What ARE Influencers Good For?

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Towed Out to Sea

The influencer hype bubble overvalues the role of popular digital voices in an online marketing program. Influencer attention can’t sustain a community over the long term, and using them often fails to produce strength of online community and actual business measurements. Rather than producing another post deconstructing the influence model, let’s try to take an objective look at what influencers can and cannot lend to an organization’s communications program.

It’s important to understand what influencers achieve in the larger social context. For the most part that consists of bursts of attention, and a perception of validity. In essence, this is the online version of media relations: Earned social mentions creating an aura of credibility.

Just like the traditional PR world, this tactical choice has its limitations. Mostly, it simply creates a word of mouth opportunity that needs to be backed by an actual product and service that a real pre-existing community likes. In addition, if deployed in an advisory role, influencers (the trusted servant kind, not the personal brands) can serve as a barometer for how a community will respond to an initiative.

Conversely, influencers don’t create the day-to-day participation and conversation necessary over long periods of time to develop and sustain a community. They can’t create valuable content for your stakeholders — unless you’re willing to sponsor full time bloggers. Influencers don’t manage communities and distributed networks of loyalists in such activities as crowdsourcing. Finally, influencers don’t produce the business outcomes that a loyal community delivers when it has embraced a symbiotic two way relationship.

A tow boat can only take a freighter out to sea, but if the actual ship is not sea-worthy it will sink with or without the tow. Similarly, influencers can only draw attention to something, but they can’t make a business, cause or idea succeed over the long term. Far from it. Let’s take a look using a familiar and recent case study.

Quora’s Mountain of Hype

Quora Traffic Post Influencer Bubble

As you can see by the above chart, the excitement over Quora has slowed down after the Silicon Valley influencer-driven bubble that started during the holiday season. It’s also interesting to note the drop in traffic preceded recent criticism and squabbles about Quora from that same Silicon Valley influencer community. Arguably the debates have given the site small, barely noticeable spikes. However, Quora’s overall traffic has increased since November, indicating the social network has successfully retained a minority of its new users.

The post-influence bubble decrease in traffic occurred because many found Quora’s product to be less interesting than advertised (and somewhat misrepresented as a blogging service). The spike featured industry specific conversations, and did not offer a broader consumer or cross-sector appeal. In essence, the influencers served as trade press, creating an echo chamber, but one that failed to compel non-insiders.

The higher plateau post influencer attention shows that Quora was able to retain some people who like question-based and information wiki-like products online. This can be credited to the preexisting community that had already seeded many questions and served as moderators. In actuality, the site was already growing in traffic naturally without the influencer bubble. The newly retained traffic after the influencer spike may have hastened Quora’s growth, but not by anything more than a few months.

Similar to an advisory board’s role, the usage created public feedback about problems with Quora, from its wonky interface and geekiness to popularity based answers as well as questionable moderation and editing. In some cases, influencers complained about censorship and their posts disappearing. Quora will need to respond and address these serious flaws if it hopes to become anything more than a niche community.

All in all, using the tow boat analogy, Quora has been brought to sea, but there are serious questions about its sea worthiness. The ship labors off the coast.

The influence bubble brought great attention, but Quora did not fully capitalize on the opportunity. It also needs to get beyond the confines of the Silicon Valley influencer circle and generate a much broader series of topical questions and answers if it intends to become a mass market success. It should be noted that there’s no business model in place to monetize, and given the large influx of traffic, this too can be considered a lost opportunity.

Conclusion

While Quora was “discovered,” its experience serves as the perfect example of the positives and limitations of influencers. As such, it should serve as an example of what to use influencers for… And what they cannot offer in the context of larger marketing programs that include product marketing, broader public relations efforts, advertising, as well as additional Internet marketing and tactics.

As for Quora itself, the question-based social network has work to do, but it still has business value, and should be monitored by professionals. Keep in mind that overall, in spite of the spike, traffic is still increasing.

What do you think an influencer’s role is in an online program? Does Quora have what it takes to make it?

P.S. Quora users seem uninterested in the question, “What are online influencers good for?

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  • http://will.crosscutcommunications.com William Reichard

    Amen to this, Geoff. Did you see Klout’s newest? http://darmano.typepad.com/logic_emotion/2011/01/klout1.html A lot of this idea comes from Gladwell and the tipping point, much of which has been subsequently debunked. The real nature of influence remains a great mystery, one that’s highly unpredictable. I guess people won’t give up on it till they’ve spent a lot of money to find out it doesn’t work.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, William. I had not seen that. I like Armano’s second reaction. Generally speaking, I think we’re in a bubble. If the .com bubble was about eyeballs in trade press, then this one is about eyeballs from bloggers. I hope businesses get smart about this and re-evaluate influencer relations as a priority, but just a singular piece of the puzzle.

  • http://freetraffictip.com Tinu

    It’s as if someone took one tiny part of a chocolate cake recipe, like vanilla extract, and decided that’s what makes or breaks the whole cake. History repeating itself – some of us said to people “blog”, and they think that’s all they have to do. “Get on Facebook” and folks try to turn their news stream into a business model.

    What happened to work? It’s not even as if the work is That hard. Decide on your objective. Be clear about your message. Find out where the people who care hang out. Help them. Genuinely care about them. Let them come to you for more answers. Is it calculus?

    The Quora thing especially is getting on my nerves. I’m no hater – certain people I respect like it for what it is, and that’s fine. But people who are enamored of it like it’s the next big thing? I want to shake them like we’re in Mommie Dearest.

    Thank you for putting this up so I have somewhere to vent, LOL.

    • Anonymous

      The best metaphor I have hear yet: “if someone took one tiny part of a chocolate cake recipe, like vanilla extract, and decided that’s what makes or breaks the whole cake.” Bingo. Don’t make your desert your whole meal!

      I actually feel a little bad for QUora. They did not actively seek this bubble that I am aware of, more the Silicon Valley digeratti fell in love with it and created the influence bubble. Still the coverage was a PR person’s dream, so I think the example is appropos.

      • http://freetraffictip.com Tinu

        Thank you. ;) I do try.

        I feel bad for Quora too – I have nothing personal against them, or their service. It’s just not for me. There are plenty of people who should be using it, but you’re right, they hype machine turned it into something it wasn’t. And it’s not as if they didn’t solicit a look from some of those folks.

        Would be great if they could take this press they’re getting and funnel it into more precise coverage. If I were them…. well. I’ll keep that to myself. :)

      • http://freetraffictip.com Tinu

        Thank you. ;) I do try.

        I feel bad for Quora too – I have nothing personal against them, or their service. It’s just not for me. There are plenty of people who should be using it, but you’re right, they hype machine turned it into something it wasn’t. And it’s not as if they didn’t solicit a look from some of those folks.

        Would be great if they could take this press they’re getting and funnel it into more precise coverage. If I were them…. well. I’ll keep that to myself. :)

  • http://freetraffictip.com Tinu

    It’s as if someone took one tiny part of a chocolate cake recipe, like vanilla extract, and decided that’s what makes or breaks the whole cake. History repeating itself – some of us said to people “blog”, and they think that’s all they have to do. “Get on Facebook” and folks try to turn their news stream into a business model.

    What happened to work? It’s not even as if the work is That hard. Decide on your objective. Be clear about your message. Find out where the people who care hang out. Help them. Genuinely care about them. Let them come to you for more answers. Is it calculus?

    The Quora thing especially is getting on my nerves. I’m no hater – certain people I respect like it for what it is, and that’s fine. But people who are enamored of it like it’s the next big thing? I want to shake them like we’re in Mommie Dearest.

    Thank you for putting this up so I have somewhere to vent, LOL.

  • Anonymous

    It surprised me how much chatter was going on about this service since when I first checked it out late last year, it just seemed like a public Q&A service – sort of like LinkedIn. I didn’t see anything ingenious about or new for that matter. Then certain people started talking about it over Twitter and all of a sudden it became the source of blog posts and in depth analysis (as well as ridicule).

    I’ve just come to the conclusion that I’d rather be doing things that matter – whether offline or online – than be someone sprinkled onto a product to make it magical.

    • Anonymous

      I agree, Andre. Part of the reason why I think Quora was not able to retain a majority of the new users (or at least keep them on as regular visitors) was the misrepresentation of the service. Slower growth due to a much more factual depiction by influencers would have yielded a more loyal user base…

    • http://freetraffictip.com Tinu

      Yes, great point, Andre. I still can’t see what makes this better than LinkedIn Answers. Or perhaps that’s just a different knife for a different problem? What exactly is Quora solving? How does it do that better than what’s already out there? That’s what I want to hear.

      • Anonymous

        I do see it as an independent question platform from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn that is similar to Yahoo! Answers. I think that it’s independent puts it in a place similar to Flickr for photos and YouTube for videos.

  • http://richardrbecker.com/ Rich Becker

    Geoff,

    There are days when I think back across everything we learned and wonder why some folks never included Amanda Chapel in their research. As much as the character often took things too far, it was a testament to how fragile the entire “influence” measurement system is, giving credit to a fictional character staffed by hidden people with agenda who made things up, in some cases, out of thin air.

    To think people actually pitched “her.” And there, my friend, is the shell of influencer concept, proving how popularity based measures are meaningless as Chapel was popular for awhile until her house of cards finally came to an end.

    Much like Quora? Maybe.

    Best,
    Rich

    • Anonymous

      And even more so, her muse Andre Keen’s words ring truer and truer. I was at a local tech event last night and spent 5 minutes with one of our local marketing leaders explaining why I wasn’t yet another one of these SM Experts touting influence. I am fearful that we will get pulled down with the whole lot.

      • http://freetraffictip.com Tinu

        The voice of dissent you’re building a platform for (willingly or not, secretly or not *smile*) won’t get lumped in with everyone, as long as we continue to refute the label of “social media expert” as something that actually has some tangible meaning.

        When I think “Geoff Livingston, I don’t think “social media guru”. Thought leader, new media even. But not snake oil. Anyone who has a body of thought that they share and exists outside of that will be left standing when the smoke fades and the mirrors shatter…

      • http://richardrbecker.com/ Rich Becker

        I’ve been thinking about this, lately. I’ll have some illustrations up tomorrow. We are adopting a communication model that resembles pre Scientific Revolution, with oppressive authority traded out for popular authority.

  • http://twitter.com/IanSimp Ian Simpson

    Geoff,

    This is an awesome article and I really like how you laid it out – short, to the point, but filled with facts. Thank you for applying the rigor to this question.

    A few thoughts:
    1. Quora is and will always be a niche service. No matter how many people buzz by it at any time, only a few will really manage their quest for knowledge on it. It just doesn’t offer the kind of consistency that other services do. For that reason, I wonder if we can apply your evaluation to other brands that should be more popular in general and see if the trend continues.

    2. I hope readers won’t read this and think, “well, now I know that going after influencers is obviously the wrong path to take.” As someone wrote, it’s a piece of a larger recipe, and should be utilized in conjunction with a larger strategy. It’s not the only tool in the shed, but it shouldn’t be decommissioned, either.

    Heidi Massey recently virtually introduced us – Looking forward to meeting you sometime here in DC.

    Ian

    • Anonymous

      Good point, Ian. I agree. Balance is what’s necessary. A great online strategy, scratch that, a great communications strategy deploys tactics in a balanced fashion to achieve a result. Attention is necessary at points in the life of a communications program, especially with a mature service or product offering, or in the case of nonprofits, a cause solution.

      At the same time, there’s the before (product marketing, strategy, getting ready, etc.) and the after, what do you do to move people up the ladder of engagement. Stand alone attention doesn’t work well. That I hope is the take away message for this post…

      And I look forward to meeting you, soon, too!

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