Peddling Influence: 3 Questions to Debunk Influence Analytics

December 29, 2009

The more time you spend listening to “social media experts” and reading breathless press reports about the future of social media, the more value you’ll begin to assign to “influencers”. A near mythical creature through whom all information of value is transferred from the merchants to the masses. And like most mythical creatures, tales of it’s prowess and miraculous achievements far exceed any of it’s sightings.

The term “Influencer”, like many online neologisms, is poorly defined. The term itself is often used interchangeably with related terms, that convey different concepts, like fan, popular, early adopter and celebrity. The problem is further compounded when network theory is layered on top of these linguistic inaccuracies resulting in a conceptual hodgepodge of little clarifying value. Given the importance companies are placing on identifying “influencers” and the sheer number of companies popping up to make that happen, having a way to evaluate claims of influence, beyond simple popularity, is critical.

Thankfully, there is a wealth of academic and commercial thought around the nature and mechanics of influence available to interested strategist. Taking that research and applying it to the evolving social media landscape a number of important evaluative questions become readily apparent. The following questions should help you tell the difference between vendors of truly insightful analysis and those selling colorful charts and quantitative snake oil. These questions are intended as simple set of heuristics to aide in the development of analytic programs and the vetting of commercial applications. Answering these questions gets you closer to a identifying the truly influential people within a group and how that influence may be tapped for both commercial and more importantly, group benefit. Vendors who cant answer these questions, or worse haven’t considered them, are unlikely to offer actionable data and should be avoided.

1) What is the nature of the relationship between Influencer and Influenced?
Author Malcolm Gladwell has over 46,000 followers on Twitter. In this group there are fans of his pop-science books, readers of his articles, critics of his writtings, personal friends and celebrity followers. His influence over the various sub-groups that make up his “followers” is neither constant nor always positive. Identifying the nature of the relationship between Mr. Gladwell and the various groups of people who follow him is critical to understanding his influence on them.

Any program that claims to be able to identify an “influencer” should also be able to identify the nature of the relationship they have with the  groups over whom they hold sway. Even a rough categorization of the “influencers” audience into groups like, Friends, Fans and Foes, would yield more actionable data then a generic total number of people “influenced”. Without information on the nature of the relationship between an “influencer” and the sub-groups she influences, the only thing that can be assessed is relative popularity.

If a company is using social media to label someone as an “influencer” than it stands to reason that they should be able to discern the nature of the social influence they exert. Unfortunately, most influence peddlers skip this step and simply assume that popularity + activity(FOF) = social influence. Any vendor offering influence analytics without also offering a reasonably in-depth analysis of the relationship between the “influencer” and the influenced is not to be believed.

2) What is the structure of the network and the community that uses it?
Danah Boyd‘s blog post on “the Real social network” is a great thought piece, worth the time of every strategist developing social media products. The main point of the piece is that when analyzing relationships in social networks, the “social” components do not translate across different networks. While this initially seems like a fairly obvious notion, it is often ignored by analytics vendors promoting “influencer” programs.

On LinkedIn, to establish a connection with someone requires their permission. On Twitter, you can connect to anyone with or without their permission and it requires an act on their part to sever that connection. This slight variation in how connections are made on LinkedIn vs Twitter creates very different network structures and fundamentally different community behaviors. The status update about the great Tuna sandwich one had for lunch plays very differently on Twitter than it does on LinkedIn. It would also travel at different velocities through the networks, reaching a different number of nodes by traversing completely separate paths (even if the population had a high degree of overlap). On LinkedIn the nature of the ties connecting people, times associated with those links and power dynamics of those links are either expressly stated or can reasonably inferred. The structure of the network on LinkedIn makes it a better candidate for influence analysis than Twitter, where none of this information is available.

Determining the influence individuals have on each other on a loosely connected network like Twitter, where connections are formed haphazardly, is far more complex than on LinkedIn. Providers of “influencer” metrics should be able to discuss the structure of the network where their analysis was done and how that structure effects the “influencers” they’ve identified. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Vendors have a tendency to declare someone an influencer and allow clients to infer that the influence is both universal and transitory. Without any insight into the structure of the network and the community that is built on top of it all a vendor can claim to measure is popularity.

3) In what domain is  the influence exerted and how?

Conservative American political pundit, Steven Colbert, is a very influential figure. However, it is only by identifying specific domains where he is highly influential (liberal book sales, magazine attractiveness, political donations, digital downloads) and those where he is not (audience knowledge, satirical awareness) that his true status as an “influencer” becomes meaningful. Identifying the domain in which someone may be influential is just as important (if not more so) than knowing who has influence.

In what area does the “influencer” shape the thinking of their constituents and how do they do this? Again rough categorizations such as “awareness”, “action”, “sentiment”, “spread”, would be far more insightful than simply claiming someone is influential. If someone is highly influential at increasing their constituents information awareness, is it by simply pointing it out the information (attention) or by highlighting some aspect of it (contextualizing it)? It is not enough to assign “influencers” to obvious subject matter buckets (ie Technology, Mommy Blogger, Foodies) as this doesnt help identify the domain of influence only the subject matter in which that domain occurs.

Without knowledge of the domain in which the influence occurs it is impossible to align influence goals with the proper “influencers”. Does the person simply help spread a brand message in one way or do they deepen the relationship between a brand and its users? Will the influencer drive sales of the product or service or awareness of it? If your influence vendor cannot provide some insight into the domain where their “influencer” exerts control or how do they do it, then the information they provide is unlikely to have any more lasting impact then a traditional banner campaign.

Conclusion
Marketers are used to broadcasting messages at consumers, using everything from celebrity figures to experts. Influence analytics programs are treated as the digital equivalent of this process, locating a “super user” to broadcast messages at all other users. Marketers have fallen in love with the idea of locating a central figure who can broadcast their brand message into a desirable niche without requiring them to engage with that niche. Of course this approach misses the point and much of the opportunity in identifying “influencers”.

Vendors have allowed marketers to confuse the ability to broadcast a message at a niche with having influence over that niche. Sales, engagement, sentiment and distribution are all results of influence that are ignored and not addressed by many “influencer” analysis programs.If an influence peddler does not offer some measure of the nature of the influence (friend, fan, foe), the type of influence (expertise, authority, emotion) exerted and the domain (product, experience, information) where effective, then be wary.

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Slacker Uprising’s Weakish Social Media Tools

September 23, 2008

MV5BMjA5MjAyNzcxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTk2MzI5MQ@@._V1._SX266_SY399_ I signed up to get Michael Moore’s latest documentary Slacker Uprising a few weeks ago and this morning I received an email telling me it was now available. The documentary covers Moore’s failed bid to oust Bush the Lesser from office by giving out Raman Noodles and clean undies. With none of the emotional impact of Sicko and none of the laughs of An American Carol Slacker Uprising is being distributed online for free (or $9.95 for the DVD). The movie can be watched on Blip.tv, iTunes and Lycos or downloaded from Amazon, iTunes and Hypernia.

However, despite the free-love goodness and the clear support for Obama, Michael Moore has failed to take a page from the Obama social media playbook and leverage social media to get the movie’s message out. The Slacker Uprising site has no way to embed or super-distribute the movie (missed the button) no way to comment or rally support around it, there isnt even a means for people to indicate support or provide any feedback on the film. All fairly standard social media tools, which would extend the viral distribution of the film, defray some of the cost and amplify its message.


How EA crushed my enthusiam for Spore

September 17, 2008

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A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with another geek friend about the merits of buying the full-version of Spore rather then downloading it via BitTorrent. I was so excited about the games release that not only was I willing to buck the P2P trend and purchase the full $79 version but I was insisting that my friends do it to. Sure you could get it for free, I’d argue, but then you would have to get a crack for it and hope the crack still worked in a week or two mode. When Spore hit stores I was ready to buy into the shrink-wrapped goodness of the retail version, alas that was not to be.

“Dumbed down experience and draconian DRM”

That was the title of the very first review posted on Amazon for the full retail version of Spore by a poster going by the name of Erich Maria Remarque. The review goes on to outline a complaint that will be echoed in over 2,000 other reviewers, namely that the Sony/BMG styled DRM, effectively punishes the purchaser of legitimate versions of Spore. After 2,595 reviews fewer than 200 rated the game 4 or more stars (one can imagine that most of these reviews are from EA staffers).

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A quick look on MiniNova shows 10 well seeded Spore torrents (>50 seeds + >100 leeches) of 76 available. Another 86 torrents where listed of various cracks and patches to the game to ensure gameplay. Clearly EA’s DRM efforts have had little impact on the ability of people to get the game without paying, nor has it limited the playability of the game, as several posters on the Mininova boards have pointed out. Everyone seems to be asking is asking is; Is this of the of

When you treat paying customers like thieves and make the purchased product less functional and more cumbersome the the free alternatives you will lose your customers. The US traditional music industry has be a shining example of this process and should function as an object lesson to other industries. Alas, EA seems not to have gotten the message and has managed to convert Spore from the most anticipated game of 208 to the most derided. So rather then a post about how awesome Spore is and how elated I am to finally have played the game, I am instead posting a missive on how I went from Promoter to detractor.


MiniNova intros a stats bonanza

August 31, 2008

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A few months ago top BitTorrent meta-tracker and SuprNova successor, Mininova started distributing content for anyone that wanted to put media in-front of their millions of users. This weekend the good folks at Mininova upgraded their Content Distribution service to include stats generated though Google Charts API. The stats themselves are an interesting window into the pull of specific types of content in different areas of the world. More fodder for algorithmic marketing efforts that can process the data and pull out usable insights into what people want and how they want to get it.


African-american content beyond BET.com

July 23, 2008

This is a SlideCast presentation of online content offerings beyond BET.com. The discussion was lead by m friend Guy Primus VP of Interactive Media for Overbrook Entertainment. Edited out much of the Q&A and some of the incredibly fun banter we had during the session to save on time.


What I’ve been up to

July 18, 2008

Brands scratch at the surface of online conversations

May 19, 2008

Last week I looked at two social media services and wondered why brands weren’t taking advantage of the wealth of information about the products and services, being offered directly from their customers. Ad Age must have seen my post because they responded with a piece about a company which is hawking a brand monitoring service that is raking in the loot. The company, MotiveQuest, offers month long studies of the chatter happening about and around brands for $30k to $75K.

While I havent seen any of these reports, based on the description in the article they seems fairly superficial. They are only using keyword matches and user tallies to provide brands with “insight” into what people are saying. While I’m sure its a huge leap over what they had previously, that is to say nothing, simply giving demogrphic information based on keyword matches isnt really pushing the boundaries of what possible and knowable. When digital agencies start offering psychographic profiles and “viral value” of users that discuss a product online and then help brands engage with them is when it will get really interesting.