A Real Look at Social Media Influence
We talk about influence as if it is something new. Actually the definition has not changed in the past 1000 years or so, but tactics for influence engagement certainly have changed due to the digital revolution. And while many might consider my use of the term “digital revolution” trite, I think it deserves the entire superfluous connotation as I intended it to be. The fact is that the digital world, and even more importantly, the related behavior changes that have transpired are extremely important. Thus, we must look at “influence” as it relates to digital behaviors.
Let’s start with a couple basic definitions to ground us on the same plane …
Influence is “the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others.” For marketers, influence is only valuable if it produces actions or changes behavior or opinions of others. This distinctive point is often missed. So as marketers, we want to focus on those individuals that do something to cause an action or behavior change in a significant number of people that favors the brand we represent. “Influence marketing focus on specific key individuals (or types of individual) rather than the target market as a whole.”
So before we have the “Klout (popular social influence scoring platform) should we care debate”, let’s make sure we understand why influence is important to brands. And second to that, let’s make sure we understand the types of influencers that are valuable to brands. I break this down in three groups:
1) Traditional influencers – these are the individuals that traditional PR agencies court. They are pinnacle media establishments (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post) and celebrity-like figures (Mario Batali, Roger Ebert, Tim Gunn) in a specific area of subject expertise.
2) Emerging (digital) influencers – bloggers that have established a large audience following and drive thought leadership in a specific space. The poster child of emerging digital influencers is Robert Scoble. Scoble is a tech blogger whose rise to vast influence started from strong participation and guidance in Microsoft’s NetMeeting support newsgroups, and for maintaining a NetMeeting information website. Another example of an influential blogger emergence from nowhere is Tavi Gevinson who commanded quite a following for her fashion blog. At the prime age of 13, she was a special guest at New York Fashion week. (It still astounds me how she came up in conversations at ELLE Magazine when I worked with them.) Emerging digital influencers could also be blogs (PitchFork, Mashable, Gizmodo) rather than individuals by name.
3) Influencers by connection – here we have your everyday “Max” and “Maya.” People who have hundreds of friends … no let me correct that … hundreds of Fac book friends and Twitter followers. These people make posts and tweets and their connected friends react. “Saw a great movie.” “New sports drink was killer.” Their posts create response and action. If you represent a brand, you want to court these people to produce brand action.
Now we are ready to talk about social media influence and break through all the nonsense being thrown about. Start by answering these questions. What do you want to accomplish? (Actually, this question should be the start of every social media and marketing endeavor.) Are you looking for earned media (mentions of your brand on an influential blog) or people to share your brand with all their friends/connections? Is the influencer expecting or will they be motivated by receiving something in return? These are the sort of things you should determine first.
And before we get into the influence tool and platform discussion, let me say this right off the bat (to set the record straight, maybe raise some controversy) … a Klout score, by itself, is meaningless. Giving Mari Smith a free test drive on a new Chevy because she has a Klout score of 78 (very high) is down right stupid. Mari is a strong social media and relationship marketing thought leader. She is not an automotive influencer. If awarding her a free test drive for a week would even lead to a tweet like “Love the new Chevy,” I think her followers could smell something fishy.
Once you have YOUR influence marketing plan defined, then you are ready to talk about tools and platforms to assist you. Think about the types of influencers you want to work with as defined above. Probably you want a mix of the different types, but think about how you are going to connect with each to build a relationship. Think about the action you want to motivate them to do. Think about the bandwidth you are willing to allocate for each.
Now a bit about the influence tools. First off, it is important to remember that digital influence is new and emerging so I am certain that we will see much greater advancements over the next 18 months. The minds behind influencer platforms realize that it is not just about accurately scoring influence, but more importantly to allow brands to determine the influencer in their market space AND to make it easier to connect with these people. When both of these functions become easier for brand marketers to execute, then we will see the true value of digital influence tools come to fruition.
Let’s start with Klout since it is probably the best known influence tool. It is good to see Klout moving from a generic influence score and starting to score on topics. After all, if you are a wine and spirits company and you are about to launch a new line, do you really care about Mashable’s high influence score or are you more likely to want to identify nightlife and alcoholic beverage influencers. Personally, I do think there is too much focus on one’s Klout score for making important decisions. I do not think it tells enough of a story and individual’s specific influence capabilities to spawn brand action. At least not yet.
Kred is an emerging influence platform that is grounded in technical innovation from PeopleBrowser. They provide an influence index much like Klout, but they also produce an Outreach score. So not only is it important to score influence from a reach and subject matter expert perspective, but it is also valuable to understand a scoring for the degree of outbound engagement the individual performs. Kred also has “community” or topical social scoring. One of Kred’s differentiators is that they are transparent with regards to their scoring attributes. They literally show you how points are accumulated.
Appinions takes a slightly different approach. Appinions is a query based influence tool. If I want to understand who the influencers are of automotive or any other area, you can form a specific query to do so. Appinions does contextual scoring versus individual scoring. Contextual scoring measures the degree of action taken by others (quote you/blog about you, link to you, retweet you) based on what you say.
Klout, Kred, and Appinions pretty much provide you a list of emerging digital influencers. If you want to know who are the people talking about your brand and having strong influence on their connections, you can use a social media monitoring tool such as Radian6, Sysomos, and others to 1) find who mentions your brand, and then 2) evaluate their influence or authority level. Having used both Radian6 and Sysomos, I can tell you this approach is very labor intensive. I am looking for a better solution. I do not think anyone is there yet, but SocialChorus is in the right direction. They offer a way to identify “influencer by connections” and reach out to them to attempt to create brand ambassadors. This is often done on a rewards basis, so I throw some caution there. Sometimes your actions might be perceived a “bought influence” and if that is the perception, your influence marketing can backfire on you.
Moving forward, all of these platforms are opening up their APIs. This means that one company can do the influence scoring and provide another platform the data. I think what we will see going forward is integrated solutions among platform providers such that some will do the scoring and other will handle the engagement activities. This will be a power combined solution.
One of the things that none of these tools do well, is to cross correlate an individual on all the channels. For instance, the blogging I do here has no contribution to an influence score. If you are reading my post (or anyone else’s) there is a chance that I have some influence due to my social media guidance. But there is no correlation between the SocialSteve Blog, the @SocialSteve twitter account, and my quotes as Steve Goldner that show up in some marketing industry online trade blogs and news sites. This does not play into the algorithm of the influence tool.
There are a handful of key points you should consider in making influence marketing part of your strategy:
1) From a marketer’s perspective, not everyone is equal. Those that have a strong reach and following AND can drive brand action deserve greater attention and TLC (tender, loving care) from brand marketers as opposed to the general public.
2) There are different types of influencers that you want to engage with and build strong relationships with.
3) A platform or tool should not determine how you go about influence marketing. You should determine who you want to reach, how you plan to engage and go about building a relationship, and then determine the platform(s) to help you get there.
Make It Happen!
Steve Goldner is the Senior Director, Social Media at MediaWhiz LLC, and can be followed on Twitter @SocialSteve.