Chasing After Influence: A Social Media Trap or the Holy Grail?

Influence—it’s what social media gurus (and affiliate marketing experts) say your company should be pursuing (or what you should be paying attention to). We’re told “influencing the influencers” is the Holy Grail—the key to unlocking success and social media is in the thick of it. But might all the hype about influencers be a trap? Could all of this focus on influence be a big waste of time? Perhaps what we’re really talking about here is nothing more than passive, quantitative clicking posing as true, outcome-producing influence.

A Flimsy Theory

Rachel Happe, an independent social media consultant (one of the smartest around), says the movement to measure and control top-down influence misses the mark. That is, it emphasizes the idea that one person alone is influential or “on top.” She says focusing on top, individual influencers to talk about your product is actually counterproductive. It relies on rather flimsy theory.

Olivier Blanchard of BrandBuilder Marketing thinks likewise but goes further, questioning the very foundation that “influencing the influencer” theory is based on. He agrees Kim Kardashian, Leighton Meester and Justin Bieber help sell whatever they get photographed wearing. Drew Barrymore and Queen Latifah sell makeup. Leonardo DiCaprio sells Tag Heuer watches.  Yes, “top-down” or “mass” influencers are real.  And how “top-down” influence works is scientifically documented and relevant in the world of big advertising and Madison Avenue.

“But this type of influence is now a) increasingly limited and narrow in scope, and b) not immediately relevant when applied to complex, real-time, laterally-driven social networks,” concludes Blanchard.  He believes influencers can be found within the masses—not just at the top of their respective subcultural family trees. And he backs up the assertion that influence is not a “top-down” phenomenon.

“Urban fashions didn’t start on a runway in New York or Milan,” says Blanchard who agrees with Happe and says influence starts at the bottom, not the top.

“’Gangsta’ culture wasn’t designed in a Soho creative studio and then packaged and sold to rap superstars.  It came from the street and was then commercialized,” says Blanchard.

Influence is Complex

“There are so many discussions lately of what makes a person and influencer and a lot of people and brands are swarming around the people they have determined to be influential,” says Happe.  “And it’s not completely wrong but influence is so much more complex than that.”

Happe says the social media industry is over-simplifying by pushing the theory of a single, ultra-influential person having significant affect on behavior of others in their network. And I’m thinking the same rings true in the affiliate marketing industry—especially when we’re measuring quantitatively (trivial behavior), not qualitatively (meaningful outcomes). Fundamentally, the idea is this: a single, ultra-influential person has significant affect on behavior of others in their network. We’re told this is true because we “see it” in the data.

“That is rarely the case,” she says. “When making a judgment about something… people rarely hear about it from one (influential) person and then go buy or consume it.  The process is more like this: they become aware of it through a whole variety of ways—media, friends, advertisements—and then they might hear a friend mention it. Then they hear someone else talking about it. Then they take a closer look. Then they ask someone and do some research. Then they might not do anything for a bit. Then a need arises and they go do something about it. Now, tell me who was the ‘influencer’ that caused them to take action? The truth is, it was no one person alone.”

A Flow of Influence

Instead, Happe suggests it may take “a network and a flow of influence” to create action. Of course, it will be hard to tell which part of that flow has the most influence on the individual taking action. But she says there’s another paradox: the more one individual influencer pushes something, the more their recommendation gets called in to question.  Because it often looks (and is) biased in some way.

“So pushing individual influencers to talk about your thing more is actually counterproductive,” Happe warns.

She says if you are trying to get a customer or prospect to take action, you should prompt behavior among the entire network of inputs that surround them. It is just as important to get the “second, third and fourth-tier people” that are “around” someone to recommend a product as it is to get one person to do so.  By prompting dense sub-networks of individuals to take an action you can affect behavior more than by targeting hubs of multiple networks.

“After all, the popular girls are only popular if they have a posse,” says Happe. “The posse matters a lot. Without their support, there would be no popular girls.  Followers matter as much as leaders… we just forget that.”

“We should be thinking about creating networks and flows of influence,” advises Happe.  “Not piling on to already overwhelmed ‘influencers.’”

But how do we create networks and flows of influence, practically speaking? And with all this controversy over the origins of influence—and how to put it to work for our businesses—is “influencing the influencers” worth it?  Or is it a big time-waster practically speaking… a trap?

Photo credit: iamos

About Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander is the authority on making social media sell and corporate trainer to small businesses and global corporations like IBM and Brazil’s energy company, Petrobras. He’s an accomplished entrepreneur, having co-founded what is today the Google Affiliate Network. He’s adjunct digital marketing professor at Loyola University’s school of business and author of Off the Hook Marketing: How to Make Social Media Sell for You.

Website: JeffMolander.com

Blog: Off the Hook Blog

Answers: AskJeffMolander.com

You can find Jeff on Twitter @jeffreymolander.

  • http://twitter.com/rhappe Rachel Happe

    Hi Jeff – Thanks for adding to some of my thoughts in this area. It’s a really complicated process that we are looking for easy answers to. If you know social network analysis, you understand that the structural holes (people who connect to sub-groups) are actually more critical to the performance of the network than the broadcasters are (those that have a lot of people listening to them) so I think part of the question is whether you are trying to maximize the performance of an individual or the performance of a network of people (market).

    • http://www.jeffmolander.com jeff_molander

      Rachel, I’ve searched high and low for your email address and cannot find it. Can you please email me regarding the Enterprise 2.0 conference?

  • Pat Grady

    this is meant as a compliment, not a critique of your past posts…  i think this is the smartest, most insightful article i’ve ever seen you produce.  and, instead of staking claims, you left me intensely thinking (also a very high compliment).  i need to re-assess the label my mind has previously assigned to your writing.

    btw, that’s influence… in action.

    • http://www.jeffmolander.com jeff_molander

      Thanks, Pat. I don’t take my accomplishment lightly. Thanks for your kind words. I’m working diligently to this end.

      Hmm. Your experience seems to explain why Sam Harrelson woke up this morning and decided to label my critical thought “wrong” and “extreme” over on his own blog… pointing at his own insight as more important. To be fair, his insight on “First Droppers” (the counter to “Early Adopter”) is relevant, insightful. I think his view is just as interesting as those I’m lobbing out there. Pity that turkey, Sam, didn’t share it (beyond the trackback) here in comments. Oh well, some things never change ;-) ;-)

      • Sam Harrelson

        Didn’t say it was wrong, just that you made a logical jump too far. 

        • Sam Harrelson

          And many apologies. I’ll try to refrain from posting my thoughts about your posts on my blog.

          Some things do never change [insert emoticon].

          • http://www.jeffmolander.com jeff_molander

            No need to apologize. Just having some fun at your expense buddy :)

          • Sam Harrelson

            Miss you! We should do a podcast soon.

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  • http://www.thestudyofsocial.com Matt Hixson

    Good points.  Influence has become such a misguided notion that is focused on the individual.  Social media is less about the individual and more about a community of people that gather around a similar subject.  How that community interacts and shares is the critical component.  Once you start to understand the dynamics of these interactions businesses can create strategies based on how these networks really work.

    • http://www.jeffmolander.com jeff_molander

      Actually, Matt, my perspective (personally speaking, as I practice and preach in my book) is to the contrary: Understanding communities and trying to “engage” to create flows of influence or whatever is far less practical when trying to create leads and sales.

      Here’s my point: There are 2 schools of thought.

      1) The Web and social media is a better way to advertise. (mass media)
      2) The Web ans social media is a better way to create and capture demand. (direct response)

      Personally, I am less interested in persuading (creating “brand preference”) using social media… less interested in influencing with it. I am more interested in using it to induce behavior that solves customers problems. This approach removes barriers to purchase by helping customers get more comfortable with their problem (and/or “what they REALLY need)… nurtures them along until they reach a stage where they’re more inclined to buy.

      Why is this so? Because the marketer (in my example) answers questions for them… solves problems, removes barriers.  The marketer earns sales thanks to actions taken that demonstrate they are the best choice… the only logical choice based on what they’ve DONE for the customer– not how persuasive their ad was. Experience trumps messaging every time. Apple doesn’t sell more products based on their clever Mac-PC guy spots. They sell more based on delivering solid product experiences.

      Just my two cents.

      • http://www.thestudyofsocial.com Matt Hixson

        I agree with you that mass marketing is just noise to most consumers in todays environment.  I also think that the way most brands behave is mostly noise to consumers.  If a brand is able to build a network of advocates for their brand it can be the most powerful asset they have in creating brand preference.  I agree with you that the new game is being there when the customer raises a need, where the model for the past number of years has been to continuously pose them an offer – whether or not they have requested it.  The critical difference for me is that social media is a collection of interactions between individuals (many to many) where a website is built to be the brand to consumer (one to one or one to many).  If you build a network of relationships then you able to build much more effective campaigns that can drive leads or sales.  Also when the customer needs to purchase you have a relationship that either directly or indirectly impacts their decision or process.  Thanks for responding to my comments. I always enjoy the feedback.