The Abominable Influencer

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.

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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. :)

Machine Gunners and Gardeners

Navy gunner's mates inspect machine gun.
Image by the U.S. Navy

A movement exists to quantify everyone’s social media strength across diverse social networks and blogs. This widespread strength is a sign of true influence, argue social media gurus. Perhaps from a mass consumer market or a top influencer’s perspective, a “machine gun” approach towards influence makes sense. For most, addressing only widespread influence puts an organization into a position of weakness. A vast majority of companies and nonprofits must cultivate specific vertical markets, and specialized media and communities, just like a gardener tending his/her specific plot of land.

Rare is the brand that has the luxury of shooting across all markets with blanket approaches aiming for only the most “influential” voices. This is in essence a PR method, treating social media voices like large broad based media, and using them to broadcast to markets. Undoubtably, this top down approach creates a lot of attention, but is it effective? Does it produce desired outcomes?

Research shows that such approaches fire many more blanks than hits. In actuality, contagious moments occur online when multiple voices pick up a topic, and start discussing it. The buzz trickles up and then out, suggesting maximum impact occurs by seeding both the top and the bottom alike.

So much of social media is relational. People may retweet and give attention to the influencers, but they respond to the voices within their trusted sector. The difference is 90 percent trust for friends, versus 70% for general consumer opinions, according to Nielsen. Top down voices may spark conversation, IF you can get their attention, but they may have no relevancy within the sector (hello, Malcolm Gladwell). The best tactical approach is to also focus on the smaller, but more knowledgable voices within a sector.

In the interview for The New Battleground for Politics, GOP director of social media Todd Herman said the party specifically focused on diverse voices of varying influencer within the community to seed the fire Nancy Pelosi campaign. There was not a mention of Michelle Malkin. The effort went viral, raising $1.6 million on $20,000 budget, not to mention all of the fantastic impressions.

Why Mass Influence Metrics Don’t Work in Gardens

Garden work
Image by re.ality

Mass influence metrics are destined to fail. While someone may have strong pull across social channels and rank well on an influence metric, they aren’t necessarily influential within a specific vertical. Meaning that someone may have a wide reach, but that influence isn’t deep enough to have an effect on core communities. It’s like rain falling on the roof. The water never gets in.

Instead, organic approaches to cultivation are needed with influencer relations.
Online communicators need to dig deep into their communities, and work to build relationships over time within the community. That means actual participation with and manual verification of potential desired relationships.

How does one begin? Start with applying David Sifry’s magic middle influencer theory to your community. Back in 2006, those were the bloggers who had 20-1000 other people linking to them. While these metrics are not as applicable in the world of Facebook and Twitter, the principle is the same: Find the voices who discuss and/or curate relevant topical community knowledge and have their own pull.

These people may not be huge on Twitter, Klout, Facebook, Empire Avenue or any other quantifiable statistic, but they have great weight in their sector. They are the most important people to focus on cultivating relationships with day after day, year after year.

We’re talking about the Amy Sample Wards and the J.D. Lasicas, the Shonali Burkes and Justin Goldsboroughs of the world. These four voices have earned great respect within their communities, but you won’t find them on the top of the A-List. Yet, it is often these voices that break and/or discuss stories first. In tandem with other similar voices, they can create great ripples across their community’s conversations. Ironically, when a story or idea takes off because of the magic middle, often top “influential” voices and the media pick up the thread, the desired effect of the machine gunners.

Similarly, someone may have a very strong LinkedIn presence within their sector, perhaps moderating a large group. They are highly influential to tens of thousands, but because they choose to spend their time on LinkedIn as opposed to Facebook, Twitter, or blogging, are they suddenly not influential? If you need to reach their group but use machine gun influence approaches, you miss the value of knowing specific communities. Again, the vast majority of nonprofits and companies MUST target specific stakeholders. Understanding where the stakeholders are determines influence, not systematic metrics.

This is the exact type of influencer approach Zoetica uses when it plans efforts like last year’s award-winning American Red Cross Crisis Data conference, and prior recognized campaigns. After more than five years in social media marketing, the magic middle form of relationship “gardening” works almost every time. The top down machine gun approach has been hit or miss.

Which influence method do you prefer, top down, organic, something completely different, or a bit of everything?

Tunisia Teaching Gladwell

Perhaps the most dismissive part of of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” article was the closure: “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.” Tunisia’s recent revolution demonstrates that social media can be a powerful tool purposed by revolutionaries for change. And in doing so, Tunisia teaches the Malcolm Gladwells of the world a lesson or two.

Gladwell’s conclusion found its basis in the weak ties theory from The Tipping Point, and lack of hierarchies in social networks. But Gladwell’s absolutist view of social change and activism online failed to grasp that it’s not the media that causes revolutions. Social media are but tools.

Further, recent research from Pew demonstrates that adults who participate in social networking also engage in more group activity than their peers. Stronger ties are the result. The Tipping Point precedes the online social networking era, and while it certainly has great insights into influence, it may be dated.

These two points prove that Gladwell was dead wrong in his New Yorker article. The Tunisian revolution was tweeted, YouTubed, Facebooked and blogged, but not here in the United States. It was done where it mattered most, in Tunisia. It was done because revolutionaries had no access to state controlled media. It had to be delivered on social channels because their were no others available to revolutionaries to counter expelled dictator Ben Ali’s propaganda machine.

Does that mean social media created the revolution? No, technology is not a cause. It does means that Gladwell was off on his assumption that finding lost phones would be the great result of social connectivity. Tunisians took real action when they saw news of suicide protests (primarily on Facebook). A chain reaction ensued when people realized that their brothers and sisters were protesting. The spark happened at the right moment, and triggered the tidal wave that cause Ben Ali to flee the country.

Another tip-off about how important Internet tools were to the resistance was the Ali government’s persistent use of phishing attacks on Gmail and Facebook in the years leading up to the climatic ousting. The government waged a bitter cyberwar against online activists, and in the end started arresting Tunisian bloggers.

It’s the Message, not the Medium

01.thich-quang-duc.jpg
Thích Quảng Đứcimage from Listverse

There are other parallels to past non-Internet events. The tidal wave of offline protests that spread across the country via social media began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide by self immolation in Sidi Bouzid. In 1963, a Bhuddhist monk named Thích Quảng Đức burned himself to death in a widely broadcasted event, that triggered the Buddhist crisis and a change in regime in South Vietnam in 1963.

Did TV cause the South Viet Nam regime change? No. Were the relational ties created by broadcasted images stronger or weaker than social media? Arguably weaker. But the tools helped get the word out. Just like in Tunisia social media tools helped combat propaganda. Intentional use of media tools to affect change worked in both cases.

Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message, and Gladwell’s arguments primarily focus on social media itself as the revolutionary message. McLuhan said not to get lost in the message, that the medium changes us in its capabilities. Both are wrong. Whether it was photographs and broadcasts in 1963 or user generated videos and Facebook messages in 2011, when the situation is right and the message is on target, revolutions can happen. The media used were but tools to affect these two governmental changes.

The only difference that social media brings to bear is a much less controlled networked media set that can circumnavigate authoritarian control. In the right situations, it can catalyze political revolt. If successfully accessed it can become a great equalizer, empowering citizens to rise up against state controlled media. The theory of an empowered Fifth Estate resonates strongly in Tunisia, and in past examples, albeit failed ones, like Iran.

One thing is for sure, regardless of punditry, autocratic governments across the world took notice of the Tunisian revolution. What do you think about Gladwell’s theory in light of these recent developments?

The Danger of Auditing the Echo Chamber

Conversations at Ignite DC 5 (@ignitedc)

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man,” Heraclitus.

I recently sat at an event in the back row. Two gentlemen in front of me were listening to the speaker, commenting back and forth in a critical way. While it seemed cruel, it also seemed familiar, something I and many others on the Internet have and continue to do every day.

We audit thought leaders, friends and others opinions, and then reinvent the ideas, bandy them back and forth, and sometimes evolve them. It’s human nature. Consider the many conversations that are occurring this autumn about Mark Zuckerberg and his character as depicted in The Social Network, or the criticism and debate about Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article on social change via social networks.

Assuming right and wrong, black and white can be a dangerous game. We assume a correct approach, a finite method, a sure answer based on our instincts, experience, and what we have heard. As a result, we can find ourselves disappointed as a result of expectations that may not have be grounded in the current factual reality.

Things change. Nothing can be the same as it was.

One can make educated judgments and decisions based on these assumptions, and often be correct. But at the same time, it is important to be open to change and new realities. Remain teachable as they say. This ability to adapt keeps us relevant.

Consider our theories and ongoing debates about influence. Who holds sway may change because our collective actions move towards the positive and negative. Some give influence to the popular, while others say influence ties to how many times your comments/content are shared with others. Perhaps it depends on the person.

The dynamics of social network technology continue to evolve. What gives someone clout can be taken away or impacted by new networks, capabilities and influences. I remember how in 2007 bloggers were pre-eminent. By 2008 Facebook and Twitter took hold, and comments began to occur on social networks. New voices arose to become influential, people who for whatever reason did not blog. While bloggers still hold a prominent role in these social networks, popularity via follower counts, retweets, links, and more became critical (and debatable) criteria for influence.

Today we are in the early midst of the mobile revolution. Frankly, we are just beginning to understand how pervasive mobile web access has become, much less how this burgeoning trend impacts our community behavior patterns.

There are eddies and pools, dynamics of social networking that reflect our true human nature. This sociological phenomena has yet to be truly grasped. Empirical scientific studies have just begun.

While we try to enforce finite concepts on this zeitgeist, we are at the same time evolving the way it works, changing our own information patterns as we seek to understand, evolve and grow this evergreen world. Because we are in constant flux, there exists a real danger in sedentary thought, and finite peanut gallery criticisms. It’s the danger of being left behind.