Early on in Mark Schaefer’s book Return on Influence there is a graph showing the level of traffic to Quora as it progressed from launch in early 2010 to hot trendy site in early 2011. There is a massive spike in traffic during that transition, triggered by Robert Scoble’s eulogising post “Is Quora the Biggest Blogging Innovation in 10 Years?”.
Superficially, this is a great example of online influence at work. A former mid-level employee turned himself into an online celebrity via use of social media and now can help make sites a success with just one post of praise.
And yet… take a closer look at the graph. Ignore the spike and instead draw a trend line through the earlier data points. Extend it beyond the spike and what do you find? The post-spike traffic levels were pretty much just what you would have expected without any Scoble-inspired spike. Did he really make a difference or was his post and its attention just froth on an underlying trend?
Schafer is certainly a good enough author not to ignore such questions, and he even quotes Scoble expressing some doubts over the long-term importance of his own post. But the doubts that are mentioned never really are allowed to get in the way of the main argument in the book, which ploughs on regardless.
That is that the rise of the internet and then social media have created a new breed of citizen influencers who can make or break products and services, and who need understanding, engaging and nurturing if you want to make your own product or service a success. As a guide to doing that, the book is an excellent manual, going from the eye-catching anecdotes to pep up your case through to detailed how to advice.
But it does all rest on an important assumption about how this modern world works, that is that it is one with key influencers who shape events an who therefore can and must be identified in advance and influences themselves. The critics of this view get a little bit of a look in, but their implications are not seriously addressed.
For example, one of the most powerful critiques of the key influencer tipping point model is that these key people and moments only become clear in retrospect. Re-run an experiment a second time and those who appear to be the key influencers first time round are not necessarily so the second time round. It’s more a game of chance as to who looks to be important and the real pattern is not about a few key influencers but lots of people sharing with their own friends:
There is little data to support so-called influencer behavior in social marketing. Rather, the data suggest that content and ideas online spread through large numbers of people sharing with small groups… While influential people may be able to reach a wide audience, their impact is short-lived. Content goes viral when it spreads beyond a particular sphere of influence and spreads across the social web via ordinarily people sharing with their friends.
Other evidence too is that the ‘super-influencers’ do not influence that many.
The implication of this alternative view is that rather than trying to niche-target the key influencers you have to look more broadly, targeting many because you never can be sure who will turn out to be the vital people this time round. That makes working online influence less a matter of finding the key influencers and more a matter of identifying the common interests that will attract the widest number of potential influencers, upping the odds that this time round some turn out to be key.
In trying to reach that broader audience, many of the techniques laid out in the book can be used, and even the most experienced will find useful advice to follow. The emphasis on creating high quality content is particularly welcome given how many ‘social media gurus’ look for tactical tricks that end up trying to sell an empty proposition as there is no substance behind the trickery.
Yet on the general point of whether you need to target broadly or narrowly, whether it is a matter of laser targeting a few key individuals or flooding the field with a broad approach, the book does not guide you very far for all its energetic enthusiasm for online influence.
To be fair, the book is not lost in a starry-eyed obsession with seeing online influence as a matter of a few key influencers controlling all. Indeed, the book’s dedication wisely says, “For Rebecca, who demonstrates every moment, every day, the only kind of influence that really matters”.
That is a more poetic version of my own oft-made point: when Klout says I am more influential than the Deputy Prime Minster, that means Klout is not really measuring influence. The book quotes Shelly Kramer on a similar point, “Being regarded as powerful on the Internet doesn’t really mean all that most of the time. Have you tried to get somebody on the Internet to actually do something? People will share your content all day long, but try to get somebody to [act] … that’s elusive.”
It is a reminder that even in the world of enthusiasts about online influence, online influence is not all.
Thanks to PeerIndex for providing a free copy of the book. Ironically given some of what I’ve written above, their letter to me was addressed "Dear Esteemed PeerIndex Influencer…"…! But I do find PeerIndex a useful tool as long as you remember its limitations (and its ability to analyse Twitter lists frequently makes it more useful than Klout).