Five reasons why measuring influence is elusive

Rebecca Denison is an outstanding, bright young professional and one of my favorite Twitter friends. She also happens to take exception with some of my musings on Klout and influence.  You know … I STILL think she’s bright! In the spirit of balanced debate I encouraged her to write a guest post.  Here we go …

Recently Mark wrote about the ins and outs of Klout, complete with some great insights from one of the co-founders.  It was a great look at the score and all of the work that goes into it.

The factors of influence were discussed, and we learned that Klout now accounts for 50 of these so-called factors. While I respect what Klout is trying to do, I must vehemently disagree that their score measures influence.

Klout measures tweets, retweets, popularity and the like. Klout measures numbers. True influence is much more than numbers. And true influence is felt both online and offline, and an automated digital algorithm will never be able to measure this accurately (at least not with data available today).

I’ve included what I believe to be just five factors of true influence below. What else would you include? This list will likely never be exhaustive.

Factors of True Influence

1. Actions Inspired: A common way to understand influence is to consider actions inspired. There is something to be said for changing minds, but I’ve always felt true influence leads to action. For example, when visiting a new brunch place in my neighborhood, I tweeted asking whether I should order the banana toffee French toast or eggs Benedict. A friend I often look to for restaurant recommendations in Chicago suggested the French toast, so guess what I ordered? That’s influence.

Think about measuring this. Yes, score like Klout consider retweets, which are an inspired action (I’ve influenced you to share  something), but they can never account for so many other actions because they cannot see them or track them. If you tweet and recommend French toast, and I order it, that’s incredible influence, but it would go unnoticed.

2. Context/Topic:  Influence is incredibly contextual or topical. I will never be influential to anyone about being an 18 – 24 year old male. I like to think that I’m influential to some people about things I’m knowledgeable and passionate, though. I’m the first to admit I do not have an overwhelming following (or even an impressive one), but I pull some weight in certain communities. Take the following tweet, for example:

I may not be an expert on rocket science or SEO or sheep, but when it comes to UNC (and UNC basketball), Nick finds me influential.

I know, I know. Algorithms attempt to measure this. But would Klout know that the above tweet indicates I know a lot about UNC basketball or just UNC? Klout cannot read the context and understand that McCants was an incredible player back when I was a senior in high school just waiting for my turn to go to Chapel Hill.

3. Situation/Location:  As much as context can be important, situation and location can be just as critical. If you ask me for recommendations for brunch locations (I LOVE brunch), but you live in NYC, unfortunately you’re out of luck. I don’t have much experience with brunch in NYC. Ask me about brunch in Chicago, and specifically in Lakeview or Lincoln Park, and I’m practically an expert.

Measuring this is not always easy since we don’t always volunteer our location information. And even when we do, sometimes we lie. I know a certain Canadian who uses 90210 as his zip code and was thus asked by Klout to be an US ambassador for Spotify. A quick peek at his Twitter profile would reveal his true location, but an algorithm can’t do this.

4. Timing: This relates to context and situation. Influence can be seasonal. While my friend Nick (above) seems to find me influential about UNC basketball, I can tell you far more people agree with him during the college basketball season. I’m really not all that influential about NCAA basketball this time of year, but I’m more influential about summer activities in Chicago (something which I don’t have influence over in December).

Trying to account for seasonal influence becomes tricky. Should I be influential about UNC basketball? How quickly does my influence fade? What if I participate in a weekly Twitter chat, but suddenly stop. Should my influence as a member of that community fade more or less quickly than as a UNC basketball fanatic?

5. Reach/Popularity:  It matters. I’d love to pretend that it doesn’t matter how many followers you have, but reach or popularity will always matter to some degree. If I do have expertise on certain topics, I will have the opportunity to influence more people if I have more people following me on Twitter or connected to me on Facebook. Please don’t believe that having one million followers is the solution to anything, but know that if you are an expert, having more followers who care and are influenced by you is better than having fewer.

My biggest issue with measuring reach or popularity is that for the folks with astronomical followings (ahem, Mark ;)), this factor can often skew their influence score. I don’t care how many followers he has, I will never consider Mark a reliable expert on being a teenage girl. Period. Because these numbers can be so high (and because they vary so much), this factor is really quite tricky to fairly factor into any influence measurement.

Some of these factors overlap a bit, but these are the five that I refer to most often when defining influence. What factors are most important to you? How do you define influence?

Rebecca  Denison is a social media analyst at Digitas in Chicago who is passionate about all things measurement and all things UNC.

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