BrandSavant: Confusing Activity With Influence, by Tom Webster

Every time I see research like this, which claims that the number of Twitter followers does NOT correspond to influence, another little piece of my soul rots away. Apparently, using “data,” the study’s authors put the lie to the “million follower fallacy” by demonstrating that users with high follower counts don’t spawn a proportionate number of retweets or mentions.

Well, I think all this proves is that social media doesn’t scale very well (and calls to mind this somewhat related piece of contorted data dredging.) But more troubling is the growing acceptance amongst marketers that activity somehow equates to influence. Influence isn’t spawning retweets. Influence is getting people to do what you want. Justin Bieber doesn’t want you to retweet him, he wants you to buy his music and pay to see his concerts. Right?

Similarly, “influence” measures are really activity measures. Else, how could they decline in the short term? It is highly doubtful that my influence – online or offline – waxes and wanes as much as my online activity does, but the most popular influence measures “punish” you for taking a few days off. In short, they treat the absence of evidence (the lack of activity) as evidence of absence – indicative of declining influence. Poppycock.

But, back to the “million follower fallacy:” I have no doubt that Twitter users with greater than one million followers spawn a disproportionately lower amount of activity than those in the middle tiers. Conversations just don’t scale like that, unless you have 20 people operating your account. It’s conversations that spark mentions and retweets, and those with greater than one million followers are necessarily broadcasters – by necessity, if not by choice.

And here is the glaring hole in the reasoning of this study that you could drive a tractor-trailer through: if the disproportionately lower activity level associated with million follower accounts somehow equates to lower “influence,” how in the hell did they get greater than a million followers in the first place?

If you can get a million followers on Twitter, you are influential by definition.

Originally published 19 October 2011 on