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.