Sunday, February 20, 2011
Social Media Influencers are Overrated
But are influencers actually influential? I'm not talking about the influence that exists between people who have close real-world relationships. People trust the people they know personally; that sort of influence always has been meaningful and is no different in the social media era. A friend's, coworker's or family member's recommendation of a product or service matters, whether the medium is a Facebook status update or a chat over a beer.
But are people with substantial numbers of loose relationships really able to influence the attitudes and behaviors of many others? Many social media professionals take as a matter of faith that so-called "key influencers" are vital, but it isn't the influence amassed by the few but instead the influence of the masses that holds the greatest value.
The idea that leading "key influencers" aren't that influential isn't really a new idea. Two years ago, Hubspot told tech companies to "stop begging TechCrunch to write about you." The blog post noted that TechCrunch was (and still is) the second most popular blog on the web (although it seems odd to call TechCrunch, Huffington Post and Mashable blogs rather than media sites at this point.) HubSpot provided data that demonstrated having TechCrunch write about them delivered traffic but almost no customers; meanwhile HubSpot's experience with mentions in MarketingProfs was exactly the opposite--less traffic; more customers.
Think about Twitter. @TechCrunch has 1.5 million followers, but a single tweet from TechCrunch is ephemeral, unseen by most followers as it scrolls off users' tweetstreams within seconds. To really make an impact on Twitter, an idea or brand needs thousands or millions of people tweeting; that's what causes an idea or brand to be seen by more people and become a more visible and lasting trending topic. Sure, it helps if someone with a million followers joins and retweets a cause or campaign, but that single tweet isn't the difference between success and failure on Twitter.
Or look at Facebook and the power of the news feed. Most Facebook users recognize that their home page news feed (or "Top News") doesn't reflect the pure flow of status updates from friends. (For that, you need to click "Most Recent" at the top of the home page.) Facebook determines what does and does not appear in your news feed based on the actions of friends. It isn't the influence of the friends who comment on a post that causes it to surface in your Facebook news feed, but instead the number of your friends who comment that causes it to appear. In other words, two of your friends commenting on a post is more important on Facebook than TechCrunch doing so.
The influence of key influencers is overstated and the influence of the masses is too easily overlooked. The key to success for brands isn't to get a couple key bloggers and Twitterers talking--if it was, Robert Scoble would already have single-handedly made Quora a mainstream site. Instead, the key to unlocking influence is to get the masses talking, which is a much more difficult challenge.