The word 'influencer' is thrown around a lot today but when you get right down to it, there's still a lot of debate about influence online and who influencers are. Can marketers harness influence through social media to further their campaigns? Can marketers even identify influencers?

While these are very valid questions, many simply make assumptions about what influence is and who has it. But according to a study that looked at the tweets from well-known Twitter celebrities who are often classified as influencers, these assumptions might very well be wrong.

As The Telegraph reported:

Scientists at Northwestern University, Illinois, used specialised mathematical algorithms to rank the most influential people “tweeting”, on the hot topic of the day.

They sifted through the tens of millions of “tweets” sent each day on the microblogging website to pinpoint who the most influential people were and how they shaped “trending” topics or issues that are popular at any given time.

What did they find? Some of Twitter's most popular influencers (think Ashton Kutcher, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga) aren't really all that influential. Instead, the most influential users on Twitter are actually individuals who have much lower profiles but who are experts in their own fields.

Translation: it's all about context. Influence is not just about the individual; it's something created at the intersection of an individual and a topic. That means that influence is a dynamic phenomenon, and the implications for marketers are significant. After all, if marketers can ever hope to come close to harnessing influence online, they're going to have to approach social media in a much more sophisticated manner. Paying $10,000 for a tweet from Kim Kardashian isn't likely to do the trick.

While many acknowledge that metrics such as follower count are mediocre at best, we're still frequently sold on the notion that influencers are easily identified. Offerings like Sponsored Tweets are essentially built on the notion that marketers can buy influence with a few clicks by paying prominent Twitter users to tweet their messages. Yet the Northwestern University study hints that the efficacy of these campaigns is questionable.

In the real world, seeking influence effectively on social media platforms like Twitter will probably look a lot like running a real-time PPC campaign: you have to monitor market trends, adjust your campaign on the fly to target the right keywords (read: influencers) and modify the message so that it resonates with what people are looking for.

The challenge, of course, is that, unlike with PPC, you can't simply open your wallet and target keywords. Those who have the potential to influence at any given moment may not want to use it for marketing purposes, and the mere act of using it at the behest of a marketer could minimize or eliminate the influence the individual temporarily has altogether.

So what's the answer? As appears to be the case with word-of-mouth, it seems that marketers must once again remember that their ability to control consumer behavior is limited. One-to-one messaging is a beautiful thing in theory but spreading your message wide and far and hoping it reaches the right person may actually be a necessary evil after all -- even in the age of social media.

Photo credit: David Shankbone via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 27 September, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2641 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (7)

Save or Cancel

Roger Williams

Hey Patricio,

Excellent article on this study that I had not heard of. Of course having been on twitter for a few years now it makes total sense. I dont use twitter to see what a celebrity has to say, there is TMZ for that, I use twitter to keep in touch with some friends but also to hear from experts in certain fields. From a marketing perspective I have minimized how much I focus on Twitter, I think Facebook and traditional SEO and PPC are much more effective from that standpoint. However I still send blog posts to twitter and use it as a communication tool if a customer wants to talk.

I have always been suspect of Sponsored Tweets for the same reason you point out. Once the twitter profile start advertising it looses its authority and trust.

Keep it up.



almost 8 years ago


Simon Gornick

If you call a group of people "influencers" it's naturally going to take a learned study to debunk the notion that they are. So many terms on the Internet are designed to be as self-serving as possible. "Influencers" is one of them.

almost 8 years ago

Moksh Juneja

Moksh Juneja, Chief Executive Officer at Avignyata Inc.

I think it is falling and failing influence on the twppl. In case of celebrity, it is either a whole team working or an individual working on it - now people know. It is not the anonnymous online as it used to be.

almost 8 years ago

Jeff McCarthy

Jeff McCarthy, Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School

Sounds like it's all about being prepared to 'let go' a little and empowering the customer - as in the #groundswell.

almost 8 years ago



Ashton Kutcher, Justin Bieber & Kim Kardashian 'influencers' thats a sad day when thats true. I believe the experts in their fields would be higher as surely more people retweet from those accounts (I know I do) not lame celebrities.

almost 8 years ago



Hi Patricio,

You're right to say brands can no longer 'control' the social web space, or ecology', that surrounds them - they can only work to 'manage' it.  

You also raise the point that it's important to distinguish between 'reach' and 'credibility'.  For instance, lots of people follow Lady Gaga, but can she deliver a credible idea about Welfare reform that re-shapes people's voting intentions? I doubt it...

The emerging science of Social Network Analysis now provides objective and measurable definitions of influence that help marketers manage the seething ecology of web based stories, discussion and opinion that shape perceptions of every brand today.  

I've written a user-friendly introduction to this new field of media research here:

almost 8 years ago


: Joe

Popular Twitter very influence many more people. Internet user day after growing interesting to Twitter. Bangladesh Government recently permitted to use Twitter browsing locally. I thank to BD Govt.

over 5 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.