Paul Gillin: Trivializing influence

Trivializing influence

The topic of online influence has suddenly become red hot as marketers have awakened to the reality that third-party validation by peers and experts is at least as important as marketing messages in customers’ decision-making. Not surprising, an important concept is quickly spiraling out of control.

A number of free services with such names as Klout, Kred and PeerIndex have popped up recently with algorithms that purport to boil influence down to a single number. Most of these services essentially measure Twitter activity, since that is one of the few social networks that doesn’t firewall conversations.

For b-to-c marketers, these services have some limited utility. For b2b marketers, they’re all but useless.

Measuring influence is like measuring authority or credibility. Reality is in the eye of the beholder. There are services that claim to measure sentiment of online conversations, but even the experts admit that they’re no better than about 60% accurate. Similarly, b2b decisions are influenced by dynamics that defy simplification.

Analysts, resellers, regulators, government officials and even academics may play a role. Conversations at conferences—over dinner or on the golf course—help decision-makers work out important details. The bigger and more complex the decision, the less likely it is that those who influence it are sharing their recommendations on Facebook.

Social media has demonstrated that audience size has little to do with influence, particularly in the narrow markets that typify b2b transactions. Recommendations from trusted peers carry far more weight than celebrity endorsements. The popular new influence measurement services largely disregard this fact, framing their definition instead by number of followers and retweets. By their standard, Lady Gaga is the most influential person on the planet.

A couple of examples illustrate their flaws. Marc Andreessen is one of the fathers of the modern Internet; but, because he rarely uses Twitter, he earns only mediocre ratings on two of the most popular services. Ben Bernanke is chairman of the Federal Reserve; but, because his job precludes him from using Twitter, he’s deemed to have little influence. The examples go on and on.

Influence does not equal popularity. When mass media was all we had, we relied upon impressions and Arbitron ratings as proxies of influence. Now there are ways to look behind mass metrics and better understand the conversations that lead to action. Influence scores are a throwback to the age of mass.

Really understanding influence is hard. It’s easier to tell the boss that you blasted out an email to the 50 people with the highest Klout scores. Public discourse may move the needle in people’s choices of what cola to drink, but b2b professionals understand that their job has never been that easy.

Originally published 09 April 2012 on Paul Gillin is a technology journalist and can be followed on Twitter @pgillin.