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Understanding influence models

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy October 8, 2013
Summary:
What is an influencer, what is influence? How can that be harnessed and why should it matter anyway? Here are some answers

Ever since blogs became the early way in which publishing was democratized, brands have been trying to find ways to influence those they believe to be market influencers.

The process accelerated as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and more recently Tumblr and Pinterest have emerged as new ways to distribute content and so continue the process of fragmenting content distribution. What we see today though are different models of external influence and it is important to understand what these are and how they work. The first two types are pretty easy to identify and understand, the third much less so.

The brand pimp

For many brands, influence/influencing/influencer is all about pushing a message that will sell more stuff. In that sense it is an extension of the classic endorsement most often seen in sports, or the 'face of...' seen in the cosmetics industry. And it's a big business. According to one source,

Khloe Kardashian is paid $13,000 (US) for every sponsored tweet.

In reality it is little more than advertising to a claimed target audience. For brands, it is a highly cost effective way to reach potential customers with the added bonus of being directly measurable through retweets, comments and the like. It relies on the law of large numbers for its impact. It really isn't about any form of social engagement.

The self pimp

These come in all shapes and sizes and those who understand the value of self promotion milk their 'audiences' for all their worth. We do a certain amount of that, drawing attention to the pieces that appear on diginomica. For us, it is a way of promoting content that adds to both organic search, email and RSS feed subscriptions. We hope that in doing so, we can grow the number of people who are interested in what we have to say.

At the extreme end of the scale, Lady Gaga lays claim to a staggering 40 million followers. She uses that as part of an integrated marketing approach that sees her extensively use both Twitter and Facebook as ways of directly promoting her wares:

Again, it is a highly effective form of advertising that costs very little but is not really about social engagement. Given the numbers involved, it would be impossible to make that work with any degree of meaning.

The subtle influence(r)

Both the brand and self pimps are taking advantage of network effects to reach ever larger audiences, often tied to the notion of celebrity. Things are different outside of those retail examples. Joseph Parker makes a very clear case for defining the 'IT influencer,' although I see a strong case for this model to apply across many industries and sectors. He defines an influencer as:

Influencers, simply put, are those whose ideas and accomplishments go beyond being inspiration. They provide new ways of solving problems. They define trends, services, and evaluate products with the expertise that inspires trust.

Not everyone has all of these traits but most I know have at least two of them. The key is not what they know but the trust others place in them.

But I think it goes a lot deeper than that. In my experience, those who are deemed to have influence as defined by the companies who engage with them, value additional attributes. For example, I know that one of the most valued traits is that of 'sense tester.' In other words, when thinking about something new, companies will corral the views of those they believe can assist in ensuring that whatever is being proposed actually makes sense and that the accompanying message is closely aligned to a chosen outcome. That's very hard to achieve when you are inside a company where institutionalized thinking is the order of the day.

Parker then goes on to outline a core difficulty.

In the mire of the online “swamp,” it’s difficult to define who matters within IT. The benefit of today’s social media landscape is that no matter who they are, once you identify an influencer you have the opportunity to engage, seek feedback/insight, and converse with them about the products and services they cover.

This is a contextual problem but with big benefits. The best influencers I know freely share most of what they know to pretty much anyone who comes along. For these people, sharing isn't altruistic but a way of conversation starting so that they learn more. In other words, they are seekers of information to synthesize against what they already know. It is what might be termed: self-ish. Parker outlines the contextual outcome position well:

The value in this engagement can manifest itself in many ways, from direct influence into a service you or your company offers to simple conversation about predictions within your field. Influencers also can shape the buyer’s decision and because of this, any input into the product or service being created or advanced should be highly valued. The challenge for anyone interested in finding the right person is weeding through all the “pretenders” who portray themselves as titans of industry. Below is a criterion for defining influencers within IT.

He then goes on to talk about how influencers make extensive use of social media and spread information. All of that is true to a greater or lesser extent but what I see happening is that influencers will use whatever media is best at the time.

What about social media?

At one time, I wasn't keen on Facebook other than for family and friends stuff. Today, I see far more value coming from information gathering via friends and colleagues. But then I also like the fun elements associated with Facebook.  Twitter? More a snapshot of what's going on.

LinkedIn provides a different lens. It's only in the last few months that I have taken this medium seriously. Why? I'm not on the market for a job and yet LinkedIn is often characterized as the database of choice for head hunters. For me LinkedIn serves as a way for me to find and establish new contacts outside the technology industry. In other words, it is a great way to reach user organizations and representatives without the headache of building lists. It also helps inform on the topics that matter most to those who consume our content. Facebook and Twitter don't fullfil that purpose particularly well.

Verdict

I agree with Parker about the broad role, intent and use of influence(r/s) but I think it is far easier to make those connections than it was in times past. I also believe it is far easier to spot what Parker refers to as 'pretenders.' There are just too many smart people out there for pretenders to survive.

Bonus points: I was asked to give a talk on this topic a couple of years ago. It remains the most viewed slide deck I've published to date. See above at the top of this post.

FEature image credit: Frank Koehntopp

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