The Abominable Influencer

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Abominable Snowmen?
Image by codecarnage

You probably know the legend as Bigfoot, the yeti, or the Abominable Snowman. The mysterious, gigantic hairy biped eludes human contact in mountainous regions, vying for its own survival. Thrilling and scary at the same time, northern cultures dream of this elusive and powerful icon of the unexplored wilderness.

Similarly, PR and marketing types alike dream of the influencer, the person who will trigger an online contagion (a.k.a. viral event). They desperately look for that powerful personality who will become their brand hero.

Finding the ultimate influencer eludes marketers in spite of modern theory. Regardless of measurable influence tools like Klout or the not so revolutionary definition of the influencer as someone who inspires action, today’s influencer theories and approaches still fail to identify the online bezerker.

You can just imagine it: “We saw a Klout score of 73, after a hard trek and much pursuit, he blogged about us, and nothing happened! He wasn’t the abominable influencer after all!”

What about the times when a contagion does happen? The abominable influencer seems to appear out of nowhere to become the central focus of an unexpected online public moment.

We call these people influencers because after the fact, only because they have been identified as someone who can cause such a moment. But just like “The Pitch” influencer Mac Lethal and Egypt revolutionary Wael Ghonim, these individuals are unlikely to reproduce that magic which caused them to become celebrated in the first place. But they will certainly reap the rewards of setting a contagion off first.

Debating Media and Peers

The State of Influencer Theory

As the above chart shows, influence theory goes back to Gladwell. If you include PR-based thought leadership memes you could argue it goes back to the 60s.
Much of today’s top down uber-influencer theory highlights individuals who can sway great actions. These people have significant online followings; ten of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions. They are marked as action creators due to retweets, comments, likes, impressions, perhaps even the ability to make a topic hot.

People read these folks for professional or personal insights. While they may be “social,” their followings don’t really know them. They are not truly friends with their community. They have evolved from peers to become online personalities, modern micro media celebrities if you would.

While these people may be the harbingers of news and information, they are not as trusted as peers. The relationship and emotional tie may seem real, but in actuality it’s parasocial. These personalities are removed from that close friendship that empowers the word of mouth gold that communicators are so desperately chasing with their influencer theories.

Contagions are usually started by peers. One peer telling another, usually starting somewhere small, spreading, until it trickles up and the so-called influencers start noticing, then continuing to spread until the kernel of hotness becomes a raging contagion across the interwebs and the media.

Gladwell tried to create a taxonomy of uberinfluencer types — connectors, mavens and salesmen — in the Tipping Point. The random example of the hush puppies rebirth with random hipsters in New York City cited in the book is closer to the truth in spite of the taxonomy. We have no fricking clue who will start the next contagion.

Consider how Pinterest bubbled with word of mouth until it became a phenomena last winter. Consider how Little Lights Urban Ministries won Give to the Max Day with a Klout score of 10 at the start of the contest. Or how Paddy O’Brien beat out Silicon Valley bloggerati and Ashton Kutcher in a contest for UCSF. On and on. No one predicted these phenomena, these “viral” moments and services. No one influencer triggered their moments online, either.

Yet we keep looking for that Abominable Influencer.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.driehorst Mike Driehorst

    Maybe we (myself and the collective we as those seeking influencers, but mostly me) probably and wrongly start out by thinking we have content that is worth influencing over — and then seek to find those movers & shakers.

    Just like you essentially can’t *make* something go viral; you need something viral-worthy first.

    Like anything, moving the masses is a combination of worthwhile content & the right mechanisms (i.e., influencers). However, I think we think we have the first part already and too quickly jump to the second step.

    Definitely good spurring of food for thought, Geoff.

    • http://twitter.com/geoffliving Geoff Livingston

       We all do this.  But I also think as I mentioned with Margie’s comment, that there are other larger issues at play that affect individual ability to start contagions.

  • http://www.margieclayman.com Marjorie Clayman

    You want my feedback, eh?

    Well, I’m afraid…

    This post is brilliant.

    Actually, this is kind of in line with something I experimented with today. I was recollecting how when I first started on Twitter and first started blogging, I couldn’t buy engagement. I tried everything. I tried to share great stuff, I tried to be funny, I tried to ask questions. If I got a response on Twitter all day I did a jump for joy. But then other folks would pop up in my feed and I’d see all these retweets for things that literally did not extend beyond a report of the weather. Well, 2 years later, I tweeted something purposefully banal, and sure enough, a few people retweeted it. And I think there’s a great big moral in there.

    Factually, people will retweet things that they think will get them retweeted. Or at least i’d guess that’s the motivation 90% of the time. If you say something that seems smart or helpful and you have enough followers, you can get a lot of tweets back. If you know how to manipulate that momentum and care to, hey, you can become a power house on Twitter or on whatever platform you wish. It’s sad, but I think that’s basically the social media game.

    Unfortunately, the ability to get retweeted doesn’t usually translate to actual action. That’s something that really bothered me about the whole Kony viral thing. People passed along the video, sure. How many watched the whole thing? Or any of it? How many people said, “Hey, I’m going to go look for charities that help the people of Uganda!” I’m willing to bet not a whole lot.

    All of this to say that the abominable snowman, like the characters in Neverending Story, is going to be facing the end of his comfortable hiding existence. I think people are going to start wanting actual action to be tied to “influence” rather than a Klout score or lots of tweets. Tweets don’t usually mean money. People like money. A lot. Now maybe more than ever.

    And that’s my long-winded retort for today :)

    • http://twitter.com/geoffliving Geoff Livingston

       The problem with the whole conversation is that it revolves around the individual.  Even with all of the issues outlined in this post and your excellent comment, influence has other components to it, specifically market interests and needs, timing, and larger economic forces. So it’s like a geyser. It fires when everything hits at once.  It’s not just the individual.

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  • http://technoagita.wordpress.com/ William Reichard

    Right on, Geoff. Social media work because they can’t be gamed. If someone knew how to influence the “influencers,” we’d stop listening to the influencers. My sincere hope is that the social remains so complex as to defy scientific manipulation at least for the course of my own lifetime. It’s going to be a sad world when and if it stops being such.

    Until then, companies that want to think there are formulas for success, sure things, guarantees…they’re fundamentally understanding the social revolution. If value were a sure thing…it wouldn’t be valuable.

    Keep up the good fight!

    • http://twitter.com/geoffliving Geoff Livingston

       Just an example of the games marketers play…

  • http://www.thestudyofsocial.com Matt Hixson

    Hey Geoff – I agree that marketers are out there looking for this “influencer”.  To me the issue starts with we need to define influencer.  What are they influencing?  Then you can start to measure their influence on that.  Most of the time they are trying to influence 2 things within a social network – how to move information in a social network and how to get people to respond to your call to action.  We need to catch up soon to finish our conversation from Seattle.  I will be in Toronto for Social Mix.  Maybe we can find some time then.  

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