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.