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.

From Branded Content Publishing to Networks (Madonna vs. Lady Gaga)

A written narrative of my #NextLevel Hawaii Keynote…

Issues Day - St. Mary's Hall Empty Theater

There’s nothing worse than performing before an empty venue. Yet isn’t that what most nonprofits and companies do on the social web?

The rush to play with new tools in this scary Brave New World has been the focus. We’ve seen the many, many successes, and yet organizations find they rarely succeed.

Then they blame the media forms. You can hear them now, “FourSquare, Facebook, Twitter, Gowalla, YouTube or blogs [take your pick] don’t work! And don’t even start with the Augmented Reality conversation! This isn’t what was promised in the New York Times. We were told this was where people met!”

World of Coca Cola Party

The truth of the matter is simple: Companies and nonprofits alike are hitting a real wall with social media. They’ve established their beachheads. They’ve built their Facebook and Twitter and X accounts. They might have even gotten a few thousand followers. But the results have been lackluster for most.

These are the things I hear when I talk with the disenchanted, “Click throughs are minimal. There are no tangible leads, donations or sales. No one follows us.”

When I look at their social outposts, the reason why is invariably obvious: Organizations don’t talk with people!!! Instead they play with their social media tools like they were press releases. They content publish like social media was a PR feed, controlling the message and trying to look good. That’s not what social media enables.

Social is about conversations within a larger ecosystem. And big business has come to play, yet when companies and nonprofits have done so they have rebelled. Executives and communicators alike don’t want to invest the time to be successful or allow for uncontrolled conversations.

Organizations insist on publishing hard pitches to deliver ROI. And brand control is of the ultimate essence. While this can happen (ROI and branding, not control) in social media, these objectives are all by-products of building a networked community through long term, sustainable relationships that are nurtured with real conversations! Social media is still organic!

So what’s an organization to do? Stop content publishing, stop pushing your spiel. Start talking, practice the law of natural attraction, bring your network to you by becoming part of the larger ecosystem. It’s what Dell and LiveStrong and so many other successes have done.

When you let go of the postured brand control methods of mass media communications, and become a contributing part of ecosystems, things start to happen. You see organizations entrenched within larger conversations. People start paying attention, and a community starts to take hold.

Issues Day - Theater

This kind of thinking — that your nonprofit or company is part of something bigger — is a huge breakthrough for most executives and communicators. Manish Mehta, Vice President of Community at Dell, likened it to Nicolas Copernicus’ 16th century breakthrough that displaced the Earth as the Center of the Universe.

When nonprofits and companies get over themselves and all of their contrived communications — like an awkward young adult finding themselves — they are able to focus on the big picture, and participate online in meaningful ways. They can add social to their larger communications mix as a real means to begin conversations with stakeholders. Whether that’s for fundraising/sales, community relations/customer service or volunteers/community loyalty, it really can happen on the social web.

Madonna vs. Lady Gaga

Let’s analyze a couple of stars that all of us can identify with… Madonna and Lady Gaga. The storied brand and the networked phenomena.

Madonna is an unmatched branding genius. She is able to transform and reinvent herself decade after decade and stay relevant. Her 2008 album Hard Candy was a #1 bestseller, the seventh of her 27 year career.

Yet Madonna is not a huge social media success. The branding doesn’t translate. Why? I think you need go no further than her community page, which reads: “Please note that posting Madonna unreleased material (including photos, audio and video) to your profile is not allowed. Doing so could result in the immediate termination of your membership with Icon.”

Madonna is in control, Madonna is messaging at you. And her image is complete, her content quality secure. And no one really wants to talk about her in conversational media forms, and given how she has controlled her community, is it any wonder? Prince has made similar strategic errors on the social web.

The there’s the current phenom, Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga plays the networked game, encouraging her Little Monsters in real dialogue on Twitter and elsewhere. She empowers them too, letting them take her content and repurpose it anyway they want to. Recording at a show? Post it online, no problem ( a la the Grateful Dead’s long-time community embracement). She has done everything in the face of the recording industry’s usual command and control approaches to marketing artists.

As Jackie Huba’s fantastic case study points out, Lady Gaga has built a magnificent global network of Little Monsters. Summarizing Jackie’s post in bullets, Lady Gaga has done that methodically:



    1) She gave her fans a name

    2) Lady Gaga made Little Monsters bigger than her, creating a larger ecosystem

    3) There are shared symnbols, and content, too.

    4) She makes her customers feel like they are rock stars, too (Chris Brogan is also a master at this)

    5) And lastly (note lastly) she has used social media tools to achieve these networked community objectives

Both artists are brilliant writers. They both get the stark, wild sexy imagery that captivates us all. I think it’s fair to say that while Lady Gaga doesn’t have the brand track record of Madonna, she understands branding very well.

Yet only one owns the most viewed YouTube video in history, quickly approaching 200 million views: Lady Gaga. Is it any wonder that her first six singles, good or bad, like them or hate them, have gone straight to #1? Lady Gaga has transcended 20th century marketing to become the ultimate brand of the 21st century.

Issues Day  - St. Mary's Hall Packed House

I think you get the point. Getting a packed room to listen within social channels requires a networked approach, an ecosystem ethos that caters to your community. It’s not just a flash flood either. It takes consistency, a commitment to keep delivering a larger conversational experience over time.

Unlike Madonna or other command and control organizations, it’s about making it easy for people to embrace the brand and run with it. Keep finding ways to enthrall your community, starting with the most important influencers who are the trusted voices in the community all the way down to the lurker who bookmarks content religiously.

We all have to deliver return on investment in some fashion. Measurement remains crucial. But remember, campaigns end while networks live on. When your community doesn’t respond, don’t pound home your sales message. Find out why. Look at your conversation (is it compelling and ecosystem centric?), your calls-to-action, your integration into other marketing channels. Because the problem — and the answer — is not the network, and it’s not the social media tool of choice.