Bringing Some Clarity to Social Media Influence

10 Dec

The emphasis on influencer marketing in social media has reached a fever pitch in 2011 and with it a flood of tools and opinions on how to navigate the influence waters. This is interesting in that one of the most powerful aspects of social media marketing is the ability to establish connections and relationships directly with prospects and customers and not have to go through an intermediary to communicate. But we’ll leave that to the social strategists to reconcile and justify. Influencer marketing is hardly a new strategy. Through the years, much work in traditional public relations utilized influencer targeting (e.g. market analysts, financial analysts, KOLs, other customers) to help amplify and endorse a brand or a company’s products and services. So why is there so much discussion and confusion about influence in social media? Let’s explore.       

Influence Basics

A definition I like for influence is: effecting change in another person’s attitudes, opinions, beliefs and/or behavior. I believe the most overlooked word in this definition is change.  Without change influence has not truly occurred. One challenge here is influence can happen without any resulting short-term observable action. Influence takes hold primarily between the ears, not necessarily with hand on mouse or wallet. This creates fundamental challenges when trying to measure the degree to which influence has occurred.

Another challenge we face is that influence is contextual not absolute. People who influence others do so primarily in areas where they have specific expertise or authority. It is common to be influential in one area but have little or no influence in others. One of the main issues with current influence tools are they do a relatively poor job of establishing contextual relevance.

The distinction between creating influence within a target audience and who/what has influence over the target has a tendency to get muddled. To clarify, determining who has the potential to influence the target audience, (the influencers), is a targeting question. Have we created influence, (changed attitudes, opinions, beliefs and/or behavior) is a measurement question.   

Influence is purposeful. In real life or digital life, when we set out to change the opinion, attitude, beliefs or behavior of another person or group, we do so with a downstream motivation – for them to take a specific action. The list of possible actions is lengthy – buy a product, visit a website, tell a friend, vote, wave a sign and donate to name a few. Of course, not all desired actions are equal in terms of amount of influence required for change. Opinions might be easier to change than an attitude. An attitude is easier to change than a belief. Behavioral change can range from relatively easy to nearly impossible depending on the specific behavior. In marketing, the ultimate behavior or action we try to influence is purchase behavior. It is important to think through the specific actions you hope the target will take as a result of being influenced. This is also the sweet spot for influence measurement.

While creating an action/behavior change is the ultimate reason for influencing someone, it is helpful to think of the process of influence as two stages – opinion, attitude or belief change – and then, because of this change, did an action occur or was a behavior changed. Stated another way, the opinion change is an intermediate or micro outcome and the desired action is a final or macro outcome. Depending on the type of purchase decision there may be a time lag between the micro and macro outcomes that make it difficult to connect the dots. In his book The Business of Influence, Philip Sheldrake presents a concept called the “Maturity of Influence Approach”. Basically it melds two important concepts to use when thinking about influence measurement – focus on the influence, not the influencer (Philip refers to this as “influence-centric), and to start at the macro outcome/action and trace the path of influence back to the source(s) of influence. One simple example of this in a B2B context would be to ask the prospect at the time they are ready to make a purchase, “what sources of information or opinion were most valuable to you in making your decision to buy our product?” A similar question or two can be asked using a pop-up survey in an ecommerce situation. 

Influence and Engagement Confusion

A primary source of influence confusion is failing to distinguish between a simple act of engagement and the process of being influenced. If someone in my Twitter stream sends out a tweet and I retweet it, have they influenced me to retweet or have I simply engaged with that individual’s content? Many who have written about social media influence have suggested that in RTing the tweet, I have been influenced to do so. I do not believe that is the case. I have engaged with the content, but have there been any true changes in my attitudes, opinions, beliefs or behavior? Again, the operative word here is change. Does the act of RTing constitute a behavioral change? Probably not. Engagement – yes, influence – no.

Engagement is a necessary pre-condition to Influence. (This social media measurement model addresses the distinction) Without engagement you don’t have the opportunity to influence. Influence, however, only occurs if that engagement leads to a change in attitudes, opinions, beliefs and behavior.   

Influence, Popularity and Celebrity Confusion

There also seems to be some confusion about the difference between influence, popularity and celebrity. Although related, and in some cases overlapping, they are three distinct concepts. In my opinion, at least some of the confusion stems from Klout and other influencer tools that seem to measure popularity but call it influence. So what is the difference?

Popularity is the state of being popular – widely admired, accepted or sought after.

Celebrity is a famous person, renown and fame. 

If popularity is about being well-liked and celebrity is about being well-known, influence is more about being well-respected, with associations like knowledge, persuasion and trust. Some of the confusion lies in the fact that some celebrities do have influence over the types of behaviors that make the cash register ring. Oprah comes to mind. Other celebrities, while very popular, don’t really have the ability to create meaningful influence. They can get content re-tweeted (WINNING!) but do they have any influence over the types of actions brands really value?

Keeping Online Influence in Perspective  

As we discuss the intricacies of digital influence we should also keep in mind the majority of influence occurs in the analog world. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 70 – 90% of influence occurring by offline WOM. It’s personal. It’s about real family and friends and not Twitter friends. Influence is about a relatively small number of people (Dunbar’s Number suggests humans have a finite cognitive capacity to have around 150 social relationships with other humans), and not mass influence. The fact that most influence happens offline presents another significant measurement challenge.

In summary, I’ll leave you with a few sound bites on social media influence:

  • Influence is about change
  • Engagement leads to influence
  • One can be popular but not influential
  • Measure the influence not the influencer
  • Don’t forget offline when measuring online influence.

Thanks for reading.  See it a different way?

12 Responses to “Bringing Some Clarity to Social Media Influence”

  1. Don,

    How can we influence EVERYONE in marketing and PR to read this post and change the way they approach influence?!

    In my book, I compare and contrast ‘influencer-centric’ approaches, with the ‘influence-centric”, as you reference above. And so for me, one of the most pertinent points you make (in passing, but you also point out that you know it’s worthy of more focus) is:

    “one of the most powerful aspects of social media marketing is the ability to establish connections and relationships directly with prospects and customers and not have to go through an intermediary to communicate.”

    I couldn’t agree more. In fact, one of the behaviours manifest in influence-centric campaigns is ‘focus on the influenced’, ie. winning round those who have already been influenced (eg, having bought your product) to become evangelists.

    Thanks for the namecheck. Best, Philip.

  2. metricsman at 9:03 am #

    Hi Philip – thanks for stopping by and for leaving a comment. I had a premonition that you would. I like your point about focusing on the influenced. It is helpful to remember that a majority of the folks that Like a brand on Facebook have already purchased the product. The Like is a form of post-purchase engagement and should be thought about differently than a prospect evaluating purchase alternatives.
    Cheers, Don B @Donbart

  3. And it’s pertinent your mentioned Likes. It seems many brands are confusing a Like, left for that discount voucher or one-off event or other temporary incentive, with:

    “OMG I really really love you. Please tell me something about you every single day for the rest of my life. Engage me. Engage me. Pur-lease.”

    Er, no thanks. Unlike.

  4. Robert Madison at 1:54 pm #

    This has to be one of the most underrated Social Media, PR & Measurement blogs out there. Outstanding post, Don!

  5. metricsman at 9:00 am #

    Hi Robert, Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words about my blog. All the best in the New Year. -DB

  6. Frank Walton at 10:56 pm #

    Hi Don: I’m a bit behind and just got around to reading this insightful post. One thought — as a corollary to your point about influence being contextual. I think we have to admit that when we discuss influence — because it is about a change, as you note — we can only talk in the past tense. Somebody HAD influence (on a purchase, on a vote, etc.). We can pick apart and measure a change and identify its causes (sometimes). But to say someone HAS or WILL HAVE influence is an entirely different matter, and is speculative — and as the financial services products ads note, past results do not guarantee future performance. So maybe another soundbite: Influence is proven in the past and bet on for the future.

  7. metricsman at 1:49 pm #

    Hi Frank – thanks for stopping by and sorry for the delayed response. Agree with your point on influence past and future. The measurement question (have we influenced the target) is rearview mirror. The targeting question (who has influence)is forward looking but speculative as you suggest. Potential to influence is not the same as influence. Cheers, DB @Donbart


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