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?

30 thoughts on “Machine Gunners and Gardeners

  1. Thanks for including me in this, Geoff!

    There are two mistakes that I see groups (often big organizations or campaigns) make when it comes to connecting with their community:

    Mistake #1 – That you have only one “community”. This is very much like the point you are making above, when groups think that one message or one call to action will work as the only message because there is just one audience.

    Mistake #2 – Segments of the community are completely separated. Groups that recognize their community is actually made up of segments (both segments by channel and where you can connect to them, but also segments of interest and desired engagement) sometimes take that too far thinking that these segments never interact with each other or with you in the same way/place. This comes back to bite ’em when they set different goals, use vastly different messaging, or promise different incentives and then the segments come together on the group’s website, email, facebook, etc.

    Thanks for the great Monday morning reading – kick-starting the brain!

    • I like the addition of Mistake #2. In today’s hypernetworked world, it’s impossible to assume separation. The six shades of Kevin bacon rule applies to almost every issue. Great point, Amy!

      Thank you!

    • Thanks, Dede. I appreciate your support. I owe you a call, for sure. Yet another conference today, bear with me!

      • Enjoyed this post – especially the gardening metaphor. The organic approaches work. It also works for building or spreading peer knowledge and best practices. Wikis can be gardens. Think about the social aspect of a urban community garden – may gardens cultivating their small patches together – informally sharing insights and learnings by observation or informal discussion.

        Why do so many nonprofits waste time and effort trying to reach out to the “rock stars” when they can more effective focusing on the magic middle? Is the culture of “views” and “celebrity” just so ingrained that it is difficult to change? How do you get nonprofits to think differently?

  2. It was very kind of you to include me here, Geoff, thank you! Amy’s mistake #2 was one of the things I was going to point to, and she beat me to it. :) In such a connected world, it’s practically impossible to separate different segments of a community in a completely discrete fashion, particularly when it comes to online communities. I think it’s human nature (or maybe marketing nature?) to want to categorize everyone and put them in neat little boxes, but it’s very, very difficult to do that in the real world.

    What I see often is that, specifically when it comes to generating awareness and, ultimately action, many organizations, non-profits included, still assume “PR” is achieving ink in MSM. Just the other day I was talking to someone who is doing some terrific work in the NP sector. This person has built a fantastic community and the community, because it is energized by the program and mission, is doing the “job” of getting the word out, and will hopefully spur action as well.

    S/he then asked me what they could do to get more “PR”… and this is when the program has received really good visibility via some major online pubs and blogs. I said, “You’re already doing it. You’re building relationships with the people whose voices are listened to, not just heard. If you want to get more MSM visibility, think about why that will help your ultimate objective. If it’s not going to… what does it matter?” In other words, s/he is a really great gardener, and what I was trying to get across is that the tending and growing of that garden is what’s important.

    I’m certainly not saying that MSM visibility doesn’t help – of course it can, when it’s the right kind (in the right pubs, etc.). But the misconception that that is what “PR” is really needs to be put to rest, IMHO.

    • Yeah, I really like this, Shonali. I would even say that they take a media relations approach to social media, not a holistic PR approach (oh yeah, that battle). What these folks fail to realize is its not impressions, rather relationships that these influencers work off of… And we’re asking them to talk about us in a very important way: peer-to-peer.

      Thanks for a great comment!

  3. Thank you kindly for the mention, Papa Smurf :). But seriously, I am a huge fan of the machine gunners versus gardeners analogy. And I don’t think the answer is necessarily one or the other. But I will take gardening almost every day over machine gunning if forced to choose.

    For example, had a client the other day that is really trying to work toward IMC and doing a great job with it. We focus our PR efforts on targeting a niche community of bloggers that are influential not because of any number (see Klout score), but because of the community they have built that matches up with the client’s target customer audience. When we explain our approach to reach out to this targeted community of bloggers, people across the marketing comms disciplines seem to get it. When we start talking about numbers (e.g. Compete, Technorati, etc), several of those same communicators all of a sudden ask, “Why are the traffic or authority numbers so low?” Interesting study in human behavior to watch.

    One more magic middle analogy to drive home the point you made so well in your post. Say you work for a cat food company and have a pitch you want to share. Would you rather earn a story in a cat food blog (gardening) or in your city’s largest newspaper? The answer, of course, is both. But if I had to pick one, I’ll take the cat food blog every time because I know that community is predisposed to the story I’m telling. Cheers.

    • I think you make a great point, which I am not sure that I conveyed well in the post. You don’t want to turn back major coverage. Sometimes that helps with the magic middle, I think they are always impressed when a major influencer is as interested in a story as they are (even if it means squat to their sector). We like having a major at sector specific events, for example, because it makes the magic middle feel special. Thanks for a great comment, Justin!

  4. I think the “magic middle” is one of the best phrases I’ve come across when it comes to describing why and how organizations can influence others to pay attention to them and actually care about what they are doing.

    Shonali makes such a good point about what I think of as the new PR – tending to your garden community and creating really great ties that generate press attention is what PR is about nowadays.

    I think the next class you should teach is one on creating a create community garden, don’t you?

    I’ll be passing this along to folks – thanks for getting my brain going this Monday as well.

    • We’ll see if I teach again. LOL! David Sifry did such a great job with the Magic Middle analysis that Technorati was doing in the middle of the last decade. It’s a shame that Technorati has lost so much muscle because they did do an interesting job promoting and ranking. Thanks for the comment and tweet, Debra!

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  7. The big mistake companies make is assuming influence = intensity. As Spike Jones says all the time, I’d rather have 500 people that are genuinely passionate about my brand, versus 1 famous person who is moderately excited.

    • Good analogy! Influence = intensity, and it’s so true. It’s like spending all your money on the first day of vacation! That = a craptastic VK! Thanks for the comment and the RT, Jay.

  8. Great post. Context is everything when you are discussing influence. General scoring has little to no use to a business trying to produce results within a specific context. I think this is even more relevant to B2B conversations because the context tends to be more focused.

    At the end of your post you talk about people who basically influence the “influencers”. It really breaks down to how is your community structured and how does information flow. If you are a company that is trying to get out a message for example and you want to reach an “influencer” with the right intelligence you might find it much more productive to build a relationship with an influencer of the influencer. So I guess my other point here is that the business objective you are trying to achieve greatly influences who your influencers are based on what you need.

    I love the post and glad I discovered the blog.

    • Yes, influencer of an influencer. So, one thing that may make sense is that in an ecosystem, there is always intradependence. It’s never so easy as the big fish. You need the plankton and the small and medium sized fish, too. Sharks are small relatively speaking from a populations perspective. Point being, we are all interconnected, there really is no singular A-List. Cheers, and thanks for a great comment!

  9. I find that people with less influence can have more passion for your brand than those with higher influence levels. Even if the influence and numbers aren’t there to back that person up, they will tweet about you and your brand all day long, as long as you talk back!

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  13.  Geoff, great points. It’s the ‘working’ influencers aka magic middle who are fully immersed and contributing to their communities who have meaningful, sustainable influence.  

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  15. Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

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