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Measuring influenceYesterday we wrote about a new app called The Social List, which has been launched by The Sunday Times and is boxing in a similar area as Klout and PeerIndex.

Here's how it is being positioned: "The Sunday Times Social List is set to become the definitive measure of the most influential people within the social space."

Tricky. The trouble with measuring 'influence' is that it is incredibly difficult to do so in an automated way. I think it's virtually impossible to make any real statements about who is and isn't influential without some form of human analysis. 

These tools are of course works in progress, and as they stand they are certainly indicators of something, but I'm not sure they're indicators of true influence.

Define: influence

A common definition of influence is that it reflects the ability of a person (or a thing) to change behaviour, or mindsets, or to persuade someone into taking some form of action. Influence is relative, and it is not the same thing as reach. 

Activity

I attended the launch party for The Social List last Friday and the first thing that struck me is that the algorithm appears to be heavily linked to activity (yours, and that of your followers, which is in part determined by how many status updates you push out).

If you go on holiday for a week your score will definitely drop. This is no indicator of influence. The genuinely influential do not become any less influential following a week of lazing around on a beach.

Gaming

We have already proved that Klout scores can be gamed by bots, and until these apps can apply the right kind of weightings and ranking factors they will be at risk of spam. And spam is one of the biggest issues they face. They are no different from search engines in this respect.

Take the Econsultancy Twitter feed as an example. We see spammers on a daily basis, who retweet our articles in batch (sometimes we'll see 50 retweets coming through in a matter of seconds, all from related spam accounts, which we block and report). Twitter needs to deal with these losers, and so do the 'influence' measurement apps. This kind of activity should not be be reflected positively in any scoring of @econsultancy. 

Follower activity is where it's at

Well, kind of. It isn't your activity that these apps should be interested in, but rather the activity of your followers (and their followers, and the followers of those people, etc). 

Influence is partly about persuading people to take some form of action, which on Twitter might crudely be measured as a retweet or @reply. Note that some retweets are more valuable than others. This is something that these activity-based algorithms need to better understand. 

A retweet isn't always a recommendation. An @reply can sometimes consist of a "You suck" message, or worse (after reading such a message a human observer might suggest that the recipient has lost influence, whereas an algorithm might assign points for the @reply).

Yet both retweets and @replies are somewhat nano in scope... what about the more macro actions of the influenced, way beyond the realms of Twitter (and the other social networks that are tracked)? 

Reach

If somebody within your social circles retweets your tweet then maybe this is indeed a sign of influence. A surer sign would be if you are retweeted by somebody outside of your circle. 

But other factors come into play, such as reach. Aren't people with a lot of reach are perhaps more likely to attract more retweets from strangers? In absolute terms, yes they are, such is power of the network effect.

Take Lady Gaga as an example. She recently surpassed the 10m follower mark on Twitter. This makes her the most popular person on Twitter. But popularity is not the strongest sign of influence, only of reach. I have no doubt that Gaga is influential, but it is perhaps too early to make sense of the precise nature of her influence. Also, she never seems to @reply or retweet anybody, which isn't a great sign for automated measurement algorithms. 

Audience

Who are you influencing, and how? This is, for me, one of the key things to consider. Consider the fate of the Velvet Underground, who while active as a band only sold a handful of records and had almost no reach. But they had huge influence and deeply inspired the likes of David Bowie, Roxy Music, The Fall, Pixies, Kraftwerk, My Bloody Valentine and so many other (influential) artists.

The same thing is said of the Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Everybody who was there apparently went on to form a band (The Smiths, Joy Division, etc). And yet there were less than 40 people in the audience. 

Influence and reach are hugely confused. To properly understand how influential somebody (or something) is you need to measure the activity of the people they have influenced, and the nature and scope of that activity. It's not a numbers game in absolute terms, only in percentage terms. And some actions are much more powerful than others.

Short vs long term

There's something to be said for having a lasting influence, rather than being influential for half a summer (not that brief flash in the pan trends are to be entirely discounted). Bebo was hot for a while. So was Debbie Gibson. Are they still considered influential? Were they ever?

Some definitions of influence from the crowd

Earlier today I invited my cherished Twitter followers to define influence, in 140 characters or less. Here's what they suggested... there are some common themes:

@LordManley The extent or capacity to effect changes in behaviour of others.

@krisdoubleyou The act altering of another person's opinion, either deliberately or subconsciously.

@Florina_B The ability to have a message with a high impact, depending on the channel you use, looking fwd to that blogpost.

@mari7305 @Econsultancy @lakey impacting another's thinking, choices, and preferences?

@BenjMartin Having an altering effect on other peoples actions, thoughts or behaviour through own actions, thoughts or beavhiour.

@_RosieT Worth listening to.

@tlonuqbar Being thought worthy of attention on a given topic by informed insiders.

@timcaynes It's what those that don't respond to definition requests have.

@whdigital Galvanize or sway perception, opinion or action. How? Size of network, strength of medium or sheer determination.

@chummers69 The ability to create interest and the effect others.

@MarkJWBoyd The capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.

@TomOCrowley Inspiration leading to action.

@vysia Ability to cause action.

@rishil The ability to nudge peoples perceptions away from or towards preconceived ideas through ones own reputation.

@PiponSolutions Influence is the ability to exert and maintain power on the actions and behaviour of others.

@katyhowell Power to impact opinion, ideas, habits, behaviours, motivations, actions, and attitudes.

@Trendshed "Influence": Small fish bosses a large pond ;-)

What do you think? Is it possible to measure influence in an automated way? 

[Image by Funkdooby via Flickr, various rights reserved]

Chris Lake

Published 17 May, 2011 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

Comments (13)

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Mary C Barkley

Agreed!

Your description of your week at the beach is dead on! I went to the beach over the Easter holiday and my Klout Score dropped 3 points.

My specialty is Sustainability in branding and packaging. As a " test " this
past weekend, I warned my Followers that .i planned to Tweet 100 Tips on how to conserve resources. Ny score did go up, but now I've got CRAFTS added to my Klout Bio and I don't sew or craft anything!

In reviewing the way Klout scores are affected, I noticed a Click
Thru Rate is considered. I have no website currently smother is nothing to Click To, and yet, I have almost 100 unique RTers so I mist be saying something right.

LinkedIn and 4Square are also not yet included in your Influence Score. I am being compared to Tweeters who may be unemployed and playing on the computer all day!

I am recognised worldwide as a Sustainability Expert and yet I can't seem to convey that to Klout. Oh, well, even Jesus was misunderstood!

Happy Trails,
Mary

about 5 years ago

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LordManley

I think that it is possible to measure influence algorithmically, just as the authority of web pages is possible to measure.

What I do question, however, is whether influencing the actions of Social Media users is in at all useful in measuring real social influence. A good example would be the recent UK AV referendum - if twitter represented the thoughts of the nation then the result would have been significantly different.

TL/DR: Social Media influence is an excellent tool for identifying individuals who can best help propagate a specific message or sentiment, but not so relevant when looking to actually sway public opinion.

about 5 years ago

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Peter Austin @MarketingXD

Very good post about a tricky issue.

Also @LordManley is right. Social media influence is about making followers click. Real-world influence is about changing their beliefs. Not necessarily the same thing at all.

about 5 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

I think there are strong parallels with search algorithms, as you suggest. We know that link quantity matters. So does link quality, and the context of those pages / sites that are linking to a web page. And you can measure link velocity and spot spam.

However I also think that the proof is somewhat in the pudding. The results Google presents attract clicks (or the lack of clicks), which in turn provide user feedback data to Google, which it can use to finesse its algorithm (along with other signals). I wonder whether there's a similar kind of feedback loop available to the social influence apps, to help them improve? I suspect it's a little different but you're right: influence can be measured to some degree or other. I'm just not sure about the accuracy at this stage, and I think that context is often totally AWOL.

Great point on using Twitter to measure sentiment on AV. It would be unbalanced to just focus on one platform / demographic / sample group to determine a wider trend. It's a bit like measuring the effect of TV ads by monitoring just 5,500 households. Oh, wait...

about 5 years ago

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John MacDaniel

I agree with LordManley that it is possible to measure influence algorithmically. However how one brand defines an influencer vs. another brand may differ and these tools seems to lack the nimbleness and flexibility to take into account these types of nuances. For example I have one client who feels athletes and coaches are what they would target as an influencer. A Klout score does not tell me this. So we manually review the Social Profile of those posting and are able to dig deeper into who the author of the post is. Where I see automated identification of influence helpful is when we apply these tools on top of the intelligence that we have manually extracted. So as it exists today I still feel there is a need to manually apply some meta data to post and then utilize as much automated intelligence as possible providing the results are relevant and the insights are accurate within an acceptable level of measurement. So the bottom line is, there still exist a great opportunity for improvement.

about 5 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Hey John,

Agree. What's missing is context. There is plenty of available data, to help the likes of Klout understand people (influencers) and their audiences (the influenced). For example bios (keywords and links, and the bios of all / key followers), and the content of the status updates (common keywords / themes), as well as following tweeted links to understand subjects of interest.

This kind of profiling is going to be essential. Ultimately what we need is deep segmentation. And that's when it could become quite interesting. Right now there is a sense of everybody being put into one pot, though certainly PeerIndex lists 'top topics' on user profiles, which is a start.

about 5 years ago

Chris Delahunty

Chris Delahunty, Director at MMK Media

Great article.

One of the problems I have with social media is that measure of influence assume that lots of followers means influence. But if you are following 10,000 and 4,000 are following you, you're hardly influencing people, are you?

Good point by Mary. Surely there must be a way to blend clicks and RTs (not by bots) that shows how much influence you have and how influential the people you are influencing are.

about 5 years ago

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dominique

Great Article.

I think you are missing one thing. Relevance.

One cannot be relevant on anything in any community.

@Mary example is very interesting in this context.

If you take the mass maven/mass connectors analysis from Josh Bernoff (Forrester). The clear place to start when analyzing influence is blogs (the maven) and content and leverage social networks to extend the analysis.

This is what we have done and here is a sample of our influence ranking. http://socialgps.ecairn.com

Best

about 5 years ago

Dave Wieneke

Dave Wieneke, Director of Digital Strategy - ISITE Design at www.UsefulArts.us

"Influence" is a terrible choice of word for what's being measured. These all measure ENGAGEMENT.

The Prime minister and President Obama have influence -- armies listen to them. Warren Buffet has influence over investors.

One wouldn't try to measure their influence through tweet analysis. That's just momentary engagement.

Let's see if we can deflate some of the language in our guru-rich industry. The dot.com smug-fest lived off its own inflated words, maybe we can spare social media, and ourselves, that same fate.

about 5 years ago

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Christopher Regan

Amen to Dave Wieneke's comments regarding "our guru-rich industry" and how we tend to feed the "dot.com smug-fest" with the kindle (oops!) of "inflated words".

Let's recall that we're seeking to quantify social "discourse" across the web for the topics/brands/products we are seeking to nurture. Now, sit back, and ask yourself -- what is my nurture quotient of x, y, z etc.? Sounds absurd, doesn't it? And, people can "talk" yet how many people listen, let alone think/consider with depth the topic at hand/being "nurtured".

about 5 years ago

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John Readman

Chris - good article and good content
I agree.
My issues with all of this what are people trying to actually achieve? What are the really trying to measure? This may be engagement but I'm not sure it's influence.

As digital marketers are we doing too much analysis and over measuring everything?

The key point I think here is popularity does not equal influence. Is it even a measure of engagement? Maybe a brand could argue by having a lot of followers they are engaged with the brand. But, how many actually read or retweet what the brands tweet on a regular basis this is a whole other matter. Do we actually have the capacity to follow 10,000's of people and absorb all the content that is launched at us?

Just because you have a lot of followers doesn't make you an expert on a subject matter.

We have tested and seen the value of tweeting on your SEO results, but where the tweets of any actual value?

It always comes back to the same thing for me though - it's about the quality of the content. Whatever it is : a blog post, email, tweet, retweet all the media you are broadcasting or commenting on, the quality of the content is key. This part I believe is very hard to measure using an algorithm. But, technically you can measure followers, retweets, likes etc etc but is this really influence?

Once things become automated people will try to spam the system and abuse it. Again I believe it is hard to abuse and spam genuine useful, interesting content.

Content is still king.

about 5 years ago

Tanvi Chaturvedi

Tanvi Chaturvedi, CRM Executive at Manchester United

Good article. I've been interested in, and looking at social media monitoring platforms for a while but havent found an influence metric that is convincing enough (same goes for tracking sentiment, but thats another story for another day!). Although seemingly complex, your thought on calculating influence through monitoring/profiling of fans/followers could get us closer to the true numbers. Now if only someone would listen and build a tool like that!

about 5 years ago

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Pundit Commentator

Check out Empire Avenue. Terrific metrics to keep track of all your networks (FB, Twitter, Flickr, Youtube, LinkedIn, FB Fanpage).

about 5 years ago

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