Earlier this year, Forbes published an article entitled Who Are the Top 50 Social Media Power Influencers, 2013? by Haydn Shaughnessy. It followed similar posts by Shaughnessy on The Top 20 Women Social Media Influencers, also on Forbes, and a similar Top 50 list 12 months earlier.

The article soon came under fire from certain areas of the web, including Mark Schaefer’s Grow blog and Jure Klepic of the Huffington Post. Additionally, there were numerous conversations across the web on the Forbes article, with the majority of people discounting its validation.

So why did a publication like Forbes receive such criticism, and what does the discounting of influencer results like the one on Forbes mean for influence marketing in general?

Popularity is Not Influence

This is beginning to sound like a broken record, but popularity does not equal influence. While having 100,000 followers on Twitter might be a nice statement of your social proof (hint: it’s not really), does that make you influential (another hint: no)?

This is where the majority of the criticism of the Forbes article comes into play.

In his preamble to the list, Shaughnessy shares the “algorithm” behind identifying the influencers, and that he uses Twitter measurement platform Peek Analytics. That should raise the first red flag – Shaughnessy is only defining influence from a single platform.

However, it’s Peek Analytics’ own description that devalues Shaughnessy’s article even more. From the Peek Analytics website:

Social Pull is not a measure of a single individual’s “influence;” rather, it is an audience-based metric that is a direct reflection of the quality and size of the Twitter audience that has been “pulled” into following an account or mentioning a keyword @name, hashtag, or URL on Twitter.

So, Peek Analytics doesn’t measure influence; they measure data based on interactions. So why does Shaughnessy use a tracking platform that doesn’t measure influence to create an influencer list?

It’s this flawed approach that the majority of the criticism around the web has picked up on.

…this is a suspicious methodology to define social media influence, and that is about as charitable as I can be. – Mark Schaefer

With their tired standard of measuring Twitter followers, PeekAnalytics adds nothing to the conversation of influence measurement. Similar to every other list that has been made based solely on Twitter followers, there is no attention paid to the metrics of comments on their blogs, content quality and other social networks. – Jure Klepic

…the thing that bothered me about the Forbes list is they clearly did it based on Twitter followers alone. There are two people on there I know, for a fact, they paid for their followers and don’t interact, engage, or build community. – Gini Dietrich

These criticisms, and others like them, clearly show that the social web has moved way beyond just numbers and a platform where spam bots are plentiful when it comes to defining influence in the truest sense.

Influence is Multi-Layered

The other core issue with the Forbes article is the very fact Shaughnessy limits measurement to a single platform. This is lazy analytics at best, allowing for flawed metrics to be used as a source of influence identification.

It’s also one of the reasons that an influence marketing survey from earlier this year of over 1,300 professionals highlighted the need for more accurate and informed data analysis, versus the approach currently taken by social scoring platforms.

Influence marketing survey key insights

For example, Klout’s algorithm only measures your public Twitter data – they need you to connect your other social accounts to offer any true accuracy. From a recent TechCrunch article:

Before we are able to incorporate any data into a person’s score, we need users to connect the network to Klout so we can begin to process the influence data.

So, much like Peek Analytics, they’re using a single platform to measure influence, as opposed to all the other social footprints you may have elsewhere. Klout competitor Kred is in the same boat:

To calculate your Kred, we analyze billions of tweets from the last 1,000 days. We add your Facebook actions when you connect your account.

While there’s no doubt Twitter is an important part of the social media ecosystem, it’s just one piece in a very large puzzle. And it’s this reliance on Twitter data only that dilutes the effectiveness of social scoring when it comes to identifying true influence based on behavioural change, as opposed to reactions to a tweet.

Influence is much more than the sum of Twitter’s parts. If we, as marketers and brands, are looking to truly understand what drives actions in people – the definition of influencing someone – then we need to understand much more than a tweet or social network update.

  • Situational factors – what’s affecting someone’s decision-making at any given time?
  • Peer factors – who offers the most influence based on where you are in that decision-making process?
  • Financial – can you afford to buy, or are you more logical and prudent with your money?
  • Emotional – tied into the financial factor, does emotion for a product override common sense, logic and lack of funds?
  • Familial factors – who’s the decision-maker in the family and how does this impact a brand message being accepted?

These are just a few of the factors involved into identifying where influence may play a part, and who the influencer would be to instill the next part of the equation and, by association, action.

Is Influence Marketing Losing Its Clout?

So what does this mean for influence and influence marketing moving forward? Has the potential of influence already been nixed before it’s even had a chance to reach maturity?

After all, the criticism of a respected media publication like Forbes, as well as questions being raised on current social influence outreach and its effectiveness at ROI, would suggest influence is becoming a tainted topic.

And, to a degree, it is. Lack of results (shared or perceived) harm the medium, as brands (rightly so) look for return on their investments, beyond simple retweets and blog posts that add nothing to the bottom line.

However, as the results of the influence marketing survey I shared here show, it’s not influence itself that’s broken, but the definition of how we identify who influencers are today, and what they mean for a brand. Brands are still looking to use influence marketing as a key part of their tactics; but they do expect more.

The problem is we’re still placing “influencers” – whoever they may be – at the heart of the marketing circle, and not always defining what the context is when it comes to filtering them for a brand.

Disruptive influence

A simple example – Lifestyle Blogger A has a well-read blog, and primarily attracts an audience of women between the age of 25-44. So it makes sense that a brand whose demographics are made up of this audience should work with that blogger.

But the audience has a very different make-up. Blog Reader A is a single mom with two young kids under three; Blog Reader B is a married mom with one kid aged ten and one teenager; and Blog Reader C is a mom who has a child of college age, who’s no longer living at home.

All three of these reader segments fall within the broad category of “women between the age of 25-44” – but that’s where the similarities end.

Let’s say the brand sells toddler toys. Using a generic influence outreach campaign, the blogger might be successful at putting the brand in front of the Blog Reader A segment, but the message will be completely off-point for the other two, just-as-important segments.

This is the where the flaws of putting today’s definition of an influencer at the heart of the marketing circle appear, and why we need to move beyond this, and start putting the actual customer at the heart of the circle, and work back from there.

By taking this approach, we understand who the true influencers are – customers – and what they’re looking for, as well as who’s influencing their decisions at a specific point in time.

And if we can redefine influence to the people brands should really be taking notice of, and how to meet their needs and help with their decisions, we can reposition influence back to its true meaning and dispel its lack of effectiveness (perceived or real) currently “enjoyed” today.

A version of this post originally appeared on the official blog for the Influence Marketing book.

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