Influence aggregation – LinkedIn and Little Bird

SUMMARY:

Influence aggregation is an emergent class of application that is taking the various strands from the social web and applying algorithms to assess influence. All provide some utility but all are flawed for widespread use in the B2B space. Here’s why.

knotAs I came away from CEE2013 last week, one topic that stuck in my mind was around the notion of ‘influence aggregation.’

In recent days I’ve come across a number of services that can be bucketed in this way. They’re interesting across a number of dimensions.

In this post I’m going to look at LinkedIn and Little Bird while referencing a couple of others that are upcoming or working in the space.

LinkedIn

Most people I know view LinkedIn as the modern equivalent of your online CV. It’s certainly a place where many people gather around to discuss topics of interest in what’s often viewed as a safe environment. It’s regarded as safe because groups can be setup in such a way that the group’s ‘owner’ acts as moderator. A good example is Bill Kutik’s HR Technology Conference Group. It sports just shy of 17,000 members – not shabby by any standards. The quality of discussion is often insightful and robust. It counts people like Phil Fersht, Luke Marson and Jarret Pazahanick as top ‘influencers.’ What’s interesting is that searches on each of their names brings up their LinkedIn link above the Google search fold.

More recently, LinkedIn has been promoting people it regards as top influencers. Among these are Richard Branson and Jack Welch. No surprise. Rachel Sklar, who is one of that group wrote an interesting piece about content and how it is rewarded. She said (among other things)

The rise of aggregation and repackaged content has meant less skill, experience and knowledge is required to do the work of churning through the news cycle, and the premium that skill and “walking around knowledge” offers is often seen as an extra just not worth paying for. (Sometimes it’s even seen as a distraction from the straightforward repurposing of a news story.)

The other issue involves who needs the “exposure.” A writer — who writes for a living — wants to get paid in money, so at a certain point “exposure” is of less value. But an entrepreneur or consultant or PR flack or whatnot — who is paid in some other way — does want that exposure. That counts as “earned media” and it’s a savings over what that business would have to invest in PR or paid advertising to reach the same eyeballs.

That’s the genius of Linkedin Influencers — where I am currently writing, for free! The premium content here is not filtered through business journalists, it comes directly from the big names themselves, writing straight to the audience.

I am somewhat skeptical about this. David Cameron, the UK’s PM is on the list and I am 99.99% sure he doesn’t write a word of what’s attributed to him. Oliver Bussmann, Group CIO at UBS is also on the list. He’s not dropped a word onto LinkedIn since February. Jack Welch, former CEO GE is number two in the list. He’s massively popular with posts regularly garnering 100,000 views. But then most of his posts are for lazy people who want to have formulaic answers as in “10 ways to  rule the world.” You get the picture.

The fallacy in Sklar’s assessment and LinkedIn’s model is that it relies on a popularity contest mechanism as a measure of influence. He or she with the most  followers must be the most influential. I don’t think it ever works that way in the real world. Sure, I’d like to nosy in on what Branson thinks from time to time but ascribed popularity as influence? Perhaps if you’re Lady Gaga in the real world then hainvg lots of ‘little monsters’ following your every move might be just the thing. But I don’t see that in the business world.

The other problem I have is that the list of some 300 people is massively skewed in the direction of US based people. That’s fine if you believe the sum of all human talent resides in the US but it doesn’t. Far from it.

Those objections aside, I do come across some gems and remain a huge fan of Kutik’s group where I have discovered and debated with some truly fine minds.

Little Bird

ray wangLittle Bird is a new service that is currently in private beta but which opens its doors very soon. Founded by former Read, Write Web editor Marshall Kirkpatrick, it is an attempt to understand and discover influence across the social web. I only know about it and got curious because I saw my name as an ‘influencer’ in a presentation. (At this point I give Kirkpatrick kudos for ego inflation.) That aside, does thew service deliver?

Well – yes and no. It seems to me that its primary measure of influence comes from Twitter, although it aggregates a slew of social media services like Facebook, Foursquare, Google Plus, LinkedIn, YouTube, Quora and others. Here’s the problem – if you’re not an assiduous user of social media services then you don’t count.

Little Bird takes a lot of the guesswork out of influence discovery by notifying users of people in which they might be interested. One of the more useful features is the activity tab which tells you how many Tweets a person puts up on average. It’s another way of measuring how noisy people are on these services.

Another useful feature is Kirkpatrick’s blog. You’d expect ti to be well written and it is. However, he sometimes drifts off into things I believe are misplaced in the business world. Example:

Nothing flies as fast across the web these days as an infographic or a numbered list. Why? Because both are items you can very quickly glean glimmers of knowledge from. That’s the fruit of editorial labor, like pressure turning coal into a diamond. That’s what people at the top of their fields in social media can offer, too, in a world swimming with mediocre content.

I am not a fan of most infographics though I am a huge fan of great graphics. On the numbered lists thing, I’ve already made my point. On the other hand, he does point to some great use cases for Little Bird. This one about Orchestrate is inspirational. The CEO says:

“We know all the leaders in the database community,” he says, “but now we’re building something that makes databases easier for people in the API community, the Javascript community, and other communities like that.”

“We need to learn who more of the leaders in those communities are, start building relationships with them and start creating high-quality content.”

That’s the essence of Little Bird – relationship building.

However, there are some glaring errors. Prof Andy McAfee for example is listed among the top influencers via YouTube. He has an account there for sure but no content. Hmmm….

Others?

Alan Lepofsky of Constellation Research tells me there are more of these services emerging and pointed me to Contatta, due to launch next week. Earlier this week I talked about my experience with Nimble.

Verdict

All have strengths and weaknesses but I think the problem is best described by one of my colleagues. He has rejected Little Bird, arguing in email that:

Influence isn’t thought through beyond typical “marketing” metrics of number of followers.  Not enough emphasis on who’s really important and why.

Don’t get me wrong, I like what they’re doing it’s just that it doesn’t go far enough.  Too many non-influencers get counted as influential and in this day of resource constraints (both dollars and people) you end up chasing ghosts.  If marketing metrics of “clicks”, “likes” and number of followers where all that mattered then it would be perfect.

I’m more interested in Power-Law dynamics and the 1-9-90 rule.  I need an aggregated view of an influencers’ Twitter/LinkedIn/Blog(s) reach. I also need to know how they engage the market beyond simply their social profile?  It’s not their social profile that makes them influential… it’s their day job and previous experiences that makes an “influencer” a true influencer.

While the above may work for consumer products with short shelf lives and perhaps inexpensive services types of businesses… I’m not sold on Little Bird’s value in complex sales in B2B with longer sales cycles.

And there you have it in a nutshell. As an aside, my contact acknowledges that some of his reasons are not so good.

There’s plenty to be learned from this emergent class of service but it is early days. There’s much to wrangle, iron out and finagle before these services become truly useful for certain enterprise types.

Image credit: Frank Koehntopp

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    1. MoritzWerner says:

      Dennis,
      This is spot on: in today’s world we have such a focus on volume, collecting and creating information, but it looks like we are quite challenged to create “Le fil rouge”. Where is the room to allow thinking and creating real new ideas… Or in short: activities are not accomplishments!