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 Four Primary Types of Social Media Strategy

Water chess board

Image: Water chess board by cozmicberliner

The following is draft material for my next book, Welcome to the Fifth Estate (the follow up to Now Is Gone, which is almost out of print). Comments may be used in the final edition. You can download the first drafted chapter of the new edition — Welcome to the Fifth Estate — for free.

If strategy can be defined as the terms and conditions of how to engage with the Fifth Estate (or whether to engage at all) then there are many different and unique ways to do just that. Individual voices, teams, mainstream social networks, applications, pages, groups, documents, wikis, your blog, their blogs, the list goes on on ad infinitum.

Choosing the tactics is a fantastic part of the effort, but in reality the tactics are not the strategy. It’s so easy to get caught in shiny object syndrome when you consider this world full of bells and whistles. Yet, it’s important to focus on the actual strategy, the approach towards.

In my experience, the following four categories are the primary types of social media strategy that organizations use online:

1) Participation: This may be an individual (often called a social media or community manager) or in more sophisticated organizations, a team of people that are basically out and about on the interwebs, having conversations with their communities of interest. The primary purpose of their activity is interactions, building trust and developing relationships. Most customer service accounts on Twitter could be classified in this strategy taxonomy.

While a stand-alone strategy, participation is also a precursor for success in the other three primary areas of social media strategy. In many ways it’s a two step, basic, functional and necessary for any kind of dance, and something utilitarian enough that you can get away with it for one night. In addition, participation is a maintenance strategy between large initiatives.

One of the best examples of an organization that fosters participation is the nonprofit Social Media Club. It’s no coincidence that co-founder Chris Heuer is the original proponent of participation is marketing on the social web. Social Media Club began in 2006 when the first chapter began meeting in San Francisco to discuss social media. Now more than 200 chapters exist around the globe to host conversations on and offline that explore key issues facing our society caused by transformative social technologies.

2) Service: Want to make friends with the Fifth Estate? Serve it with great data, content and applications. This seems pretty easy, but there’s a fine line between serving and spamming, which most inexperienced marketers cannot delineate. In fact, many organizations begin their social media experiences by publishing content without any community to listen or consumer their offering (participation). Further, this information is often delivered via a message format rather than in a conversational tone.

If you consider the necessary precursor of listening as a step prior to social media engagement, success becomes much likelier. Add in participation and network building prior to serving the community with content and success ratios increase even further. Said application, wiki, or content will be much more likely to resonate with the community, in part because your organization will be better informed to serve.

A great example of content server is Rubbermaid, and its Adventures in Organization blog. In some examples products are featured, but in all cases the blog talks about how to organize your house, other places or outings. Adventures in Organization offers a great utilitarian approach to content delivery, providing potential stakeholders with real practical information that matters in their day to day life.


Image: #gapmagic by GoonSquadSarah

3) Top Down: Many organizations assume they will not be able to invest the time in the grassroots effort necessary for full community participation, nor do they want to commit to a long-term content offering. Instead , they opt to build relationships with influencers using a top down approach. With a relevant offering for the influencer, they seek blog coverage or social network profile endorsements. By building relationships with critical influencers, they hope the communities following these leading voices will follow suit.

A great example of an outstanding influencer approach is one my friend Susan Getgood told me about. The Gap engaged in an outreach program prior to the 2010 BlogHer conference, offering 100 influential female bloggers a $400 shopping allowance, and a styling appointment at a local Gap. These women were described as influencers and speakers at a conference where Gap clothes would be seen by hundreds of other women. Many speakers tweeted using a #gapmagic hashtag and blogged about their experience, and most wore their new Gap clothes during the conference. “Smart marketing all around,” said Susan.

4) Empowerment: The hardest of all forms of social media strategy, empowerment assumes that the organization will commit to building a far flung community. In essence, the empowered Fifth Estate members create conversations and ideas that are so extensive they exist well beyond the organization’s reach. Instead, the company or nonprofit becomes much more of a host and facilitator, available when called upon. The organization then creates initiatives and helps to sustain the effort over the long term. Crowdsourcing, large scale events, cause-based initiatives, and loyal customer communities are examples of the empowerment strategy.

Consider 350’s efforts with this type of strategy. The nonprofit organizes an annual global day of environmental action to reduce CO2 omissions. 350 uses social tools to empower local organizers to develop their own events, promote the events, and to keep their stakeholders informed. In 2010, 350 is organizing its 10/10/10 Work Parties, to get people focused on actions. They have already signed up more than 1000 event organizers in 108 countries.

Just about any individual strategy can fall under one of these four classifications or this taxonomy. More than one strategy type can be in play at once, obviously, depending on an organization’s capacity and initiative. What are your thoughts?