In July, Fast Company launched a social media experiment called The Influence Project, almost on a whim. The endeavor stemmed from a profile that the magazine ran on “creative company” Mekanism. In the article, Mekanism’s president Jason Harris says his company can “engineer virality,” and Fast Company decided to test out the theory. 

Together, they set out to create a metric for judging influence online, and the result became what is now called The Influence Project, which seeks to find “2010’s Most Influential Person.” Almost immediately, the project came under fire online, from journalists, bloggers and self-titled influencers who thought Fast Company was measuring digital influence incorrectly. 

The jury’s still out, but voting for The Influence Project comes to an end August 15. I spoke with Harris and Brendan Gahan, Mekanism’s director of social media, to find out how it all came together. And if they think they’ll be crowning the most influential person of the year next week.  

Is Mekanism an ad agency?
Jason Harris: We call ourselves a creative company. But we’re sort of one part agency, one part production company. We use the name “creative company” because I think there can be some baggage associated sometimes with either of those terms. You kind of, in your mind, imagine what a typical advertising agency looks like. And you also think of production as executing someone else’s idea. We just like the handle “creative company,” which is what we are.

How do you “engineer virality”?
JH: That’s really just kind of a catch phrase that we started. But we do back it up. We create strategic and creative platforms for clients. We get a brief. We come up with a big strategy and platform. And then we pitch several ideas. We also have an integrated production model where we create everything from social media pages to film content to animation and micro-sites. And then with our social media syndication group, we employ things like digital influencer strategies, community management and content distribution. It’s not bulletproof. But because we control the ideas that we pitch clients, and the production of them, that’s how we can make that claim.

Do your clients think viral marketing will be cheap?
JH: Yes, there is a misconception that viral means inexpensive, because it typically means clients aren’t putting a hefty media buy behind it. And without a hefty media buy, there’s not a lot of risk at stake. They don’t want to pour half a million dollars, or $1 million, into production to make something. Which is sort of counterintuitive. Because you think, “Well, you should pour it into production, since there’s no media behind it.” But I do think that perception’s starting to change. That if I want to do a viral campaign, I need to make it stand out, and be innovative. And it can’t just be a passive video. It has to be a digital, innovative idea that has content linked. And it has to play off the social media platforms. And in order to get buzz, it has to do something that’s never been done before. And that costs money.

I think the perception’s changing. But the word “viral” has typically had the connotation of cheap. Cheap and ugly, really.

How do you fix that?
Brendan Gahan: It’s not like you necessarily create one piece of content, or whatever, throw it out there, and it’s gonna be a hit. We’re really lucky in that we’re able to collaborate with a lot of great brands, and they give us a lot of flexibility. And also to kind of generate virality, you’ve got to be flexible and optimize your campaigns. And that’s something we’re generally able to do. In general, we try to pay close attention to how the audience is engaging with the content. And we’ll work and leverage different third-party and social media tools to do this. And really keep our ear to the ground, with regard to what people are engaging with. I think optimization and being able to react in as close to real time as possible, is critical.

Is that how you’ve approached The Influence Project? How did that get started?
JH: Fast Company basically said, “Well, if you guys are claiming you can engineer virality, then put up or shut up. And we’ll make a bet with you that you can do a viral campaign for Fast Company that will create a lot of online buzz. If you can do that, then we’ll believe that you can engineer virality. And if it’s a huge flop, we’ll realize that it’s just sort of like a BS marketing phrase that you guys are using.”

And so we presented a bunch of different ideas, all that we thought had viral potential. And then the idea that we pitched was called The Cover Project, which basically allowed the audience to choose the cover. It became The Influence Project, because they weren’t sure it was going be a cover. But it was essentially the same idea, which is creative content for six weeks — letting people actually sign up, and then see how many people they can get to click on their link. And based on the size of their audience, that’s how big their picture will appear in the magazine. It’s going to be a several page spread in the magazine.

In order to create a viral hit, we knew the stakes had to be high. We had to create a title for who would win this thing. So we said: “We’re looking for 2010’s Most Influential Person.” And that is sort of what created the firestorm and a lot of online buzz, and made this thing viral. Because we knew there would be — inherently — controversy around crowning that person. And it would create a dialogue about what is influence, and how is influence measured. And so that was sort of the idea.

Were you expecting it to be this controversial?
JH: It was part
of the plan. We definitely designed it to be controversial. But I didn’t think the
controversy would continue a month into the project, like it has. But
it definitely was tailored to create a reaction. It wasn’t – and we
felt like – you know, we had to do something bold, in order for people
to notice it. 

Has the project has gone according to plan?
JH: I wouldn’t say it’s gone exactly according to plan. The takeaway is, it’s worked. And it’s a success. But there’s also been a lot of negative feedback around the campaign, from the social media echochamber. A lot of influencers out there, or social media gurus, per say, said that it’s not a great way to measure influence, and you can’t crown that person based on clicks. And it’s a pyramid scheme, et cetera. Especially when it first launched, because the first people that picked it up were social media influencers that we tried to seed it with. And all of them signed on, and then a lot of them either realized they weren’t going to win, or thought there were better ways to measure influence. All of which they’re perfectly within their rights to say. Because we don’t think this is the only way to measure influence. We think this is something to start a conversation, which it has done.

How has feedback changed since the beginning?
JH: The pendulum has kind of swung the other way. We started getting non-influential people signing up for it. Because they like the value exchange, or the prize of getting their picture in a magazine. And so, while it sort of started negatively, it swung to a positive direction. And now, I think the sentiment is more positive than negative, overall. We just had Shaq sign up, and he blasted it out to his 3 million Twitter followers. We have the author of Fight Club signed up. We have Guy Kawasaki. A myriad of influential people from different walks of life have signed up.

How has Fast Company reacted?
JH: if we had done this project for more of a consumer brand, they wouldn’t want any controversy around it. We wouldn’t call that a success, because we didn’t help the perception of the brand. However, Fast Company is a brand that is interested in challenging notions in the business world. What they’re doing here is challenging what influence means. Anyone can talk about it, anyone can respond, anyone can sign up. The editor’s interviewing people that like it, people that don’t like it. The article, when it finally comes out, is going to show all different sides of it. It’s not just – “Isn’t this an amazing project, and Fast Company kicks ass.” It’s really an expose on social media, and how influence spreads.

Does it matter at all if the project measures influence accurately? Is that not the point?
BG: I think it’s a little bit of both. By no means did we think this is the end-all be-all metric for influence. But I think one thing we really wanted to do was kind of dive in, and really get an active metric of influence. We were discussing this project early on, and how people would point to – “Oh, this person has X-number of Twitter followers.” Or “this number of Facebook fans.” And we were wondering what that really means. Can they really galvanize this community? What we really wanted to do was not go with kind of established benchmarks and numbers out there, but wanted to really measure active influence.

We felt this was a good way to at least get a general feel for that. This at least was starting to scratch the surface, in how these people can galvanize a community around them.

Do you think that over the last week of the project, more recognizable names influencers will bubble to the top?
BG: I think people will kind of reignite their audience around it. It’s kind of in that middle phase. The initial excitement’s kind of rubbed off. When people realize there’s only a few days or a week left, they’ll ignite their audience a bit more, and promote it again.

In the Fast Company article about this project, there was a line that this could either make you guys rock stars or could kill your company. How is that prediction looking?
JH: Maybe it’s us
spinning, but we think it’s been pretty awesome. I mean, we were
tapped with creating a viral campaign with no media spin, and I feel
like we’ve done that. Not without controversy. But.

Ok. Last question. Can you explain the concept of your website? 
JH: Yeah, our web site is terrible. In a good way. We basically set up in our shooting studio in San Francisco. We got a bunch of props one day and had one of our directors shoot all the employees in different strange outfits. And then we put a bunch of weird music to it, and that became our web site. If you’re gonna look at people’s work and hear people brag about themselves and look at case studies, we just thought we’d entertain people while they’re doing it.