marketing type and PR type), using the wrong type of influencer for the job can be counterproductive. The good news is that there is a science that goes into influencer identification, and it can be done right. So don’t get fooled by the word “influencers.” If you are not careful, it could lead you to find exactly the person you weren’t looking for, the biggest trickster.
Now that I get my thoughts out, I can go back to my research, and analyze the business implication from the distinct role of communities vs social network. Next week we will revisit that topic. In the mean time, I welcome any questions and comments as always. I would like to hear your thought on this controversial issue.