The truth about social media power and influence

social media power

By Mark Schaefer

I wrote my first blog post about Klout about two and a half years ago. At that point, it was little more than another obscure social media start-up fighting for attention.  Over the ensuing months, I wrote follow-up posts that criticized Klout and its competitors for some of the embarrassing mistakes they made.

But I grew fascinated by this topic of social influence.  How DOES a person become powerful and influential on the Internet — an alternate universe that HATES any form of authority, titles, or rules?  The more I studied and thought about this, the more interesting it became. I eventually wrote a book about the subject called Return On Influence, which launched exactly one year ago.

I studied this topic of online influence intensely for a year. I read books, academic research, and white papers. I interviewed more than 70 people ranging from brand managers and mommy bloggers to Dr. Robert Cialdini, arguably the leading expert on influence in the world and the author of the seminal work Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. I got to peek inside Klout (at that point virtually the only game in town) and talk to its customers.  And here are the three conclusions I made:

1) This is a historically important time where personal power has been enabled through our ability to publish on the web.

2) The nature of power and influence in the online world is vastly different than what we are accustomed to in the offline world. It’s important for businesses and individuals to understand this — your paradigm has to shift.

3) Klout is on to something.

A year later, I’m very proud of the acclaim the book has received from the press, reviewers, and thousands of readers from around the world. I haven’t written on the topic of social influence in awhile and I thought I would reflect on what has happened in the field since the book came out.

The good.

Moving the debate along — It has been great to see meaningful debate emerge from the book as people begin to understand the changing nature of influence.  There have been some great blog posts examining the potential for corruption of these scores, the difference between advocates and influencers, and creative new ways these tools are being incorporated into traditional marketing.  Almost every marketing conference now has some element of social influence discussion on the agenda. Some of the more interesting topics include:

  • What are the differences and relationships between advocates, influencers and fans?
  • How do we connect influencer outreach initiatives to measurable business gains?
  • How can we integrate influencer data into traditional marketing initiatives?
  • Now that we can find these legitimate influencers, what do we do with them?

New technical development — A group of new companies has emerged to challenge Klout, the acknowledged market leader.  Some of them have been niche knock-offs, but others, like Appinions, offers breath-taking new opportunities for marketing insight and innovation. Appinions digs deep below the surface of mere social media input, leveraging patented Cornell University technology to cull insight from 5 million online sources. Now this is getting interesting!

Stabilization — Klout and its social influence comrades have the unenviable task of scaling fast and iterating in public. Being publicly scored and evaluated pushed a hot button with a lot of people and a rash of PR gaffes seriously hurt the credibility of the genre to the point that people could not get past the damage to rationally assess the potential of the technology. Thankfully a lot of that drama is in the past. Scores have slowly stabilized, scamming has been addressed, and the focus is on progress instead of PR spin. The debate is generally becoming less emotional and more intellectual, although many people are still rolling old tapes.

New commercial development — Nearly all the major social influence programs are finding footing with customers. Klout announced new partnerships with Microsoft and ESPN. Kred has introduced a dizzying array of features that slice and dice scores a dozen different ways. PeerIndex has evolved to become a UK-focused discount shopping site. Appinions is gaining ground with a subscription model. Almost every PR, advertising, and marketing firm is trying figure out how these useful new tools can be integrated into marketing campaigns, or even coming up with versions of their own. The idea of “social influence marketing” is moving into mainstream marketing budgets.

The bad.

The social influence feeding frenzy — In the past 12 months there has been a feeding frenzy of misguided PR and marketing people trying to hook up with “influencers,” in a desperate attempt to ride the wave.  As somebody typically on the receiving end of this behavior, I can say that 99% of the activity is crap.  I especially feel sorry for the most popular mommy bloggers who are deluged with offers and incentives. Everybody wants a piece of an influencer but most are clueless on how to do it well.  It’s still about relationships, folks.

The Klout Addicts — There is an underground network of folks supporting each other’s Klout addictions. They are obsessed with elevating their scores and doing whatever it takes to grab more valuable loot.  Swag-grabbing is harmless good fun, but I’m not sure what a connection with these folks really does for creating business results.  I’m guessing the brands are starting to figure this out?  This is one of the potential dangers I pointed out in the book and it seems to be coming true.

The Klout Echo Chamber — There are still a number of folks out there regurgitating the same tired, out-dated, and irrelevant criticisms of social scoring companies.  As they repeat their rants among themselves, they have simply created their own Echo Chamber.  The biggest problem is that these folks are stuck in an “offline” framework of power and influence or haven’t bothered to look beyond their emotions to understand the theory and psychology behind the scores.  Some of the wearisome rants include:

  • “Klout is just stupid and doesn’t measure anything.”
  • “Justin Bieber has a higher score than Warren Buffet so that proves that Klout is meaningless.”
  • “Klout says I’m influential about grapes so that proves that it is worthless.”

These were perhaps valid commentaries at one time but today it is simply running old tapes. Here is what a Klout/Kred/PeerIndex score provides: An indicator of a person’s relative ability to create content that elicits online sharing and reactions.  A company like Appinions further applies these scores in the context of topics, themes, and sentiment.

No more, no less.

Like credit scores, social influence scores are imperfect and not necessarily an indicator of future behavior. And yet, both of these indicators are useful. How many careers today are dependent on a person’s ability to effectively move content on the web?

How am I influencing you right now?

It’s likely that you know little (or nothing) about me as a person.  I’m not an “influencer” in a traditional sense in that I have any power over you through a title, an elected position, or an organizational chart. And although I can’t tell you what to do, you may actually take some action after reading this post. Will you tweet it? Forward it to a colleague? Save it for later?  Will you spend your precious time to comment on it? Have I even changed your view or attitude? Made you angry?  Made you interested enough in the subject to explore the book?

My source of power on the web comes from essentially one place:  Having an ability to create or aggregate content that is shared and creates a reaction.  Without having the ability to create and move content, most influential bloggers you admire today would probably be toiling in a cubicle someplace instead of speaking on a global stage.

In this limited context, does a social scoring number like a Klout score make sense?  Can Brian Solis create and move content  better than me? Yes. Can I do this better than many of my students? Yes. Social scoring is far from perfect, but over time, this is the valuation that is beginning to be refined – a relative ability to move content.  And that is very limited, but also very useful to many companies and brands who want to find people who can create buzz on a topic or product.

In conclusion …

Thank you for supporting (or debating) these new ideas over the past year.  I hope there are two main lessons you took away from the book:

First, this is an amazing time for everyone to find their own online power, their return on influence. It doesn’t matter what college you attended, the color of your skin, or how much money you have. You can publish on the web and you can find your own power.  Now, what are you going to do about it?

Second, I encourage you to be a critical thinker and cut through the emotionality of a company that purports to measure your influence. Yes, that might seem distasteful. It’s icky to me too. But as a business professional, we must move beyond the noise of the debate and look for the signal.  Take a clear-headed look at the real dynamics of online influence and the implications for you, your brand, and your business, and make an informed decision.

Disclosure on companies mentioned in this post: I have never received a gift or “Perk” from any social scoring company.  I accepted a dinner from the president of Kred in 2012. Both Klout and PeerIndex provided Return On Influence as a premium to their customers in 2012 as part of a promotional deal with my publisher McGraw Hill. I have indirectly provided paid counsel to Appinions as an adviser to one of their outside marketing agencies. I provided unpaid marketing counsel to Dr. Cialdini’s company. Links to books are affiliate links.

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