A Heretic’s Quest for Influence Beyond Klout

Image by Matthew Venn

Influence: The act or power of producing an effect without apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command.

I’m reading a series of books right now trying to understand what makes someone influential. There are more tangential theories and approaches into the psychology of motivation than one can imagine, well beyond the universe of Klout.

It’s easy to conclude that no one understands what causes one person to influence another.

Today’s influence theories offer just a slice of individual online behavior based on attention and reach metrics. These strength and influence algorithms support theories about content production and authority. Yet they cannot identify what causes actual people and their larger social networks to adapt and move towards new ideas and behaviors. I will prove this shortly with my very good Klout score and my very humble AdAge Power 150 ranking.
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The Uberinfluencer and Bottom-Up Networks

Malcolm Gladwell
ImageMalcolm Gladwell by the Business Makers

“Influencer theory” as it is discussed today on the social web is a pop myth. The various schools of thought lack the substantive analytical scientific study and proof to be considered legitimate or factual. Yet they are used by tens of thousands of marketers to strategically position themselves, their companies or clients online.

Auburn Professor Robert French said in a comment on Friday’s round up of these theories on SmartBrief and pictured below, “Frankly, all of the efforts in social media that I have seen aimed at defining influence and influencers are tools that seek to (a) drive sales of a company/interest, (b) try to elevate a company/interest into some form of ‘thought leader’ or (c) pseudo-research disguised as marketing promotion — maybe even (d) sell a book… You can’t build a theory on anecdotal evidence.”

The State of Influencer Theory

State of Influence Theory Infographic by Jess3, based on discussions of influence on Welcome to the Fifth Estate.

When exploring the infographic in depth notice the alignment of top-down versus bottom-up influence concepts, as well as the basic offsetting of these two theory families, with Gladwell and Watts taking opposite sides. The Gladwellian top-down theories include One Percenters, Trust Agents, leaderboards, and to some extent Free Agents (to be fair, Kanter and Fine’s theory sits within their larger theory of networks). The Watts bottom-up family of theories include the Magic Middle and Groundswell.

Indeed, when you look at the two popular schools of thought, the worse for the wear is the more popular top-down school, first propagated by Malcolm Gladwell. This school holds that there are “uberinfluencers,” a few types of people that can move entire networks and organizations toward action. Unfortunately, as time has moved along (from left to right), these theories have become less and less data centric, and as French says, built on conjecture.

Every top-down single theory is positioned within a marketing book with the exception of leaderboard technologies, which are selling their services. In essence, these ideas are increasingly popularized by bloggers and companies who have directly benefited from their school of influence becoming popular. In the case of the most popular theory – Trust Agents – we see a reinvention of the one percenter theory with a healthy dose of Edelman’s Peer Trust study in it.

The idea of an uberinfluencer is reminiscent of the romantic era of cigarette advertising, when the Leo Burnett Agency creation the Marlboro Man touched off an icon of male sex appeal. Unfortunately, he was more likely alone in the desert dying from lung cancer.

Similarly, the uberinfluencer theory is very popular, and dramatacizes the impact of one person in the midst. America loves the idea of a strong man/woman leading the pack. But as time has shown, these theories do not apply universally to contagious events online and in real life. It was quite amazing to see Malcolm Gladwell’s proclamation that the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted last fall, only to have his words thrown in his face three months later with the Middle East uprisings.

There are some elements of truth to the top-down theories. Content creators or voices are important, and some become important due to their ability to generate peer trust (originally depicted as Connectors in Gladwell’s book), both of which can help set off word-of-moth events. When, where and how has become less and less specific as these theories have evolved.

The Contrarian Bottom-Up School

Duncan Watts delivering keynote address at SES New York
Image: Duncan Watts by the SESConferenceSeries

The bottom-up group, started by Watts in 2003 in direct response to Gladwell’s theories, has a different view, believing in a more networked effect to contagious events. Influence lies in smaller groups, more individuals and ideas/movements spread through weak ties. As an idea becomes popular in small groups and spreads, content creators and conversationalists notice it, and like their friends, help spread it across their extended relationships. This is the networked effect of influence.

All three of the bottom-up theories have the same weak point, that they are introduced within marketing books and, in the case of Sifry, a technology service measuring and selling blog influence. However, all three used analysis of data they collected to form their theories. At the same time, they have not had their results verified or replicated by third parties.

Watts, however, did a great deal of data analysis after his book came out while he was with Yahoo. He sparked an epic criticism of Gladwell in Fast Company, “Is the Tipping Point Toast,” and continued to revalidate his theories:

“A rare bunch of cool people just don’t have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. There’s no there there.” And then, “‘All they’ll ever say,'” Watts insists, is that a) there are people who are more influential than others, and b) they are disproportionately important in getting a trend going.”

Well said, and true, at least in this marketer’s experience. The Magic Middle of all the theories has had the most weight with blog contagions, but as Watts so well makes clear in his work, contagious events are very, very unpredictable, and who will start them is an unreliable guess at best. There is more to it than simply marketing. There must be a need, and a societal readiness.

Back to the Fast Company article: “If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one–and if it isn’t, then almost no one can,” Watts concludes.

The less popular, but much more data centric bottom-up theorists hold that social network influence is not the domain of reach. They go further to show the strength of relationships matter more, that relationships and roles (a la Li and Bernoff’s Technographic profile) can change by the time or situation, and that more contagious events start below the uberinfluencer level, then rise up as events unfold.

Chasing Influence

As we can see, none of theories have nailed how ideas spread through communities. Only Watts’s work has yet to have a major hole punched in it, other than to say it is frustratingly murky and undefined. It seems that influence has yet to be defined in the social web era, much less in the 100 years of prior sociological study.

What is clear is that influence is perceived as online power. As long as other people are willing to pay to promote their ideas, products and services, influence theory will continue to evolve (or devolve, depending on theorist). But for now, despite evolutions and wrinkles, it still appears to be a battle between Gladwellian uberinfluencers and Wattsian groundswells.

As to the myth of the uberinfluencer, it has as much likelihood of producing a contagious event as Barack Obama’s odds of resolving the debt crisis without the help of U.S. Senators and Congressmen in both parties. Yet, as long as we live in a time where popularity and attention are valued, this myth will remain strong. Welcome to pop culture.

What do you think of the State of Influencer Theory on the web?

The State of Influencer Theory Infographic

The State of Influencer Theory

The above infographic — “The State of Influencer Theory” (download here) — was published today as part of a primer on influence theory that appeared in SmartBrief on Social Media. The post updates a section of Welcome to the Fifth Estate to include leaderboard theory, such as Klout and Empire Avenue.

Addressing some issues pointed out in “Infographics: Art or Porn,” this graphic is designed by Jess3 (thank you, Jesse and Leslie), the industry leader in online data visualization. The infographic fits on one screen view. Because the graphic depicts people and theories, it is designed as a fun, cartoonesque map that illustrates the evolution of theory, creating a pop art element to it. The downloadable graphic is licensed as Creative Commons (with attribution), is high resolution, and can be made into a poster or screen wallpaper.

The key for the data elements in the graphic can be found in the companion post and is listed below:

The Tipping Point (2000) by Malcolm Gladwell – Movements are caused by three types of influencers; connectors, mavens (subject matter experts) and salesmen. Examples: Old Spice Guy, Dell Listens.

Six Degrees/Weak Ties (2003) by Duncan Watts — Data analysis shows influencers rarely start contagious movements, instead average citizens provide the spark. Examples: Egyptian Revolution, Tumblr – Digg Events.

One Percenters (2006) Jackie Huba & Ben McConnell – It is the content creators amongst Internet communities that drive online conversations. Examples: Lady Gaga, Ford Vista.

The Magic Middle (2006) by David Sifry: The middle tier of content creators and voices break stories and discussing that trickle up into widespread contagious events. Examples: 2008 Obama Election, Motrin Moms.

The Groundswell (2008) by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff: Movements start within communities, and leaders rise up out of the community, and can have many roles including content creator, critic and collector. Examples: Haiti Earthquake Texting, Pepsi Refresh.

Trust Agents (2009) by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith – Influencers are people who build online trust and relationships whose communities look to them for advice and direction. Examples: Gary Vaynerchuk (WineLibrary.TV), Republican Party’s #FirePelosi Campaign.

Free Agents (2010) by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine – These trusted influencers are independent of traditional command and control organizations, and crash into the walls of storied cultures. Examples: @BPGlobalPR, Robert Scoble at Microsoft – Channel 8

Leaderboards (2010-11): Influence can be quantified by online actions taken by a person’s community, including retweets, mentions, comments and more. Examples: Klout, Empire Avenue.

Because the article is meant to serve as an objective primer on well-discussed theories, there’s little opinion about which theories work and don’t. You do see some alignment in the graphic of top down versus bottom up theories, as well as the basic offsetting of these two theory families, with Gladwell and Watts taking opposite sides. However, there is much to say from an opinion standpoint, and it will be said here next week. :)

The History of Influencer Theory on the Social Web

A Packed Room

This weekend’s F@st Company The Influence Project gaff sparked a great discussion about influence. It’s a fascinating conversation because influence means so much to all of us online. Successful online word of mouth or grassroots marketing usually requires community influencers embracing and spreading the message.

The discussion about what influence really is has been ongoing since the social web first began. Eight years ago, Malcolm Gladwell’s the Tipping Point (2002), served as a great starting place to discuss influencers. We talked about Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen.

Yahoo’s Duncan Watts had a well-discussed counterpoint to Gladwell in F@st Company (woops) a couple of years ago dismissing “The Law of the Few

…in the large majority of cases, the cascade began with an average Joe (although in cases where an Influential touched off the trend, it spread much further). To stack the deck in favor of Influentials, Watts changed the simulation, making them 10 times more connected… But the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion.

We’ve seen other critical books come out discussing the influencer, and in particular their online role:

There are those who swear influencers can be limited to a much smaller group, Dunbar’s number, roughly 150 people (the concept was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar). Dunbar’s theory acknowledges a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.

So who’s right? Where’s influence, the uber-connected one percenter, trust agent, free agent? Or the person who lights the spark within his/her community of 150? Well, both are. Many A-List influencers (and even traditional journalists) won’t notice an idea until lesser, yet influential peers write about it. This “Magic Middle” tier of influencers — as David Sifry dubbed them in 2006 — often break stories, which trickle up until a “Connector” discovers the story.

At the same time, what starts as an ember turns into a raging inferno once the major influencers starts magnifying a larger story. The Groundswell as Charlene Li called it (2008) begins in earnest.

My personal experience is that many times you have to tickle an idea or story up the grapevine into the major A-listers, who are often late to embrace a story. However, once they do write something up there is great potential for word of mouth to occur via their trusting communities, either through traditional media or further social media conversations.

You really don’t know what’s going to go “viral,” but you do know that you need to talk to the few and the passionate — your influencers, often leaders in the community. A social media groundswell takes time as opposed to a flash flood of media hits. For organizational social media, this means building credible relationships with contacts that have the right people in their network, not necessarily the most people. And then if their community believes it, well, things can happen.