Social influence or social propagation?

I’ve written before about my doubts around the concept of social influence.  Instinctively I was and am of the view that the measurement or ideas of online social influence are clumsy at best and misleading at worst.  I had the pleasure of meeting John Sumser at #HRevolution a couple of weekends ago and whilst I really enjoyed our, albeit brief, conversation, I’m not convinced by the model that is used by HR Examiner, nor indeed any of the suggested measures or rankings used by others (I daren’t even mutter the name beginning with K).

Last week I was fortunate to spend some time listening and discussing social networks with Nicholas Christakis.  Christakis is somewhat of an expert on social networks – you can see his TED lecture here – his focus is on real social networks…the old sort, people who talk to people, like we used to do.

Listening to the work that he has undertaken I started to pull together my thinking a little more to try and explain my instinctive discomfort.

The HR Examiner model looks at three main factors,

Reach: A measure of the audience size (number of eyeballs) for each individual. Traffic.

Relevance: The degree to which content associated with the individual matches a cloud of keywords prepared for the analysis

Resonance: The number of mentions, inbound links and participation found for each individual

Which sounds relative sensible. Until you start to really unpick the concept of “influence”,

“the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something” – Oxford English Dictionary

And the critical word is effect.  There needs to be an effect, in other words some sort of change, which isn’t measured by any of the online registers of influence.  The argument goes that the “resonance” goes some way to addressing this. But does it?

Christakis mentioned a really interesting real life example that had happened to him.  He is co-author of a book called “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks & How They Shape Our Lives” and last year a link to the Amazon page for the book was tweeted by Alyssa Milano (no I didn’t have a clue either) who has 1.5m followers on Twitter. The tweet went on to be re-tweeted nearly 2m times.

Being scientists, Christakis and his co-author went and looked at their sales through Amazon in the following period.

There was no discernible change AT ALL.

But that is because Alyssa is a TV personality, right? And therefore there is no relevance. So the authors asked Tim O’Reilly to tweet the link to his 1.5m followers. Which he did and which was then retweeted and retweeted.  When the authors checked back in on the sales,

There was no discernible change AT ALL.

The story goes that hearing about this, Susannah Fox (social network researcher and author) tweeted the link to her 5,000 followers believing them to be a highly relevant demographic.

And guess what? There was no discernible change to sales at all.

Both O’Reilly and Fox had Reach, Relevance and Resonance in abundance.  But this hadn’t led to any action, they had failed to actually “influence” anyone. Why is this? I’d be lying if I said that there were any concrete answers, but there were a couple of things that we discussed that I think are at the root of the issue.

Their research has indicated that there is a big difference between what I would call “contacts” and “friends” on social networks (they specifically looked at Facebook). There is a big personal factor on people’s propensity to be influenced. And that of course makes sense, we are more likely to take action based on the words or advice of people we like, trust and want to be like, than people we know nothing or little about. The “influencers” may have a lot of followers, but how many of them are just contacts and how many are in a real relationship with them?

Secondly, Christakis talked a bit about the “influencable” suggesting that we focus too much on trying to identify the shepherds and not enough time considering the sheep.  Influence isn’t a purely passive game of pushing out information, it requires a certain level of complicity, on either a conscious or subconscious level.  A lot of the way in which we look at online influence measures propagation alone, or as Christakis puts it,

“I’m not saying that Twitter is useless, but I think that the ability of Twitter to disseminate information is different from its ability to influence behaviour.”

So are we dealing with real influencers or are we dealing with a relatively select group of individuals churning about the same information, tweeting, retweeting and commenting about one another in some sort of mutual beneficial self-fulfilling prophecy?

Well I am absolutely convinced that a number of people on these lists are doing good work and doing it for the right reasons. However, there are a lot of people doing that who don’t spend their time tweeting, retweeting and connecting to people on LinkedIn.  Does that make them any more or less influential?  And the simple fact is that we don’t know.

And why don’t we know? Because we simply can’t measure it without undertaking a breathtaking longitudinal study.  Social media and the internet allow a lot of people to profess expertise and to build profile without any just cause or track record. The risk of online measures like these are that they could, unwittingly, legitimise this.

I don’t want to beat up on a particular measure or organisation, that isn’t my intention, but I will be viewing these accreditations with a huge dose “scientific and behavioural research” salt, until they can prove otherwise. I’d advise you to do the same.


  1. Callum Saunders · May 9, 2011

    As the old adage goes, ‘it takes two to tango’ and I’ve found that many social ‘gurus’ in the Twitter space that supposedly have huge ‘influence’ actually interact very little – how ironic is that? They are seen as experts and tend to regurgitate the same old tired, self-promotional links, tweets and RTs rather than interacting and engaging with people.

    I would normally proceed to state that I believe one-way communications resulting in ‘influencer’ status is wrong; yet I firmly believe that assigning ‘value’ to social interaction is also wrong. It’s the same ethos as the school playground: the popular kids walk around with a huge gang of hangers-on following their every word; yet it’s the quiet geeky kids sitting on the fence that perhaps hold the most interesting conversations and offer each other relationships of genuine value.

    As a marketing practitioner, I face an interesting dichotomy. So many people remain hung up on social media marketing ROI – ‘influence’ – yet one of the biggest benefits for brands is simply being amongst their customers and talking to them. It’s about engaging with, not dictating to, and this is why ‘influence’ is so contradictory.

    The Alyssa Milano RT example is highly pertinent. The vast majority of those RTs will simply be mindless followers doing whatever they are told to, with no thinking or logic.

    Who do I believe are the most influential people in my life? The people I interact with on a human level (be that in person or online) regularly, day in, day out. If I’m seeking to buy a new laptop, I value the opinion of my social network (in its truest, widest sense) rather than someone who is deemed ‘influential’ because a lot of people believe their hype.

    • Neil · June 13, 2011

      The dichotomy you raise is a really interesting one and I’d guess there are less honourable people out there making a lot of money on the back of it…..

  2. megP · May 9, 2011

    I find blogs are the most interesting development of social media/networking. Here’s one for example where even a quick read this morning has pointed me to people and stuff that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise, and also articulates, very elegantly may I say, your exploration of this subject. So, it’s informed thinking that is more likely to influence than the more ephemeral nature of, say twitter. And, when you’ve met the person blogging, or where you’ve exchanged on line views, then the social network comes to life.

    • Neil · June 13, 2011

      That is very kind of you Meg and a really good point about bringing online offline.

  3. Hung Lee · May 9, 2011

    Excellent post this.

    Far too much time is spent by the twitterati obsessing on ‘influence’ scores – it’s navel gazing pure and simple. As you (and Nicholas) rightly argue, influence is about affecting behavioural change and the best way to measure that is to try and get people to do stuff. My guess is that even the most ‘influential’ would struggle to do much more than get a ‘pass-it-forward’ action, in the form of a RT or a share. For those of us who aren’t Stephen Fry, say – our ability to affect change is limited to those who have an a priori connection with us – what Twitter does allow us to do is more efficiently communicate our request.

    Be interested in what others think – thanks for the post.

    Best wishes


    • Neil · June 13, 2011

      Thanks Hung and you make great points about simplicity of communication. Can it become to simple to communicate?

  4. Jon Ingham · May 10, 2011

    Interesting Neil, and one I want to have a longer think about. But here’s an immediate response:

    I still think social media is an important means of influence, but I suspect that maybe it (or at least Twitter) provides a foundation for relationship and influence than being a means for influence itself.

    I know a global survey organiser that finds surveys promoted over social media don’t get completed as fully as those accessed by email. I think this is partly about the media – people are used to moving through social media very quickly and won’t easily stop to complete a survey, or benchmark it for later completion. Whereas it is somewhat more likely that this would be done when the survey link is contained within an email.

    I suspect that some of this effect is what is being seen in your example. People may not want to stop in Amazon, fetch their credit cards etc to buy a book.

    This doesn’t mean that all these tweet impressions don’t help increase influence – but the impact may be indirect.

    It’s when someone has read a blog post, seen a TED video, watched an interview with the author on YouTube etc that they might get a bit closer to buying. At some point, one more tweet might be all that’s needed to make a difference. And they still may not be moved to action as a result of the tweet, but they may take action the next time they come across something else, which perhaps they wouldn’t have been if they’d not seen the tweet.

    Plus of course, influence isn’t all about getting someone to buy from you. I think about my influence in terms of getting people to change the way they think, not how often they buy my own book or deliver a project etc.

    All of this is further enhanced if there are things happening in the physical world as well – eg a person sees an author at a conference, talks to a friend who has read his book etc. So I don’t disagree that this form of influence is important too, and ideally we’d measure both forms in the same way.

    But, and as I’d commented previously (at that other place), I still think social media influencer rankings are useful – and will get more valid over time. Social media is increasingly important and so this form of influence is becoming increasingly important too. And influence rankings may be flawed but the more we use them, the more we’ll learn, and their validity will improve as they’re adjusted in this light.

    • Neil · June 13, 2011

      The point about the foundation for a relationship is a good one. I think that nails the use of social media. But I still have to disagree with you on the lists I’m afraid….we’ll have to agree to differ…..until I convince you!

  5. Flora Marriott · May 10, 2011

    Hi Neil, I found this a really interesting post, and also lots of great points in the comments. I’d echo what Callum says about how it can be the quiet geeky kid in the corner who often has something really interesting to say, and his point about how influence isn’t as powerful as two way interaction.

    I’m not into influencers lists, or using social media as a way of creating influence. Although I accept that others may love them. There are so many different motivations for using social media. Some people will be trying to sell, gain hundreds of followers, feel gratified by lots of RTs or site visits, or comments. Many others will be simply wanting to read interesting things, connect with people, extend their network.

    I think that the only (minor) use, for me, of rankings might be to check and see if there’s someone amazing that I’ve never heard of that could be interesting to follow.

    I loved Steve Browne’s recent blog post, ‘You’ve got a friend’, which is all about how social media has led him to some lasting friendships. He says “I want to know you enough that you leave an imprint on my life”. Deep friendships, rather than lots of superficial ones. I really value actually meeting and getting to know wonderful and interesting people – as I’ve done through #connectinghr – but this has nothing at all to do with measurements such as relevance and reach etc and nothing to do with social influencer rankings.

    • Neil · June 13, 2011

      Quality not quantity? I totally agree.

  6. Pingback: Jon Ingham: HCM Consultant
  7. Pingback: Another Look at Influence | HR Examiner with John Sumser

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