8 questions to help explain influence

Image from Springboardpr.com blog.

Influence is one of those raise-your-hand topics. As in, when you mention it online or offline, every person raises his/her hand because everyone has an opinion. That’s not a bad thing. The first time I heard someone mention influence, it was about as clear to me as William Shakespeare was the first time I read it. But once you’ve be’d, not be’d, done some research on the topic and developed a better understanding, how do you explain influence to a person who has never had a reason to understand it — a person like your client’s CMO?

Someone once told me a great leader doesn’t just understand intricate things, but is able to make them understandable to folks all across the spectrum. If that’s the case, I need some leadership 101 when it comes to defining the value of influence. Or at least I feel that way sometimes when discussing it with clients. Here are some of the folks I’ve learned from in the past few days when it comes to influence:

  • Todd Defren took a stab at the measurement topic earlier in the week. I really liked his post because he shared a client’s POV on measurement and then asked for the best PR measurement formula. What he got was several different answers and more evidence that there’s no universal approach to addressing this topic with clients.
  • Chuck Hemann always shares the sunny weather in Austin when it’s snowing here in KC. He also always has an interesting perspective on measurement and influence. Including this one on building your own PR measurement index for your clients. Chuck is smart, and his idea of weighting metrics got me thinking.
  • Valerie Simon took a shot here at the value of influence. She nails a couple of points that make influence hard to explain — a brand’s influencers are always changing and there is no such thing as universal influence. Not even Lady Gaga. Or is there?

Todd, Chuck and Valerie all shared smart advice. But I’m still struggling to find the best way to explain influence to leadership. Imagine a CMO with a scorecard in her hand. On the paid media side, it says “1 million guaranteed impressions.” On the earned media side, it says “successful outreach to 25 influencers.” How do you best explain why the size of the number doesn’t always matter?

That said, here are eight questions I’ve been thinking about when it comes to explaining the value of influence. I have an opinion on every one of these. But I don’t pretend to have the answer for any of them. I would love to hear what you think:

  1. How do you compare targeted influencer outreach to mass tactics? How do you explain the value behind targeting?
  2. What process do you use for IDing influencers? Do you share that process with clients when trying to differentiate this type of outreach?
  3. Your client asks you to put influencers into a scorecard. How would you go about doing it? Have you ever used a weighted index like Chuck describes in his post?
  4. Would you ever rank influencers? Do you think it helps to show the value of your outreach versus other outreach methods? Media buys?
  5. What metrics do you focus on when discussing influencers? Have you ever reported a metric like relationships built or brand ambassadors? What other metrics are key?
  6. If you could tell one story to highlight why influencer outreach is a tactic your client should consider, what would it be?
  7. I’m a CMO and I say: “I love the story in this influencer blog placement, but the rank and authority (Technorati) and Klout scores were fairly low. And only a few thousand people visit that blog site every month.” Your response is?
  8. Is there such a thing as universal influence?

These are the questions that make me shake my head because the answers seem so clear in my mind. But when I try to explain them, I don’t always make them as clear for the person to whom I’m talking. I’ve got a take I’m happy to share. But lately I feel like my POV on this topic sometimes comes out as confusing as Willy’s Old English.

Imagine you’re the teacher and influence is this century’s Hamlet. What’s your take? How are you going to help the class understand the plot and the true meaning of the story?

Related posts:

, , , , , , , , , ,
Post comment as twitter logo facebook logo
Sort: Newest | Oldest
brianreid 5 pts

Can I throw out a #9? What do you do with influence that is -- almost by definition -- non-quantifiable?

For example: in the area in which I am currently obesessed, oncology, one of the most powerful publications is called the Cancer Letter. It's a newsletter with a hugely small readership. It exists online only behind a paywall (and even the online version is a recent invention). Yet the guy who puts it out is wildly well connected and has brought down all manner of researchers and companies. Most notably, the Cancer Letter is directly responsible for Martha Stewart going to jail. My palms get sweaty every Friday when I open it, because there are good odds someone is about to have a very, very bad weekend.

So the question is: what do you do with Cancer Letter-style influence? Declare it beyond the scope of the effort? Insert it as a separate one-off? Create a custom metric to deal with it as an outlier?

I'm not a social media guy (@chuckhemann can attest to this), so I apologize if this is a RTFM issue ... it's just one that I struggle with regularly.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

brianreid The Cancer Letter, huh? I'll have to check that out. Sounds like the guy who puts it out has influence over the small group of people who regularly read his newsletter. I'd deal with this guy's influence just like I would any otehr influencer I was researching. The question is how could his influence benefit one of your clients? Or could it? Because not all influence is relative.

brianreid 5 pts

JGoldsborough Yup: lots of influence over a very small number. But that small number includes folks at NIH (who control the money spigot for research) and FDA (who determine what drugs make it to maket).
The point about all influence *not* being relative is well-taken, and I guess that guides where I end up on question #4: ranking becomes really, really tough when you are considering multiple types of influence.

Chemann 7 pts

brianreid JGoldsborough I'm glad to see Brian jump into this discussion because he and I have had some excellent back-and-forths about online influence. He's one of the smartest guys I know. The trouble is that Cancer Letter is not an isolated publication. I'm sure Brian (or any one of us) could highlight several similar publications. However, I would say that as the media world becomes even more digitized that these kinds of publications will lose influence if its online presence doesn't keep up. The other thing to keep in mind is that the way we discuss influence online is far from ubiquitous... There are most certainly instances of online and offline influence. How they come together in the same analysis? They probably don't...at least not initially. What you're ultimately raising here is the necessity for multiple kinds of research within marketing. It'll never be enough to say we're listening to online conversations only. Or monitor traditional media. It's a blended approach. Has been and will always be.

commammo 20 pts

Justin, this topic is becoming more important as the cast of thousands of entrepreneurs try to develop a business model that leads to profits in the social media measurement world. As I wrote recently, http://bit.ly/commammo11-3, the most credible research I can find indicates (for example) that there's no way to calculate influence based on analyzing the Twitter stream. (Duncan Watts of Yahoo!)

Then, shonali wrote about her misgivings about Klout becoming a synonym for influence.

All of this is conjecture - implication - leaps of faith. As Chuck H says, an influencer for Toyota may not matter for Bank of America. And, we have to be as specific and targeted when evaluating influence in social media as we are in other forms of media, among other stakeholders.

There still is no magic bullet -- ValerieSimon is right. We need to put some effort into independent, repeatable research to see what other means of measuring influence and identifying influencers is possible.
Thanks for a good post.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

commammo shonali ValerieSimon You raise solid points as usual. For me, the value of the human analysis and understanding of the relationship and brand cannot be overstated. In fact, IMO, it's the best gauge of influence by far. So what I'm wondering is if finding a way to weight that POV, per Chemann 's weighted index idea, might show the importance people play in the influencer forumla. What do you think?

pierreloic 17 pts

Great conversation Justin. Thanks for starting it. My take on your questions:

1. Influencer targeting vs. mass outreach? If you have a good story to tell, you'll get much bigger yield for your bucks targeting influencers who will relay/endorse your message with the specific audiences you're trying to get to. If you don't have a good story or product, then mass outreach may be your only way to get coverage - though I'd argue, save the money and invest it in making better products :) We have tons of very compelling case studies from our clients on the value of influencer engagement.

2. IDing influencers? Our clients use Traackr + add a layer of human analysis to make the influencer engagement as likely to succeed as possible.

3. Scorecard? Traackr offers influencer monitors to track performance but I'd suggest that you create campaign specific success metrics that you define with your client and report on as well. Success metrics can look very different from campaign to campaign (sales, media coverage, website traffic, etc.)

4. Rank influencers? That's the business we're in but ranking is only meaningful in the context of a campaign. It's not about showing the value to clients but rather help you and your client decide where to invest your time and money.

5. We have defined 3 key metrics: reach (audience size), resonnance (influencer endorsment by their community), relevance (to the topic at hand). More to come.

6. A b2b tech client ran a targeted influencer campaign resulting in an increase of qualified sales leads by 400% and conversion rates to sales off the chart (including 1 multi-million $ deal).

7. (Technorati) and Klout scores too low? Then I'd say you actually don't get the influencer story. You're still in a mass outreach state of mind... Go see if Lady Gaga or Aston Kutcher wants to talk about your governance and compliance SaaS offering. Which leads me to...

8. Is there such a thing as universal influence? Absolutely not. Influence is not popularity. To get people to voluntarily engage in specific behaviors, you need to be a trusted figure on the topic you're discussing. Would you take advice from your brother on investment? From your financial advisor on parenthood or relationships? I rest my case :)

Hamlet? Major trends or changes have always been started by small groups of people. Before we could only identify them in hindsight. Now, in part thanks to technology, we have a shot at anticipating who they are.

Thanks again for the post.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

pierreloic People ask why I blog. How about smart comments like the ones I'm getting on this post. Your Hamlet POV is a different way of thinking about it that I hadn't considered before. I like it.

When you create a scorecard, do you ever consider qualitative, knowledge of the relationship metrics? You obviously look at human analysis, as you said. But how do you report that part with other metrics? Do you?

If you listeneed to and engaged with a niche set of influencers long enough, do you think you could eventually rank them based on ability to get target consumers to do what the brand wants them to if you defined what that was and even if what the company wanted them to do was different at different times? Make sense?

Thanks for stopping by. Cheers!

Shonali 1315 pts

pierreloic I'm pretty much in agreement with everything you say. Thinking out aloud, though:

"Influence is not popularity." I agree. However, is there an element of popularity in determining influence? I have a couple of examples in mind but wanted to throw this out there for discussion first.

commammo 20 pts

Shonali Hmmm. Is there an element of popularity in influence? If we accept degrees of popularity, from little to great, would we see a correlation to influence? I'm not so sure - the influence differs according to many variables, and the influencer you reach who gives you a 3rd party endorsement among a small group may be ideal - the influencer may not be widely popular, but popular among the right people for your objectives. Certainly someone unknown, friendless, follower-less, might be influential only to her or his family, so perhaps there's an element of scale -- a threshold of diminishing returns? Zero popularity equals zero influence, but Justin Beiber's 100 Klout score won't help me reach more potential clients -- enormous popularity, zero influence among my intended market.

pierreloic 17 pts

Shonali I agree that you can't completely strip out popularity from influence: to commammo's point, if noone listens, one's influence is inexistent. BUT we see time and again with our clients that the correlation between context/relevance and influence (as an action-driven concept) is much stronger than the one between popularity/reach and influence. Agreed that neither reach nor relevance can be ignored but they are not on equal footing.

Shonali 1315 pts

pierreloic commammo That's what I was thinking too. The reason I mentioned it was that a lot of people will say "X is just a popularity contest" and so on... and while that might be true, it's the relevance of that popular person/brand to the end-user (in a contest, a voter) as well as how strongly they relate to them (and sometimes they just LIKE them, esp. when it comes to people) that will determine who pulls ahead... assuming X tries to exert some influence over said "audience."

Thoughts? Am I making sense?

pierreloic 17 pts

Shonali Agreed. Popularity (or reach) is one of the key ingredients alongside relevance, resonance (engagement) relationship (social graph), and our new addition (available soon): reputation.

Shonali 1315 pts

pierreloic I'm looking forward to seeing it! And I have on my list to ping you to chat soon...

pierreloic 17 pts

JGoldsborough I love this conversation. I too have figured out why you blog :)
Let me try to answer your questions:

1- How do we account for / report on qualitative metrics? First let me say that we don't try to replace humans going over the data we generate to analyze it, instead we try to supplement that analysis by doing the quant work that can't be handled by a person and expose as much data and insights as we can to make it easier for people to conduct an analysis on top of the data. The quant work itself takes into account qualitative data - for example we use all endorsment metrics across the web that are highly qualitative data (someone telling someone else they liked a piece they did - like me with you on this post) - but we don't try to infer too much meaning from it. Then we let our users react to and engage with the data itself: they have the ability to add more qual data to an influencer profile, tag, add notes, like/dislike a profile we found, re-rank our list based on their campaign goals, etc. In other words, add human intelligence once we've reduced the scope of study to something manageable. The work our clients do with this is really fascinating and helps us build future versions of our app when we find repeatable patterns in their work on the data. Sorry if I ramble on this but I get very excited about this aspect of what we do :)

2- We could already (though we don't do it yet) take into account in an influencer's score/rank their successful engagement with brands. We have built in our app what we call an influencer monitor that measures the success by influencer of an engagement campaign. The thing we haven't figured out yet and the reason why this isn't yet reflected in our score is that I'm not sure it's the right thing to do... When a brand engages with influencers, they may have a very specific idea of what they want out of that relationship but our best case studies come from brands that were willing to be surprised and let the relationship evolve in unanticipated ways (hire an influencer, bring a harsh critique of their product to a product development workshop, etc.). These instances yield very high value for brands and we don't want to penalize the influencers who spearhead them by boosting those who fit the mental model of a brand.

Thanks again for the post and the conversation.


Shonali 1315 pts

Funnily enough, I was just on a demo of traackr with courtv and it's very impressive; much more so, IMHO, than Klout, et al. But you'll have to wait for the blog post on that.

Great questions, Justin. Some quick thoughts/answers:

1. It's like shooting fish in a barrel, terrible as that analogy is, as opposed to throwing a line out on Lake Michigan

2. Research research research! As far as sharing with clients goes: I often work *with* clients to do this; they have every right to know who we're trying to reach, and be ok with it.

3. Yes, I've used a scorecard in the past, developed much as chuckhemann described. Right now: no, but the answer could change, because it depends on how much importance a client put on that.

4. Maybe. It depends on whether those influencers' actions generated activity & outcomes, and it would need to be done over time. There's certainly some element of ranking in everything we do, e.g. the people we reach out to first, second, and so on.

5. When discussing influencers: how highly they're regarded by the community the client is trying to reach, what responses their posts (and that includes micro-blogging) generate and so on. I think specific metrics have to be developed on a case-by-case basis, depending on what the organization is trying to achieve (I know, you're getting tired of hearing me say this!).

6. See #1.

7. First, Technorati & Klout give you a small piece of the picture, not the entire one. Second, even lower "ranking" blogs & people can have a ripple effect, so it would be silly to ignore them (along the lines of my post yesterday: http://ow.ly/3XStj. Third, see #1.

8. I don't think so. But I don't know everything.

Now that I've written a mini blog post for a comment, I'll exit the stage. :p

JGoldsborough 247 pts

Shonali traackr courtv chuckhemann Ok, I love the shooting fish in a barrel analogy. Had to read it a couple of times to get it -- call me slow on a Friday. But I think that is a great comparison anyone can understand.

We have been doing influencer outreach for years with the client I had in mind when asking about ranking. I really think we could do it and have the "knowledge of relationship" based on past experienes and outreach to have it make sense.

Chemann 7 pts

Good discussion, Justin. Thanks for the shoutout. I guess I'll be the voice of disagreement with you and Valerie in one respect. Yes, there is no such thing as universal influence. A person's who's influential to Toyota would probably not be influential to Bank of America. However, we can make the process of identifying those people universal. Whether it be metrics, or the qualitative criteria we use, these things can all be standardized. And by standardized I mean by the goals of the particular campaign.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

Chemann The more I think about it, the more I agree. Do you think ID process has to contain metrics and qualitative (or what I would call knowledge of the realtionship)? How might you position the two together?

So for instance, perhaps you measure exposure metrics (visits, impressions), engagement metrics (comments, tone), influence metrics (rank, authority, Klout, Traackr, knowledge of the relationship, qualitative stories) and actions (shares, story submissions, clicks, purchases, video views) or several othe rmetrics I failed to mention. Then you rank them all based on importance and lay them over each tactic? Am I even close to your weighted index idea? Were you thinking of another approach?

Sorry for all the questions. Just really trying to wrap my head around how people think about this topic.

ValerieSimon 17 pts

Chemann Hi Chuck, I'm sorry to say we can't argue (at least much) here :) While I maintain that there is no universal influencer, I do believe standardization of the criteria used to determine influence is not only possible, but extremely important. But any universally accepted process needs to be meaningful. As Shonali points out, many of the current means for evaluating influence really offer only a very small piece of the picture. Really eager to continue to hearing your thoughts... and cannot wait for the book to come out!

Chemann 7 pts

JGoldsborough You're there my friend. The trick is blending qual with quant. Too much quant and you (generally speaking) have something most companies will distrust. Have too much qual and companies will think there isn't enough rigor behind the analysis. What's the right percentage of each? Only you and your client know that in conjunction. I'd be copping out if I said 50/50, but if you put a gun to my head its something like 60 /40 quant to qual.

Chemann 7 pts

ValerieSimon Bummer! Kidding... Shonali is right of course about a lack of means to evaluate the results. The unfortunate reality is that these tools will never give you 100% clarity into the black box, which is why its so critical we (and by we I mean your employer and you) work toward creating a process that's accepted by internal and external (clients) decision makers. Thanks for the note on the book. Want to write it for me? KIDDING! :)

ValerieSimon 17 pts

Great questions... I personally do not think there is such a thing as a universal influencer (though I suppose there may be some religious leaders who would take issue that!)

While there are lots of ways to categorize influencers, I have yet to discover an algorithm dynamic enough to take into account all variables that lead to an influencer's ability to actually impact specific action. A brand needs to listen to their community and the marketplace, and understand the issues that they care about, the people that they trust, and the factors that motivate them in that moment. Brands need to clearly understand their own objectives and consider how different influencers may be able to help drive different objectives, or the same objectives among different audiences. I do believe there is a value in reach (if a tree falls in the forest...), but if you are looking for results you need to take a far more strategic approach...

JGoldsborough 247 pts

ValerieSimon I agree, Val. No such think as a universal influencer, no matter how much chuckhemann tries to convince me :). Apologies to Oprah, the Pope and Lady Gaga.

We can't be reminded enough about tying our work back to goals and objectives set for the brand. When we start braindumping on metrics and creative measurement explanations, it's very easy to forget the basics. So I appreciate that reminder. Cheers!


  1. [...] Justin Goldsborough had a great post yesterday on eight questions to help explain influence. [...]